Flanders’ revolutionary poet, now available in English


Paul van Ostaijen led an eventful life, with his political ideals seeing him flee from Antwerp to Germany during the First World War. Some of his poetry – and the distinctive typography that was integral to it – has now been translated into English

A new voice for new times

A hundred years ago, while Belgium was under German occupation, Antwerp city clerk Paul van Ostaijen published his debut, Music-Hall. With this volume of poetry, the 20-year-old wanted to be a new voice for new times. And those times were changing drastically.

The Great War not only involved a new form of industrial warfare, it also ushered in 20th-century culture, with a rapid succession of avant-garde art movements, the breakthrough of cinema as a form of popular entertainment, and the general sense that the old world was definitely – for better or for worse – on its way out.

Poet, art critic and short story writer van Ostaijen (pictured) was one of the young people aching to do away with yesteryear’s opinions and attitudes. He had dropped out of school and worked at Antwerp city hall.

The life of a pen-pusher didn’t suit him, though, even if a few civil servants there were literature-minded. Zot polleken (Crazy Little Paul) or Mr 1830, as he was nicknamed, preferred the Antwerp nightlife, strolling around in dandyish attire, attending film screenings and jazz concerts by musician friends.

The whirling sensations of nightlife and love, including a broken-off relationship, were instrumental to Music-Hall. Van Ostaijen’s subsequent poetry collection, Het Sienjaal (The Signal), continued the call for a young messianic artist, belonging to an idealised community.

Fear and agony

But even as a small circle of readers got to know Van Ostaijen’s new voice, he was already exploring different terrains.

After the idealism influenced by a rather romanticised Humanitarian Expressionism, Van Ostaijen aspired to de-individualisation, as seen in his poetry in the posthumously published Feesten van angst en pijn (The Feasts of Fear and Agony), and in his Dadaist Bezette stad (Occupied City, 1921).

In Berlin, the artistic and political turmoil happened right on his doorstep

A significant part of the Flemish Movement, particularly young militants such as Van Ostaijen, was involved in Flemish activism. Its activists strove for more Flemish autonomy, with the aid of the German occupier if need be, rather than opting for the “passivist” political truce, which in their view unnecessarily prolonged the authoritarian Belgian state.

With the repercussions of his “activist” stance looming over his head, Van Ostaijen fled to Berlin with his girlfriend, Emma Clément. There he hoped to forge good relationships with the local art world and experience the political revolution first-hand.

He was already very knowledgeable about the latest tendencies in literature and visual arts. As a headstrong art critic, he knew his way around modernist art, from Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism all the way to Dada.

In Berlin, the artistic and political turmoil happened right on his doorstep, and he befriended artists, particularly in the circles around the art gallery and magazine Der Sturm (The Storm). Despite these friends and acquaintances, however, Van Ostaijen never managed to assemble the various artists into a group as he had hoped. 

Obvious choice

With the killings of communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and hundreds of others, Van Ostaijen was disillusioned on both the artistic and the political front.

His high hopes had ended in disappointment. During his time in Berlin, though, he did write one of the most poignant works in Flemish literature.

On his return to Antwerp, the nihilistic poetry of Occupied City was printed in an experimental rhythmical typography by his friend Oscar Jespers. Despite its inherently international stature, the long-form poem was never translated into English. Until now.

I was impressed, intrigued, and embarrassed not to have heard of the book before. It’s one of the very great literary responses to the 1914-18 war

- Andy Croft

Publisher Andy Croft of Smokestack Books in England came across Van Ostaijen when a short translated extract from Occupied City appeared in the British magazine Modern Poetry in Translation.

“I was impressed, intrigued, and embarrassed not to have heard of the book before,” Croft recalls. “To me it’s one of the very great literary responses to the 1914-18 war, as important as works by Henri Barbusse, Jaroslav Hašek or Wilfred Owen. It is certainly a lot more interesting than TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, which British readers imagine represents the high-point of post-1914 European literature.”

