A Perpetual Masquerade
The Work of Gerrit Komrij
On 26 January 2000 Gerrit Komrij (1944-) was chosen Poet Laureate of the Netherlands for a period of five years by a poll taken among Dutch poetry readers. Appropriate indeed for a man who knew ever since he was a child that he would become a poet: ‘I wanted to be a poet as far back as I can remember. It suited me to a T, and I wanted to prove it to the world.’ Following the British example, however, the Poet Laureate would henceforth be required to write a poem to honour every national celebration as well as every national disaster. Was that task really suited to Komrij? Wasn't he in fact the poet who claimed that poetry was affectation, who never wrote what he really meant, whose readers were ‘sent off with a verse to sink into the slough of their own self-conceit’? ‘Poetry is a whore,’ he wrote in an essay, ‘a real poem means nothing. The emptier the verse, the more perfect it is. Poetry, dear reader, is the very height of deceit’. Or was this, too, deceit?
Upon accepting his appointment Komrij stated that, with respect to his new duties, he saw himself chiefly as an ambassador of poetry, acting ‘in the interest of poetry and poets, but especially in the interest of the public. I want to reach people who would never otherwise come into contact with poetry’. Indeed, Komrij seems cut out for this role. His omnivorous interests, his missionary zeal, and his infectious but ruthless style have all contributed to his formidable reputation in the land of letters. This reputation was doubtless of decisive importance in his selection as Poet Laureate, as it had been when he was awarded the P.C. Hooft Prize in 1993. Komrij received that prize as an essayist. In an interview he reacted with a typical mixture of defensiveness and indignation: ‘I'm receiving the prize for my essays. What an awful word. I've never written an essay in my life. Exercises in prose is what they are. If something doesn't rhyme and if it's not a story about two people who break up and get together again, it's called an essay. The word originally meant “an attempt to arrive at something”, but now it stands for everything that is academic and unreadable. My work stems from poetry, the mother and source of all things. My contemplative writings probably won a prize because they're more in the public eye. Poetry is a low-profile labour of love. Nobody reads the stuff.’
Komrij's work may stem from poetry, but he has certainly not confined himself to that genre. In addition to more than ten volumes of poetry, he has published many essays, novellas, short stories, plays and pastiches, several novels, numerous translations and various controversial anthologies.
Komrij began as a poet in the late 1960s, but was catapulted to fame by the reviews he wrote in the early 1970s for the newspaper NRC Handelsblad. Later on, collections of his vitriolic reviews and essays were published under such revealing titles as The Door Is That Way (Daar is het gat van de deur, 1974), The Evil Eye (Het boze oog, 1983) and With the Blood Called Printers' Ink (Met het bloed dat drukinkt heet, 1991). Sparing no one, Komrij dragged established reputations through the mud, and the names he blackened included Mulisch, Claus, Wolkers and Bernlef. He even targeted the now nearly canonical ‘Vijftigers’ (the young, ‘experimental’ poets whose noisy word-slinging set the tone for Dutch poetry in the 1950s): ‘If a company of “Vijftigers” were to step into a lift together, no one would have to push the button. The combination of inflated egos and hot air would make them rise of their own accord, and they would shoot straight up through the roof into oblivion.’ Komrij delights in the rough-and-tumble approach to literary criticism, as witnessed by his portrait of two ‘Vijftigers’: ‘Vinkenoog is beginning to look more and more like a cross between a socially inept grasshopper and a squeaking mussel. And as for Schierbeek, his tragic case is well known. The first two volumes of his collected works - whose weight has already exceeded that of his brain by an astronomical amount, though their content has no weight whatsoever - are the preferred projectiles hurled by quarrelling couples and families with rebellious adolescents. Are these our modern poets?’ The catchword in those days was ‘anything goes’, and the 1970s - an extremely boring period in Dutch literature - were in need of some pepping up. Moreover, and even more importantly: a
quarter of a century later Komrij's caustic style still makes us laugh.
