Born in Amsterdam in 1923, Gerrit Kouwenaar was one of the first poets to join the Experimental Group Holland, until then more or less dominated by painters. His first works were printed in clandestine publications during World War II. After the war he earned a living as a translator and journalist. He also wrote novels before turning his attentions solely to poetry.
His early work displays a political motivation, a great faith in language, and a curiosity for what is hidden behind a word (one of his books of poetry carries this title). His later poetry reflects intensely on the relationship between language and reality, becoming as it were a laboratory in which the poem no longer originates through écriture automatique but is consciously constructed. Seeking to create “the poem as an object,” Kouwennar denounces the idea of poetry as a vehicle for the outpouring of direct emotion and rejects the consolation of wishful thinking and sentimentalism.
Kouwenaar’s poetry is often described as a kind of murder, as he tries to cancel the denotative character of words. “I cut the throat of a world,” writes Kouwenaar in autopsie/anoniem. In the attempt is his desire to jettison the reality which is formed in and through the words that refer to it, allowing the poem to turn in on itself, becoming a thing among things, becoming reality itself.
His poetry and translations have won numerous prizes, including the 1971 Dutch State Prize for Literature and the 1989 Prize for Dutch Letters. In 1997 he was awarded the major VSB Poetry Prize for his latest volume de staat open (Time Is Open).
BOOKS OF POETRY:
goede morgen haan (Amsterdam: Experimentale Groep, 1949; Querido, 1978); achter een woord (Amsterdam, 1953; reprinted in sint helena komt later); hand o. a (Amsterdam, 1956); de ondoordringbare landkaart (‘s-Gravenhage: A. M. Stols, 1957); het gebruik van woorden (Zaadijk: J. Heijnis, 1958); de stem op de 3e etage (Amsterdam: Querido, 1960); zonder namen (Amsterdam: Querido, 1962); sint helena komt later, gedichten 1948-1958 (Amsterdam: Querido, 1964); autopsie/anoniem (Amsterdam: Querido, 1965); 100 gedichten (Amsterdam: Querido, 1969); data/décors (Amsterdam: Querido, 1971); landschappen en andere gebeurtenissen (Amsterdam: Querido, 1974); volledig volmaakte oneetbare perzik (Amsterdam: Querido, 1978); gedichten 1948-1977 (Amsterdam: Querido, 1982); het blindst van de vlek (Amsterdam: Querido, 1982); het ogenblik: terwijl (Amsterdam: Querido, 1987); een geur van verbrande veren (Amsterdam: Querido, 1991); kijk, het heeft gewaaid (Amsterdam: Querido, 1993); de tijd staat open (Amsterdam: Querido, 1996); helder maar grijzer: gedichten 1978-1996 (Amsterdam: Querido, 1998); een glas om te breken (Amsterdam: Querido, 1998); totaal witte kamer (Amsterdam: Querido, 2002)
ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS:
décor/stills (Deal, Kent, United Kingdom: Actual Size Press, 1975)