The issue of Modern Poetry in Translation with Great War poetry that editor Sasha Dugdale put together set in motion what had seemed impossible for years. “When Sasha let me know she was looking for war poetry from languages apart from French and German, it was an obvious choice to suggest some poems from Bezette stad,” says David Colmer, who has also translated Hugo Claus, Dimitri Verhulst and Cees Nooteboom.

“I learned Dutch in 1992, and I first read Bezette stad sometime in the mid- to late 1990s,” he says. “I found it stunning and intriguing, and also a translation challenge. But more than just the language barrier, the daunting design and technical aspects of publishing the whole book were significant barriers to an earlier English production.”

More than a dream

With the aid of book designer Katy Mawhood, a selection from Bezette stad appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation. “The collaboration went very well, and there was a good response to the poems,” says Colmer. “After that, Sasha suggested I should do the whole book, and I said, ‘If you find me a publisher, I will!’”

Three weeks later she brought Colmer and Croft together. When Mawhood agreed to design the book, the team was in place, and the idea of a full translation was suddenly more than just a dream.

Occupied City is set in a very specific time and place, with myriad references to places, films, songs and advertisements that even native Dutch speakers nowadays would have difficulty grasping. 

The change of type may lose some of the original’s integrity: It is a trade-off, there is no perfect translation

- Katy Mawhood

“The original Antwerp readers would have recognised and been able to picture many of the places; they would have been able to sing the songs,” says Colmer. “That would enrich the reading experience, but even without these things, you still sense the kaleidoscopic character of the original work.”

There’s even an advantage in the translation, he says, as it allows them to add notes explaining many of the references, making the translation sometimes easier to understand than the original.

“At the same time, I believe it’s also possible for an English reader to appreciate the poem without checking the notes, as most of the references and quotes are clearly just that: lines from songs, names of places, quotes from advertising signs and so on.”

And then there’s the original rhythmical typography, about which Van Ostaijen wrote extensive letters to his friends in Antwerp. “The change of type may lose some of the original’s integrity: It is a trade-off, there is no perfect translation,” says Mawhood. “Ultimately, the typography aims to facilitate the articulation of meaning of an excellent Dutch-English translation.”

Pure lyricism

Occupied City is as much a translation of the design as it is of the original text. “The visual channel is often taken for granted, but there’s a lot of effort, consideration and time commitment involved in design interpretation,” Mawhood explains.

Van Ostaijen’s correspondence with his friends in Antwerp makes it clear that he never saw the typography as a mere illustration of the text, but as a score to which the text is set. Translation, then, means a re-rendering of the original.

“Physical printed publications have changed in language, culture and industry norms,” Mawhood points out. “To imitate past technical limitation would be a distraction for the reader’s interpretation, who may seek meaning by its irregularity. Ultimately, design elements do not transmit a text passively. They are rhetorically active because they affect the reader’s reception of the message.”

Van Ostaijen was granted amnesty after his return to Belgium in 1921, but had to fulfil his military service in Germany. His poetry continued to evolve towards what he called “pure lyricism”.

He had also started to write “grotesque” short stories, a Dadaist film script – De bankroet-jazz (The Bankrupt Jazz) – and art criticism. He was very active as a writer, and remained involved in several plans relating to magazines and art galleries.

But his health failed him. On 18 March 1928, the complications of tuberculosis sent him to an early grave, aged just 32. His memorial stone – a “listening angel” – was designed by his friend Oscar Jespers, who had also given Occupied City its remarkable typography.

Van Ostaijen: a must-read

Music-Hall (1916): Van Ostaijen’s debut has recently been re-published by Antwerp publisher Polis

Het Sienjaal (The Signal, 1918): his second volume of poetry

Bezette stad (Occupied City, 1921): the first translation into English can be bought from the Paul van Ostaijen Genootschap’s website

De bankroet-jazz (The Bankrupt Jazz, 1921): Van Ostaijen’s film script, arguably the first written in Flanders, was turned into a film in 2008 and can be bought here

Photo: Letterenhuis Antwerpen