As painting is the art of colour and planes and sculpting is about producing a three-dimensional form, poetry is the art discipline par excellence that uses language. However, the way we use language is constantly in flux. This puts poets at a huge disadvantage: poems can appear as old-fashioned as a hairstyle or wallpaper.
The striking feature of so many of the poems that appear in Paul van Ostaijen’s Posthumous Poems is that they could have been written yesterday (with the exception of some of the spelling). They are songs – sometimes cheerful, sometimes abysmally sad – that have not lost their power.
The poet’s choice of words is largely responsible for this: he hated solemn words or words that went to great lengths to prove their poetic worthiness. Ordinary, everyday words were what Van Ostaijen wanted, words like “fish”, “chimpanzee” and “pot”. With such poor material, a lesser poet may have penned verses of a banality to equal the words. But Van Ostaijen arranged them in such unexpected combinations that we are still staring at his writings with fascination almost one hundred years later.
Many of the titles of the poems refer to popular dances (polonaise, waltz, polka, Charleston, etc.): Van Ostaijen wanted his poems to be music boxes, rhythmic constructions that you actually need to hear to really enjoy. But even when you hear them, what they are about is not immediately clear. This was the intention. Van Ostaijen was not interested in writing verses with a message (he had already done that in the past), but instead texts that just are, as simple and at the same time enigmatic, as children’s rhymes.
Despite the underlying theory, the peculiarity of these poems lies in the fact that they are actually about very fundamental things, although expressed in a generally light-hearted way, without pathos or pretension. They deal with ambition, compulsive thinking and violent tendencies; with loneliness and the mysteries of life of which we never tire of speaking. At times, they are about the fear of death: the verses written when the (still very young) poet knew that he was dying.
It seems as though we can understand what he is saying in these poems, but whenever we try to formulate it, it escapes us. Perhaps that is why they remain so fresh.