‘Awater’ by Martinus Nijhoff

Awater by Martinus Nijhoff, edited by Thomas Mohlmann, Anvil Press Poetry 2010, pbk £8.95

In 2010 Anvil Press published a new translation of a Dutch classic poem from the 1930’s, Awater by Martinus Nijhoff. It is a handsome book; it includes three translations of the poem made since first publication in 1934, along with a selection of translation-correspondence with the author; an excerpt of an essay by the author; and an essay on the text by respected Nijhoff scholar, Wiljan van den Akker.

First published in the Netherlands, the long poem Awater was the last piece in a book marking a new direction by Nijhoff, Neuwe gedichten (New Poems). Upon its first translation into English in 1939, it was hailed and applauded by T S Eliot. Joseph Brodsky has since also praised the poem highly.

So what is it about this poem that has drawn the accolades of Eliot and Brodsky? Professor Michael Schmidt has elsewhere commented on Brodsky’s, at times, over-enthusiasm for offering praise; so perhaps we can down-play that one. But Eliot?

The core of this long poem is a narrative based around an unnamed observer, and his fascination for the character Awater. He chooses to follow Awater one evening, from his place of work; he follows him as he has his hair cut, a quiet drink, tries to have a meal, and then through the thoroughfare, until the denouement, and the observer’s spontaneous departure, which ends the poem. The chief characteristic, and what has had the most lasting  effect on following writers, is the everyday use of language; the tone is almost chatty, in comparison with other contemporary writers of the period.

At the time of publication the tone of this poem was so different from anything that had gone before. It invited much incomprehension and adverse comment. The poem exhibited a new approach to writing, an approach that we now recognise and label as Modernist. Whether we are correct in continuing to do so is, of course, always open to conjecture.

Purposely adopting the strongly metrical, assonantal metre of the old French poem, The Song of Roland, the poem acknowledged many influences from literary sources. The least of these influences was Dutch writing. There are distinct echoes of Joyce’s literary techniques, as well as… well, van den Akker has identified four distinct groupings: Dutch; Freud-Spengler-Jung; Mann-Proust-Cocteau-Eliot; Ovid and mythical literature. The poem itself is set in its contemporary Netherlands, Utrecht probably, as that is where Nijhoff was living at the time of composition.

I mentioned The Song of Roland as model; what do I mean? The Song of Roland is composed of 291 ‘laisses’, that is, self-contained stanzas of varying length. Metrically each stanza is based on a line of ten syllables, with internal pause/caesura. The main stresses, the high points of speech, occur regularly on the fourth and tenth syllables of each line. The lines are linked by assonance on the ultimate syllable. Let us compare this method with Awater:

Wees hier aanwezig, allereeste geest,

die over wateren van aanvang zweeft.

Uw goede oog moet zich dit werk toe keren,

het is gelijk de wereld een en leeg.

As can be seen, Nijhoff followed the pattern and form of his source very closely. This is indeed a convincing and impressive display of balance between subject matter and form of construction.

Deliberately eschewing the concept and practice of poem- writing in the Romantic manner, still prevalent at that time, and practiced by Nijhoff in his earlier book, Nijhoff here gives us instead a poem that is crafted, made, constructed; it is, in our parlance, wholly textual. Nijhoff’s interest in the poetics of Paul Valery bear this out.

There are a number of discrepancies between the first translation and the later ones. It would seem the first translator Daan van der Vat, used an earlier text. And so we perceive the impression of a poem in process of composition: the text as open, unfinished; of meaning as collaborative. And here is another indication of the particular tone of this poem, of what separated it from Nijhoff’s previous writing, and from his contemporary scene.

This poem in particular, from a book entitled New Poems, turned its back on contemporaneous approaches to writing, to its readership, to a place in the literary landscape of the period. The poem figuratively and in its narrative, disassociates from its background. It does this by extolling the detail, the unknown private citizen Awater, and by use of distinctly ‘ordinary’ language, terminology and mood. The images are also determinedly ordinary: we watch Awater go for a haircut, a drink in a bar, a meal but here he becomes more than ordinary, he is asked to sing on a podium; he is respected for his singing, he sings a sonnet by Petrarch, then leaves in a hurry.

At first reading I thought, taking the time of composition into consideration, Nijhoff here was holding up Proletarian Man for our consideration and respect. That is pertinent, but there are other aspects to this character, to the way he is presented, that do not quite fit that description, or purpose.

On closer reading there are many distinct correspondences between Awater, and T S Eliot’s The Waste Land. We have points of contact from every section of The Waste Land that correspond, and yet differ substantially. ‘The world is a hell, a desert, for whoever dares to open his eyes.’ Wrote Nijhoff in his essay. What Nijhoff was at particular pains to assert, however, in direct contradiction to Eliot, was a sense of structure to the work; this can be seen in the deliberate adoption of The Song of Roland, form and metre. Eliot, Nijhoff wrote, smashed all the windows and left nothing intact. Awater on the contrary, has a well established narrative voice and form. The main character, Awater, is considered to be a depiction of Eliot in his banking days.

