Foreword to Wôld, Wôld, Wôld! by Rob Zeeman
I still remember Bernlef from the Bimhuis, somewhere in the mid-nineties. Apparently there were more people than usual because he was upset he had to stand in line and had to wait to get a beer. “These are not real jazz lovers,” he whispered to Olga Zuiderhoek, who looked a lot more relaxed. What a dickhead, I thought. I had not dumped that ‘Hersenschimmen’ book at the pawn shop for nothing after twenty pages. A bit of lurgy fever, that book, of which one could hardly tell it was written by a poet. .
Bernlef had little chance to grow into one of my heroes anyway. With his Capuchin monkey hairstyle he looked more like a forester from a child series than a poet. And also the name Bernlef doesn’t ring the right sort of bell with me. The slightly pathetic reference to a blind Frisian singer could be overlooked, but I hate it when people give themselves iconic names. Bono, Sting, Bernlef, they’re all dog names. I absolutely don’t want to buy books from someone with an aesthetic mindset such as that.
Incidentally, he was right with his remark about the real jazz lovers. I was there for a performance of Fred Frith, who played guitar with his shoelaces. Not entirely free of pretension, but fortunately not jazz, because I hate that like the plague. Hilversum fair music only for initiates. Only the free jazz of Ornette Coleman may tempt me, but that’s probably because it sounds like a destructive commentary on the usual drivel.
Bernlef was indeed a huge fan, he even made notes during concerts, he said in one interview. Seems pretty exaggerated, to pen down notes with that coquettish honking. For that reason alone, he has no business being on my bookshelf.
But can you assess a writer on his behaviour, appearance and preferences? He who does not is fooling himself.We simply do so all day. That’s how we are constituted and that’s a good thing. If man had selected his food on the basis of taste instead of smell and color, it would have most certainly meant early extinction for our ancient ancestors.
Prejudices sometimes have awkward side effects, but in general we can not function without them. Take for example the brilliant idea of the market economy. If it’s up to the neoliberal HEAO-dummies of our government, we’d sit at home all day comparing quotations and price lists to annually save a few bucks on our phone, TV, home care, dentist, energy, taxi rides, mortgages, insurance and what not. No wonder they want to snuff out the cultural sector, because with all that comparing, who still has time for culture? Fortunately, not everyone is good with numbers and there are a lot of smart people who realize that all that comparing actually costs you more than it delivers, if you count invested hours by the hourly rate that your work deserves. Therefore the majority of people choose on other, less commercial grounds than a few lousy bucks. Such as loyalty. Or the best advertising.
When choosing books and writers it is no different. Must I read five books of Grunberg first to find out that it’s all doggerel? Waste of time if you know that there is still work of Gombrowicz, Perec and Hawkes waiting for you. If I have to choose between Reve and that flapping turd Arthur Japin, I know what to choose. A single minute of a TV program about Japin suffices.
Literary criticism, to the extent that it still exist in the Netherlands, would be hugely refurbished if ad hominems would be allowed. In the pieces of critic Arie Storm everything’s always about the content, and his pieces are always the same. You see Arie’s little riddle about style coming from three blocks away. It is remarkable, that in his own books such sensitivity for style is not visible at all. In 1994 Rob van Erkelens noted in De Groene Amsterdammer about the ‘stylistic paleness’ of Storm’s debut novel ‘Hemans Dive’. As one of the most exciting clips Erkelens quoted the following:
“Heman bought a coffee. He got a cup of coffee and a transparent plastic bag with a plastic spoon, a bag of sugar and a bag of powdered milk. (…) He threw the bag of powdered milk away and stirred the sugar into the coffee. He took a sip. It was great coffee. ”
The choice of Van Erkelens may look like hyperbole, but it is also true. It didn’t get more exciting. Storm’s next book was a barely discernible improvement. There was a little more humour than its predecessor, but in most cases, it was so subtle that it was barely noticeable. A punk who drinks Fanta, that’s what makes Arie Storm laugh.
If we want to save readers from the media-bombardment of publishers, literary criticism that plays the man and not the ball is indispensable. They are, after all, the publishers who started it. Bomb every known Dutchman that has completed primary school to be a writer and you have free advertising the whole year on prime time television. Take Nico Dijkshoorn. You think anyone would have ever published that embarrassing, trashy book about his dead father had he not been on television each night with his hobo-head?
