A Wry Sense of Mortality

Selected Poems of Remco Campert

Remco Campert is an accessible poet and because of this was translated long before his contemporaries. In the UK a selection of his poems came out in 1968 (In the Year of the Strike, London Magazine Editions); more recently a different selection appeared in James Brockway’s Singers Behind Glass (Jackson’s Arm, 1995), a collection of eight Dutch poets. In the US Campert’s work has been confined to anthologies until now. In Manfred Wolf’s selection there is little overlap with other sources, apart from some inevitable anthology pieces, including its title poem, ‘This Happened Everywhere’. It also has the doubtful virtue of bringing us up to date with Campert’s later writing.

When Campert emerged during the fifties, he sided with the young rebels of his generation against a hidebound and sterile literary establishment. But while most of them went in for showy experimentalism, he opted for irony and unadorned colloquiality. Behind the street-wise appearance, however, was a verbal spareness which allowed him to express profundity of emotion and moods of great tenderness without the too manifest design on the reader which characterised establishment writing.

Though belonging to what has been called ‘the angry generation’, Campert’s style differs from that of his English and American contemporaries and approximates more to that of UK popular writers of the 1960s such as Jim Burns and the Liverpool poets. Like them, he has written some admirable love poetry but also has the ability to express the sceptical outlook of an earlier generation whose illusions were too early shattered by wartime experience. Campert’s own father had been a poet of Romantic tendencies and was to die in a concentration camp for his part in the Dutch Resistance. His son continues to testify to the simple pleasures of life and against illiberality and cant.

Rebellion is a young man’s occupation and most of the ‘Fiftiers’ moved on to extend their territory. Campert’s only concession to age seems to be a wry sense of mortality, understandable with so many of his former friends now in the grave. Otherwise, on the evidence of this selection, nothing has changed. There are still moments of fragile but apposite insight, although too often now it fails to come through and the poem falters into overdressed anecdote. For every piece of perfectly timed shaggy dog humour (‘Right Shoes’) there are two damp squibs (‘Sunday’, ‘How’).

There is much that is admirable in this latest selection, but in the end Campert’s anachronistically adolescent pawkiness gets you down. All those self-conscious references to poetry, to ‘I the poet’. The debunking of American writers like Richard Brautigan and Gregory Corso which, however deserved, seems more designed to impress the reader with the fact that Campert has met them. There is nothing of the humanism and understatement that makes Rutger Kopland’s ‘For Bukovsky’ so effective, for example.

The trouble with Campert is that he has never advanced beyond instinct, has never learned to think his statements through. At a superficial level they seem appealing but are at base perverse. Unable to grow up, he gleefully goes on cocking a snook at his elders and preens himself on his daring. The enfant terrible is beginning to look terribly childish.

By Yann Lovelock

First published in The Low Countries, 1998

Note

Remco Campert, This Happened Everywhere (Tr. Manfred Wolf). San Francisco: Androgyne Books, 1997; 84 pp. ISBN I-879594-2.3-x.