The focus of the poem, the character Awater himself, is described, not in detail, but from a distance; he ‘is clad in camel’s hair/ strung through a needle’s eye… nourished on locusts and wild honeycomb…’: he is, therefore, in effect, a John the Baptist figure, a reference acknowledged in Nijhoff’s essay. He is also likened to ‘a monk, a soldier’, two very different types of character; as I said, we are here talking about types at a distance; not specific, and not engaged with. It is, I think, a self-disciplined, self-contained, self-sufficient figure Nijhoff is presenting here.

A further Eliot reference sees Awater as a Prufrockian figure: Awater descends the stair from his office; and as he does so we are already tuned to pick up Prufrock-references by this point. There are also echoes from the Fire Sermon of The Waste Land: ‘At the violet hour, when the eyes and back/ Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits…’, this references Awater as a Tireasian figure; maybe emphasising here the ascetic yet ambivalent nature of the character. Nijhoff even allows a joking reversal: the narrator of his poem follows Awater into a bar, and as he chats with the barman, Awater pulls out a game of pocket chess. In The Game of Chess in Eliot, there is of course the famous bar-scene.
The Prufrockian/Tiresian figure, along with the overriding religiousness of tonal elements, I would suggest, are references that enrich rather than explain the text; there is no general metaphor intended. Nijhoff teases the reader with textuality throughout. And yet the religious atmosphere continues; it reaches its most concentrated form in the last time we see Awater: having followed Awater through the evening we see him at last absorbed by a crowd at the railway station, gathered around a speaker, a blond, female Salvationist; she regales the crowd with a prospect of redemption through love, of the need to change one’s life. At this point Awater turns to meet the eyes of his follower; the follower is thereby released. The ‘I’ of the poem, the narrator who follows and wonders about Awater, ceases to exist; and the last section of the poem takes off on an unplanned, spontaneous train journey. It is no passing detail that Nijhoff’s own mother J A Steyn, a very religious woman, in fact a Salvationist.

But there was something about this part-description of Awater, and the religious tone, kept niggling me. Considering van der Akker’s exhaustive tabulation of references in the poem, I also recalled a quote in the book from Geoffrey Hough on Eliot and his use of Notes to The Waste Land: ‘There is something here of the phenomenon of citing all sources except the one to which you really owe most’. I realised my ‘something’ was to do with Kierkegaard’s description in Fear and Trembling, of the ‘knight of faith’: ‘The moment I set my eyes on him… (I) … exclaim in a shocked whisper: Good Lord, is this the man?… Why, he looks like a tax collector!’ Instantly we have Saint Matthew included in the calculation; but it is the ordinariness of the man and his occupation is here being emphasised (as deliberately opposed to the demagogue-like preachers of Kierkegaard’s time, perhaps). Compare this with Awater: ‘I’ve seen a man. He doesn’t have a name…’, ‘… he is a clerk. Awater he is called by fellow-clerks…’. The parallel with the ‘knight of faith’ is drawn more fully, explicitly, in the description of Awater’s work life: ‘(the clerks) … sit at desks as if they’re in a temple./They mix Italian script with Arabic.’ Whereas the ‘knight of faith’ is further drawn thus: ‘To see him … you would think he was some pen-pusher who has lost his soul to Italian bookkeeping…’
The whole demeanour of Awater, his physical attributes, his behaviour, parallel the descriptions of ‘knight of faith’ to an extraordinary degree. There is also the language of the poem, the vocabulary of the everyday, the conversational tone, to be taken into consideration; it parallel’s Kierkegaard’s great achievement: the accessibility, even-handedness, and naturally inquisitive tone of his writing. It must be remembered the time of composition of this poem was also the period the writings of Kierkegaard were rediscovered and widely read in Britain and Europe.

Kierkegaard dismissed the option of religious unbelief as an irrationality. Recognising his own position in Kierkegaard’s emergent proto-existentialist possibilities, and through that of a possible new connection with society, must have relieved some of the pressure on Nijhoff at this time: ‘The world is a hell, a desert, for whoever dares to open his eyes.’ It is not a rejection of a religious response so much as a recasting of it in a different, less prescribed, or established format. It can be also be seen as a psychological response to the events of the period, as part of the retreat from emotion, with which Eliot was concerned. Nijhoff’s essay in the book is entitled ‘Poetry in a Period of Crisis’.

That last train journey is aboard the Orient Express; maybe we are to read this as a last, playful salute to Eliot, in his own use of the Indian Upanishads as a sign off in The Waste Land. It also opens up one’s future options on a cultural as well as intellectual scale.

Nijhoff affords us the ultimate send off, a much quoted phrase from the poem: ‘Read it, it doesn’t say what it says. It says…’. What more can one say?

  1. There is another half to this blog that discusses structure if anyone is interested. Contact me.

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