Komrij did not confine himself to heaping insults on the literary world, however. Architecture, and television too, were weighed in the balance and found wanting: ‘The infantile and intellectually comatose state of Dutch television proved to be the status quo.’ Komrij also concerned himself with social questions. The corruption of language by politicians, feminism's blind spots, the appeal of Scientology, as well as such delicate subjects as sexual abuse, pornography and refugees - these were all subjects on which Komrij not infrequently voiced an unconventional opinion.
Komrij has occasionally linked his unconventionality with his homosexuality. Homosexuals are outsiders and non-conformists in many respects, though in this regard he refuses to be pigeon-holed: ‘I don't like minorities who stick together to the exclusion of everyone else. I only want to be considered part of the smallest possible minority: myself.’ In another respect Komrij does see a direct link between his sexual proclivities and the way he experiences art: ‘A homosexual is not just an ordinary person who happens to have a “different” sexual orientation. Rather, it is by virtue of his sexual orientation that domains are opened up to him which are closed to the middling masses. It is not only his sexual preference that is different, but also his way of thinking, his attitude to life, the sensations he experiences. While
mediocre man interacts with his surroundings in an unimaginative and prosaic way, the homosexual experiences a kind of heightened sensitivity to everything around him. The beauty of art reveals itself in full only to the homosexual artist.’
This heightened sensitivity is, according to Komrij, a prerequisite of poetry. Komrij's debut volume, Magdeburg Hemispheres and Other Poems (Maagdenburgse halve bollen en andere gedichten), appeared in 1968, followed a year later by All Flesh is Grass or The Charnel-House on God's Acre (Alle vlees is als gras of Het knekelhuis op de dodenakker). The titles alone point to Komrij's place in the tradition of dark romanticism. Surrealist influences were also unmistakably present. At that time Komrij was translating work by Salvador Dali, Alfred Jarry and Oscar Wilde. Gradually, over the course of many volumes and anthologies, Komrij developed more in the direction of neo-classical poetry, in which the form - well-thought-out and clear - was of prime importance. His most recent volume of poetry, Mirages (Luchtspiegelingen, 2001), even bears the subtitle ‘mainly elegiac’. During this later period Komrij translated works by Goethe and Schiller, as well as various plays by Shakespeare.
Komrij finds the tension he seeks primarily in the act of writing itself. ‘Writing involves suffering, physical suffering: you lift the lid of the kettle ever so slightly and let off a bit of steam.’ A regularly recurring image is that of the writer struggling mightily to get the door of a crammed cupboard to open just a crack so that he can let out minuscule amounts of anger, wonder, passion: ‘While writing you live in mortal fear of triggering a volcanic eruption, a spewing-forth of monsters and prodigies, an unstoppable lava-flow of brilliant constructs and deranged fantasies. In short, you're terrified of causing the whole damn thing to explode. Writing is a frantic process of repression.’
‘But,’ the poet continues, ‘the bits that escape must have the right composition. They must shock, bite, stink. And a little laughing gas can be thrown in for good measure’. Poetry is supposed to shock. These words are echoed in Komrij's autobiographical novel Arcadia Ravaged (Verwoest Arcadië, 1980): ‘Whether it was stupid or clever, poetry had to shock. It was a linguistic earthquake.... Poetry was a question of seismography. Poetry was measured on the Richter scale, not on the scales of morality or seriousness.’
