When talking about “poetry off the page” in the Netherlands and Flanders, an exciting question I like to pose is: where can one find the poem “Low Tide” by M. Vasalis?
Ik trek mij terug en wacht.
Dit is de tijd die niet verloren gaat:
iedre minuut zet zich in toekomst om.
Ik ben een oceaan van wachten,
waterdun omhuld door ’t oogenblik.
Zuigende eb van het gemoed,
dat de minuten trekt en dat de vloed
diep in zijn duisternis bereidt.
Er is geen tijd. Of is er niets dan tijd?
By M. Vasalis
I retreat and wait.
This is the time that is not lost:
every minute is transposed into future.
I am an ocean of waiting,
water-thin enclosed by the moment.
Absorbing low tide of the mind,
which Low Tides the minutes and which deeply
prepares the high tide in its darkness.
There is no time. Or is there nothing but time?
By M. Vasalis
Translation by Rianne Koene
An obvious answer would be: in the poetry book Views and Faces, written by the Dutch poet M. Vasalis and published by G.A. van Oorschot in 1954. A slightly more extensive answer would be: in Vasalis’s 1954 poetry book, in her collected poems (1997, 2006, 2009) and in the academic study A Misunderstanding to Believe in from 2006, in which Léon Hanssen cites and briefly discusses the poem. A logical addition would also be: the poem is here, on this webpage.
However, these are incomplete answers to the question. A more comprehensive answer, which focuses on where the poem actually is, would be: in people’s houses and bags, in bookshops and libraries. Additionally, the complete poem and quotes from the poem can be found on walls and windows in the public areas of Bruges, Oostende (Image 1), The Hague and Leiden and on two posters and a tattoo sticker, published by the Plint Foundation. The poem, and quotes from the poem, can also be seen on many websites, on Instagram (Image 2), in newspaper funeral announcements (Image 3), and on at least one person’s body, in the form of a permanent tattoo (Image 4).
What do the answers to these questions teach us about poetry in the Netherlands and Flanders at the beginning of the 21stcentury? First of all, these examples make clear that poetry is a multimedia and transmedia genre: poems exist in all the media you can think of and people make poems “travel” from medium to medium, resulting in poems being used in people’s daily lives, in very diverse contexts and situations.
Secondly, some of these examples show us the ways in which people understand, use and share this poem. Online, several testimonies can be found of people explaining how Vasalis’s words helped them celebrate a success, recover from surgery, express grief and much more. For instance, someone posted the poem “Low Tide” on the weblog Shodo and someone else replied: ‘This beautiful poem by Vasalis lay on my bedside table in the hospital at night, just before our oldest son was born. It was a wonderful experience to completely coincide with the poem during the silent hours before I gave birth. It gave me the strength to get through 22 hours of complicated labour and the little one is now a big man, almost 22.’
Thirdly, it turns out that the circulation of this poem often occurred without an actual book being involved. For example, on Gedichten.nl someone left a comment saying they came across the poem in Oostende (Image 1) and looked it up online a few days later. And the person who has a tattoo with a quote from the poem (Image 4) explained she got to know the lines via a poster of the poem, produced by the Plint Foundation (Image 5).
Fourthly, the “Low Tide” case study shows us that poems have a huge audience. Hundreds of people purchased the poem as a poster (Image 5) and thousands have read the text in that form. This is also the case for the versions of “Low Tide” that can be read in public spaces (e.g. Image 1). More specific numbers are available concerning the online version of the poem. On Gedichten.nl, for example, a post with “Low Tide” was published on 11 April, 2012, where it has since been viewed more than fourteen thousand times.
Also, these examples of where the poem “Low Tide” can be found, show that both the context of the poem — such as the material carrier and the lay-out of the words — and the language of the poem are constantly adjusted in the various versions, resulting in a diverse array of meanings for the poem being emphasised. For example, the funeral announcement containing the poem (Image 3) can invite someone to read “Low Tide” as a poem about death (the line “I retreat and wait” can here become a metaphor for dying), whereas reading the same poem while visiting the coast in Oostende (Image 1) can be a reason to understand “Low Tide” as a poem about the sea (the same line can then be read as a statement made by a personification of the sea during low tide).
Finally, this example shows us that many people experience poetry without reading poetry books. In fact, my research shows that most people experience poetry through non-book media. In 2017, I published the research report Poetry in the Netherlands. In this report, I presented the results of a national questionnaire that I conducted among 1,003 respondents who form a representative sample of the Dutch adult population. The survey’s main goal was to map the ways in which and how frequently Dutch adults experience poetry. The results show that poetry is a widespread, predominantly social, collective and oral genre, which most people experience by encountering poems in non-book media, without paying for that poetry. People mainly use poetry because they want to be emotionally moved, because they are looking for thought-provoking content or because they are looking for a poem for a special occasion. The most frequently occurring poetry experiences among Dutch adults are: coming in contact with poetry during special events (such as funerals or weddings), while listening to a speech, while watching tv, while listening to the radio, in public spaces, in magazines, in newspapers, in someone’s house, on social media and websites.