Harry Mulisch is of course the emperor’s new clothes in the flesh, though in recent years there was very little meat on him. Those people who praise him for his style and richness of ideas, where did they grow up? In a kitchen sink cabinet? Honest as I am, I must confess that Mulisch did start out as a writer. His earlier work has a certain quality, ‘The black light’ is even pretty good. But in ‘The Stone Bridal Bed’ he had already lost his road.. And after that it certainly did not become any better. ‘The Discovery of Heaven’, I stopped reading it after 50 pages. Didn’t fascinate, it had a ramshackle style and if you are supposed to read 1000 pages about a character named ‘Quinten Quist’, as a reasonable person you just feel they’re taking a leak on you.
Whereas Harry still upgraded himself to first class nonentity, increasingly writers owe their entire career to the media. The most poignant are of course Adriaan van Dis and Connie Palmen. A large picture in the Volkskrant, with Connie wearing a tough black leather jacket, her nagging booklet ‘The Laws’ became a massive hit. After that interest ebbed away a bit, but eventually she knew how to redraw attention to herself Rost van Tonningen-style by milking her famous dead husband Ischa Meijer.
Connie designates almost all of her books as a ‘philosophical novel’. Perhaps to compensate for the fact that she attended a remedial classes in highschool for she’s clever enough to do just that. In I.M. she writes somewhere that she read a book by Foucault, another time she wrote a thesis on Derrida’s writings. And that’s really about it. . That book contains as much philosophy as there are active ingredients in the bottles of Dr. Vogel.
A few years back, she tried to repeat the widow trick, now with Hans van Mierlo in the supporting role. But fortunately not a single dog started barking.
Unlike Palmen, Adriaan van Dis still has a fresh appearance, even though now he is getting on in age. In the eighties he had his weekly television program Here is … Adriaan van Dis. It is no coincidence that in the same year the program started (1983) also his debut Nathan Sid was released, a hastily cobbled down collection of stories from his cooking columns. Bingo!, they will have thought at Meulenhoff. After that Van Dis could publish more booklets and got the idea that he was a real writer.
Typical about Mulisch, Palmen and Van Dis is an unbridled desire for upward social mobility. If not the most talented writers, they are creative enough to build up a better, more prestigious version of themselves. Remedial genius Palmen still does so somewhat awkwardly, with her nonsense about her high intelligence, but eventually she managed to fool enough people with that. Mulisch and Van Dis were much more subtle and constructed their total makeovers from a carefully researched collection of mannerisms.
With van Dis, whose mother was a cleaning lady, this led to a silly posh voice that would have not been out of place in the Dutch child series ‘Swiebertje’. With Thomas Rosenboom, a shopkeepers son from Arnhem, you’ll see this phenomenon in its most extreme form. He has such a bizarre genteel voice, that it sounds like he imitates Queen Wilhelmina all day.
It’s not a happy perspective to think this is only the tip of the iceberg. The majority of Dutch writers is constituted of vain wretches who suffer from the delusion that acting out a writer fantasy will make you a better person. Of course there are also authors who are comfortable in their own skin and even write for the sake of writing itself. But those are very few and you hardly ever hear from them.
Given the enormous popularity of poetry among retired teachers and women whose last child just left home, you would expect some maturity from poets. You can’t live from writing poems and you are never on television. Except for Ramsey Nasr, Wim Brands and Nico Dijkshoorn, but these are not real poets, as Bernlef would say. Especially poetry one would write for its own sake, you would think. But as always, reality is far
more depressing than the information presented to us by involved parties.
If you lift up the tile under which our poets crawl you immediately understand you should not have done so. The social dynamics of that world is like that of a prison camp or of the Palestinian state. Give an isolated group of limited resources and let them divide it amongst themselves. Kapos arise in such case in no-time. Gray cultural popes, subsidized to play God on their own little weblogs.
Take, for example, one Chrétien Breukers, supreme master of the ‘Literary Weblog The Contrabas’. Everything about this man is childish, his poetry books, his booklet ‘Writing poems’ (“If [insert name] had written in [English / French / German] , he [m / f] had been a world famous poet. “) and his reactions to criticism. A schoolteacher, in everything he does.
And even worse: a schoolteacher that burns his fingers at polemics. These are the squirmiest of all: “Subtle shifts between form and content – Dalstra can’t even pronounce these words, they are too complicated for him, it is also one of the reasons why he had returned to Frisia: they thought elsewhere in the country that he was a foreigner. ” Laughing your ass off with our Chrétien.