Poetry readers with a fine appreciation of morality and gravity therefore find Komrij's poetry hard to take at times. Gravity and laughing gas mingle effortlessly, loftiness and coarseness go hand in hand. Often this results in bitter irony, which Komrij finds indispensable: ‘I think the great things in life - death, sickness, loneliness - should be dismissed with a jeer and larded with irony.’ In his poetry it is often the last line that gives an ironical twist to all that has gone before: ‘I prefer to think of a poem as a kind of suicide mission. The form kills the content. The last line is the fatal stab.... I could never resist the urge to wring a poem's neck.’ Such notions, alongside pronouncements like ‘a real poem means nothing’ have often caused critics to
emphasise the form, to draw attention to Komrij's virtuoso versifying. On this subject, too, Komrij speaks in antitheses. ‘Rhyme is the essence of poetry. Only those who in the process of writing have experienced the wondrous contrasts, loop-the-loops, escapes, catapults and leap-frogs that rhyme can lead to... know how absurd it is to be contemptuous of rhyme.’ And: ‘Naturally people tend to misjudge my poems because they adhere to a strict form, as though rhyme has any value in a poem. For years I've been shouting at the top of my voice that you can read right over the rhyme.... It is really very annoying when only the outward characteristics are emphasised, and all the things you've managed to fit in so nicely are completely overlooked.’
In essence Komrij is constantly playing the devil's advocate: when asked about the rhyme he will point almost indignantly to the content; when asked about the content he takes refuge in irony and virtuosity. The key to understanding this continual changing of hats is perhaps to be found in Arcadia Ravaged: ‘Ever since childhood Jacob had felt, at first only as a sneaking suspicion, but gradually more distinctly and self-consciously, that his life was literature, nothing but literature. It was not in his nature “to be who he was”. He had no aptitude for everyday ennui. He had to stop the flow of real tears. Only the formula brought a man to life, only a story breathed any spirit into events that would otherwise pass unnoticed, vanishing wordlessly. Only by pretending could he adopt a pose. Only through literature could he escape.’
His life was literature. Despite all his unconventionality and irony Komrij is constantly grappling with the question of how literature and life are connected. Many of his essays deal with the question of how one should approach literature, what literature can possibly mean to people. During a lecture given in 1999 Komrij argued: ‘You read poetry with your whole being, body and soul. You're not reading poetry properly until you realise with absolute certainty that it is an experience which, all by itself, makes it worthwhile to have lived. Nothing more, nothing less.’ In 1998 a series of essays appeared in which Komrij attempted - in relatively short, easy pieces - to make one hundred classic Dutch poems accessible to a broad public. In addition, he compiled a monumental anthology of Dutch poetry in three volumes: Dutch Poetry from the Twelfth to the Twentieth Century in 3000 and Some Poems (De Nederlandse poëzie van de twaalfde tot en met de twintigste eeuw in 3000 en enige gedichten), in which he resurrected completely forgotten poets of centuries past and placed them alongside incontestable greats. The anthology for the twentieth century has even become a yardstick of appreciation for readers and poets alike. Each reprinting has many poets quaking at the thought of how many of their poems will make it into ‘Komrij’ this time. He recently added an equally monumental anthology of Afrikaans poetry, Afrikaans Poetry in 1000 and Some Poems (De Afrikaanse poëzie in 1000 en enige gedichten).
All these publications naturally fit in with Komrij's idea of his role as ambassador. Although the Poet Laureate is doing his utmost to make poetry ac-
cessible to a broad public, in his opinion poetry must also make itself more accessible by improving its image. Poetry is not just for a small group of insiders or learned exegetes. Accordingly, Komrij regularly defends young poets; even rappers have been able to count on his support. A bit of entertainment along the way can certainly do no harm: ‘It has only been a couple of centuries since poets have persuaded themselves that they don't belong at fairs or circuses, though these were in fact their traditional venues. Any poet worth his salt must be able to go into a café, put one leg up on a chair, strum a guitar if need be, recite to his heart's content and then pass the hat. That's poetry's only hope, and if that doesn't happen, poetry is dead.’ Fairs, circuses: in the end the serious ambassador also finds himself taking part in a perpetual masquerade.
Translated by Diane L. Webb.
Gerrit Komrij, Forgotten City & Other Poems (Tr. John Irons). Plumpstead / Cape Town, 2001.