These results show that simply quoting the number of poetry book sales leads to unfairly pessimistic conclusions about the genre. The survey outcome do not directly contradict the declining number of sale and time people spend reading books, but they do show that a book-centric view on poetry is insufficient when it comes to describing the genre’s contemporary state. It is namely incorrect to put aside non-book poetry as an incidental or marginal aspect of the genre; for many people, reading and hearing poetry through non-book media is the main way in which they experience poems. Moreover, the three media which are often presented as literature’s greatest “enemies” turn out to be the media in which most adults in the Netherlands most frequently experience poetry — namely the radio, television and the Internet.
My research shows that there are two fundamentally different ways of dealing with poetry in the Netherlands and Flanders. At the core of the differences between these two types of uses of poetry lies the interpretation of “authenticity”. The first type of authenticity is central to the academic study of poetry and revolves around the authenticity of poetry from the perspective of poetry as an author’s product. This type of authenticity is all about guaranteeing the authenticity of what the poet has written down and how the poet conceived and designed the poetry. Thus poetry as poíēsis (a production, something that is made, a creation), something that must be copied and studied as correctly as possible. The tradition of close reading is related to this form of authenticity: examining in detail the form and content that the “genius” poet has created and deriving a universal meaning from it.
The second type of authenticity is central to the use of poetry in everyday life, by people in non-academic contexts. Emotion is its key concept. People want the poem to feel authentic: real, genuine and immediate. There must also be an experienced connection between the user and the poem, it must induce the emotion the user feels or wants to convey. In this type of poetry use, poems are sometimes adapted to make them authentic; for example, street poems are sometimes transformed to suit a particular location and texts in funeral announcements are sometimes adapted to match the personal situation. The origin of the word “poetry” in the sense of “making form” (poiein) is important here; a poem is an artifact that is not only something someone made, but also something that you, as a recipient, can do something with— an object that you can use. The materiality of many popular non-book poetry forms include elements that can be linked to authenticity, including “aura-rich media” such as handwriting, typewriters and polaroids, and through “one-off material carriers” such as tattoos, street poems in specific locations, and poetry posters that are never reprinted.
These two types of authenticity are, in many ways, each other’s opposites. While the idea of an “original” plays a major role in dealing with poetry in the former type of authenticity, in the second type it does not matter which version is the “original” and multiple versions of the same poem are used in different contexts and by different users for different purposes. In the first kind, the careful handling of the verbal elements of the poem is important (an idea that is legally established in copyright law), while in the second kind the dominant idea is that poems can be adapted according to the user’s wishes (resulting in large-scale infringement of copyright). Another difference between the two types of authenticity is an aversion to commerce in the professional and academic field and a much less strong disapproval of commerce among non-professional poetry users.
The results of my research project strongly suggest that most poetry circulates in non-book media and that most poetry is experienced and used outside of books. The fact that this mainly happens without the poets’, their heirs’ or their publisher’s knowledge, means that poetry mainly has meaning without the official producers of that poetry knowing about or influencing the way that meaning is constructed. The “one-way picture” of the literary field — authors produce, publishers distribute and readers consume literature — is largely true from a top-down and book-centric perspective on poetry, but from a bottom-up and inclusive perspective, it turns out to be a very incomplete picture of how poetry works. Poetry does not move in a linear way, but in a circular way, with people using, adapting and distributing poetry in different situations and via different material carriers.
My research shows that poetry is a widespread phenomenon in the Netherlands and Flanders and therefore cannot be called a “niche” or “elite” genre. However, there are some factors that play a role in the experiences of poetry users, namely age (e.g. coming across poetry on social media often happens to young people) and gender (a large part of Dutch and Flemish poetry users identify as women).
There is an endless number of reasons why Dutch and Flemish people use poetry in their daily lives. My research has revealed a number of those reasons, although I suspect there are many more. People read poetry to be moved, comforted, entertained and as thought-provoking input. People also turn to poetry to select a poem for a special occasion, to create an identity, to be part of a community and to keep memories alive. Poetry is used as therapy, interior design, conversation starters and ways to spread hidden messages. Additionally, people use poetry to move, comfort, entertain, surprise and educate others. People also share poetry to improve neighbourhoods, to create a sense of community and to keep history alive. Poetry is also used as advertisements, a form of protest and a source of income. Overall, two main trends can be distinguished in the uses of poetry: giving meaning to life and creating an identity. Both relate to the way in which poetry seems to partly replace the role of religion in the Netherlands and Flanders.
My research shows that “poetry matters” in the Netherlands and Flanders, in both senses of the word. On the one hand,poetry matters as poems are used extensively and meaning is constantly derived from poetry. On the other hand, the material form of poetry is important, as the material carrier of poetry is related to the users, the uses and thus also the meanings of poetry.
 Vergezichten en gezichten
 Een misverstand om in te geloven
 ‘Dit mooie gedicht van Vasalis stond ’s nachts op mijn nachtkastje in het ziekenhuis, vlak voordat onze oudste zoon ter wereld kwam. Het was een wonderlijke ervaring om in de stille uren voor de geboorte volledig samen te vallen met het gedicht. Het heeft me toen de kracht gegeven om de 22 uren van de gecompliceerde bevalling door te komen en het jonkie is nu al weer een grote man van bijna 22.’
 The complete title in Dutch is Poëzie in Nederland. Een onderzoek naar hoe vaak en op welke manieren volwassenen in Nederland in aanraking komen met poëzie.