But meanwhile, he has his finger in the pie everywhere, and has a nice network. A network that gets a lot of attention in discussions and reviews, while the rest of the roughly six hundred poets in our country can shake it. Anyone who complains about that on the Contrabas gets a silly reply or is censored.
Where Breukers now plays Godfather from his own pocket money, the boys and girls of Ooteoote and Reactor get public money to do the same. They are just more of the same: a network of people who shamelessly and continuously pass the ball only to each other.
That would perhaps be justifiable if the quality would splash of the contributions. But no, it’s usually not even mediocre. Take a buffoon as Peter van Lier (1960), “studied philosophy and then developed as a poet and essayist. ‘I see it all in front of me, marine animal Van Lier crawls up the vast land and continues to evolve towards being the creator of:
Scrapers Send it
Fluff and bones
But with much more poseurish page-white.
If you look at the discussions on poetry forums, you fancy yourself back in the schoolyard. There are regular complaints about inbreeding and suspect jury compositions for poetry prizes. The reactions of the editors are usually just as silly as they are meaningless. Complainants are dismissed as jealous conspiracy theorists. They cannot conceive of a better reply than that, and almost always the style of their reaction is simply saddening. There is no evidence that these are poets.
It gets totally pathetic when you dive deeper into these network-poets. One of its champions is Jan Baeke, even though he has more jobs than influence.
To read a collection of Baeke is damned similar to shopping at the supermarket. Everything looks neat and tidy, but is in reality completely tasteless. Jan Baeke knows how to behave, Jan Baeke knows the conventions, but Jan Baeke sells hot air, poetry from a packet. At one point he put on the back of each new book that he worked at the Filmmuseum, where he was only chief of automation, or something like that. But something culturish always looks good on a back cover. Better than ‘librarian at the National Ombudsman’, which he wisely omitted from books thereafter.
Network Buddy Thomas Möhlmann has a treasure trove of jobs and anthologies. The latter greatly enhances your publication list while there is little you need to do for it. Nowadays, anthologies appear more often than new books, and you can guess which people are the ones compiling them.
Besides his cut-and-paste job Thomas also worked as editor of the literary magazine Awater and as a poetry employee of the Dutch Foundation for Literature. Even the Dutch right wing liberal party, VVD, would be ashamed of these conflicts of interest, but not so in the Dutch poetry club. The right man in the right place and everyone is happy.
His poems are better than those of Baeke, though they are quite sweet. Girl Poetry almost, but that suits his carefully crafted image of sensitive boy. This Arie Boomsma clone will get pretty far, I’m afraid. Especially if he keeps giving friends like Jan Baeke fat writing scholarships from the Foundation for Literature.
Fortunately they still exist: people who write poetry for the poetry. Poets with a job, such as Frank Koenengracht. As a psychiatrist he knows damn well which people to avoid in his spare time, so he doesn’t hang out in the Möhlmann-Baeke network. You also don’t see him filling up websites with reviews of friends books. And though he only works in the evenings, a line of Koenegracht is worth more than a whole bunch of crap of Peter van Lier, even though he would continue to develop himself further as a poet in the coming fifteen hundred years.
Martinus Benders is also not a networker. With his third collection, Wold, Wold, Wold!, he burns all the vessels before and behind, where they were still there. For years he has been fighting the subsidized mob bosses of Dutch Poetry. But because he spoils their party, his contributions invariably disappear from their blogs. And he is not alone in it. All unwanted criticism goes black, under the pretext that the funders require moderation of weblogs.
But with Wôld, Wôld, Wôld! Benders strikes back hard. Not only is it a fantastic collection, with many good jokes and great poems, it also exposes the hierarchy of the poetry-writing Netherlands perfectly. Deconstruction is done with an ax, but Benders also sings while doing so.
In his book no melting boys à la Mollemans nor endless carping about old horses and the sea, but only poems that stand as a house.
He who is banned from poetry forums has appearances against him. Fat chance that it is a troublemaker who is jealous and sees conspiracies everywhere. But after reading Wôld, Wôld, Wôld! You can come to only one conclusion: that Benders is the poet and that the people he antagonizes are all petty idiots.
Rob Zeeman, Amsterdam, December 3, 2012