Paul van Ostaijen - Poetry is not: thought, spirit, well-tuned phrases, it is neither doctoral nor dad. It is only a game of words anchored in the metaphysical

The First Book of Schmoll
Paul van Ostaijen, The First Book of Schmoll, Trans. by Theo Hermans, James S. Holmes, Christopher Levenson, Peter Nijmeijer, and Paul Vincent, Green Integer; Bilingual edition edition, 2015.

Born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1896, the poet Paul van Ostaijen, one of the greatest innovators and experimenters in Dutch, died at the age of 32 in La Vallon Sanatorium in the Belgian Ardennes village of Miavoye-Anthee.
Van Ostaijen helped to introduce modernism into the Low Countries, bringing together works influenced by both French Cubism and German Expressionism. During the short period in which he wrote, his poetry underwent a rapid evolutionary process. His first collections of poetry, Music Hall (1916) and Het Sienjaal ("The Signal" of 1918) expressed some of the "unanimist" ideas of Jules Romains in which the "one soul" or common spirit of the community as opposed to the individual psychology was of great importance. His next two collections, De feesten van angst in pijn (Feasts of Fear and Agony, 1921) and Bezette Stad ("Occupied City" of 1921), reveal his loss of his former humanitarian ideas and he completely broke with any traditional forms.
After "Occupied City" van Ostaijen aimed at what he described as "pure lyricism," a poetry disengaged from the poet's personality. As van Ostaijen wrote: "Poetry is not: thought, spirit, well-tuned phrases, it is neither doctoral nor dad. It is only a game of words anchored in the metaphysical." "I play with words," he continued, "like a juggler with torches. My poems have no content, only a theme as in music. I only write a largo, an allegretto."
The poems written during these years were meant to be collected into a volume titled Het eerste boek van Schmoll, collected here as The First Book of Schmoll. Van Ostaijen died in 1928 before the book was printed.

Paul van Ostaijen, Patriotism Inc., Trans. by E. M. Beekman,
University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.

cover image for
Paul van Ostaijen, Feasts of Fear and Agony, Trans. by Hidde Van Ameyden van Duym, New Directions, 1976.

Van Ostaijen's spiritual adventure is one of the great moments in the modern poetry of the Low Countries.—René Felix Lissen

Paul van  Ostaijen

Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928) is the most influential poet Flanders has ever produced. Every avant-garde movement since the interwar years has drawn inspiration from his work, and yet at the same time he has developed into the most enduringly popular modern Flemish poet.
Van Ostaijen gained his place in the international avant-garde canon with the collection Bezette Stad (Occupied City, 1921). Written in Berlin, it deals with life in his native city of Antwerp during the First World War. After complete translations into French and German, an entire translation is soon to appear in English (in Jacket Magazine) of this partly dadaist, partly political-activist book that to a great extent owes its fame to its inventive rhythmical typography and cynically unrivalled evocation of wartime suffering.
Much more frequently read, however, are the poems that van Ostaijen wrote after his Berlin period. ‘Marc greets things in the morning’, ‘Bersaglieri Song’ and ‘Recitative’ are among the very best-known poems in Dutch-language literature. They are playful yet also melancholic poems about the persistently intangible facts of human existence: the awesome strangeness of the familiar, the communicative isolation within which each of us is imprisoned and the social conventions in which modern man seeks to camouflage all of this.’
Van Ostaijen’s plan was to put together a selection of this work in a volume that was to have been called Het eerste boek van Schmoll (The First Book of Schmoll), the titled being derived from a piano teaching technique much used in the 1920s. The reference was not coincidental: it would have comprised mostly short poems which, in musical fashion, feature variations on a theme (lyrisme à thème is the term van Ostaijen himself used). The poet aimed to endow his poems with the lyrical naturalness of children’s songs, counterbalanced by an unfamiliar inner resonance and depth. That was at any rate what poetry was to him: “word play that is anchored in metaphysics.” His poems were intended to have something of the atmosphere and timbre of co mmon speech and melodies – and this makes them exceedingly difficult to translate. This aspect of his work has until now limited van Ostaijen’s international fame: the fresh and yet mysterious naturalness of the originals is very difficult to transfer into other languages.
Het eerste boek van Schmoll was never published; the poet died before he had time to finish the book. Today, these poems are included in the Collected Works under the title Posthumous Poems.
- Geert Buelens

Paul Van Ostaijen (1896-1928) was one of the leading figures of the modernist vanguard in Holland and Belgium, the restless, almost spasmodic quality of his work giving early shape and direction to the expressionist and dadaist tendencies in the Low Countries after the First World War. Feasts of Fear and Agony, a cycle of nineteen poems, was written in 1918-20, when he was with the Belgian occupation forces in Berlin. Van Ostaijen, himself active in leftwing revolutionary circles in Antwerp as well as the Flemish nationalist movement, was deeply affected by the turmoil in Germany. Indeed, the earliest sections of Feasts of Fear and Agony were written at the time of the Spartacist uprising and reflect his bitter, passionate response to the violence of the time. Other poems evidence Van Ostaijen’s preoccupation with religion and metaphysics and the interpenetration of the sacred and profane. After 1920, when Van Ostaijen had arranged the individual poems of Feasts of Fear and Agony into a cohesive whole, he copied them out by hand in an exercise of calligraphic experimentation. For commercial reasons, however, the work was never published in this form during his lifetime. In this its first rendering into English from the original Flemish, samples of Van Ostaijen’s calligraphy, reproduced in facsimile, accompany the opening lines of each poem. -