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Paul Vincent, from I Dreamed in the Cities at Night

Remco Campert: Forever Young

By dint of age and geography Remco Campert, born in The Hague in 1929, belongs with the post-war generation of literary iconoclasts and experimentalists who came to prominence in the Low Countries in the 1950s. Certainly he shared their bohemian lifestyle, their anti-establishment politics (he was prominent in the Vietnam protest movement), and their openness to other art forms. While Lucebert and Claus are poet-painters, with links to the Cobra movement, Campert's main affinity is with music, and particularly jazz, which is important both thematically, as in his ode to Charlie Parker (1955), and formally: many of his poems read like improvisational riffs, while the poem 'Lamento' from Right Shoes (1992), included in this collection, has an austere, madrigal-like quality of repetition and variation.

Nonetheless, if one sets some samples of poetic self-definition by Campert alongside those of his major contemporaries, it is the differences rather than the similarities that are most revealing. The first, much-quoted, pronouncement is:

I don't want to strike water from the rocks
but to carry water to the rocks

('Credo', Birds Fly, Don't They?, 1951)

The humility of tone, seemingly denying any magical role for poetry, contrasts strikingly with (and could even be a response to) Gerrit Kouwenaar's low-key but clearly shamanic statement of intent:

I've never aimed for anything but this:
making stones soft
making fire from water
making rain from thirst

('I've Never', St Helena Comes Later, 1962)

There is an equally obvious difference in tone and scope of ambition in the provocative and subversive programme of Lucebert, the self-styled 'Emperor' of poets of the 1950s:

I'm not some lovable rime-spook
I am the expeditious crook
of love...
lyrics are the parents of politics,
I'm merely the reporter...

('School of Poetry', trans. James S. Holmes)


I try in poetic fashion
that is to say
simplicity's luminous waters
to give expression to
the expanse of life at its fullest

('I Try in Poetic Fashion', trans. James S. Holmes)


I reel off a little revolution.

Campert's celebrated assertion of human solidarity:

Poetry is an act
of affirmation. I affirm
I live, I do not live alone.

('Poetry is an Act', The House I Dwelt In, 1955, trans. John Scott and Graham Martin)

is also worlds removed from the oracular, chameleon-like physicality of Hugo Claus, who dramatises, enacts rather than states his sense of poethood, here with a slightly paranoid edge:

The singer is his song.
Let loose in his skin, this house,
He won't greet cuckoo nor bird-catcher.

Nor the skittish spies in the lowland.

('The Singer', Oostakker Poems, 1955, trans. Paul Brown and Peter Nijmeijer)

Such aversion to the grand gestures, the larger-than-life aspirations and passions beloved of his peers, and preference for a minor-key diffidence may relate in part to the iconic figure of his father, the poet and resistance worker Jan Campert, whose 'The Song of the Eighteen Dead', written in a prison cell in 1943, became an anthem of heroism and sacrifice, which the young Remco was frequently called upon to read in public. The rhetorical pathos of its opening places it in an older literary tradition rejected by the young Turks of the 1950s:

A cell is just two metres long
and scarce two metres wide,
but smaller still's the piece of ground,
unknown, where I'll abide,
and, nameless, will not stir,
my friends will go along with me,
eighteen of us there were,
none will this evening see.

Such is the son's suspicion of poetic slogans that under the title 'Against Inclusion in the Umpteenth Anthology' he subverts his own frequently quoted poem as: 'Poetry is an act of denial'. Elsewhere earlier optimism gives way to the cynicism of:

Some poetry
is saying in a little voice
things that are even more little

My Life's Songs, 1968


Poetry is lying on a higher plane

Uncollected Poems, 1995

Whether or not in reaction to his father, Campert follows a different path from the full-blooded, language and image-centred counterblast to tradition launched by the most representative poets of his generation. He consistently uses a conversational, or in musical terms parlando, style, which for all its hipness and political and cultural awareness of the post-war world represents an essential continuity with the style of such pre-war poets as E. du Perron.

This may explain why Campert has survived to become something of a national institution in the Netherlands: as a chronicler of alternative Amsterdam life in stories and novels, as a thrice-weekly columnist on a national newspaper, as a scriptwriter and film-maker, and not least as a steadily productive, if not prolific poet, who with typical modesty told a recent interviewer: 'I'm not someone who's built an oeuvre', accessible without being superficial, popular without being populist and (alas!, he might sigh) eminently quotable. His deadpan understatement obviously has an enduring appeal for his Dutch readers. That appeal also bridges generations, since his work has always been in part a Peter Pan-like celebration of youthful spontaneity. His first literary discovery was Theo Thijssen's classic tale of boyhood Young Kees (1923), and tellingly, Harry Scholten's pioneering study of Campert's poetry in 1979 was entitled An Assault on Old Age.

Remco Campert has found a sympathetic fellow-poet and able translator in Donald Gardner, who is, I think, quite right to claim attention for the distilled minimalism and assurance of the more recent work with its 'jaunty pessimism' and deceptive simplicity. His quiet, quirky tone, the very personal nature of much of his work, of which paradoxically he is a master performer, and his rootedness in a particular place, Amsterdam (for all his peripatetic career, in the course of which he has been based at various times in Paris and Antwerp), suggest a possible parallel with, for example, such Liverpool poets as Brian Patten and Roger McGough. Hopefully this collection can help gain Remco Campert a new audience in the Anglo-Saxon world, where understatement and throwaway humour, often with a melancholy undertone, have traditionally been prized.