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gerrit kouwenaar en de politiek van het lezen

By G.E.H.I. Franssen


The interpretation of the poetry of Gerrit Kouwenaar (1923) is a paradoxical undertaking. At first glance, his work seems easy to categorise. Ever since his official debut (1953), he has written poems in which the same every-day images constantly reoccur. Yet at the same time, critics disagree on the meaning of these images. Studies on Kouwenaar’s position in literary history confirm this paradox: readers acknowledge that his work is difficult to interpret, but they quickly agree on the terms and strategies necessary to define his oeuvre. In this study, I maintain that these paradoxes are the result of literary reading conventions, which are shared by an interpretive community of professional readers. My thesis (Chapter 1) is that Kouwenaar’s work not only invites readers to rely on such conventions, but also obscures and allegorises them, making the reader aware of their limitations. My approach combines an analysis of four conventions with a closer look at Kouwenaar’s best-known motifs. In Chapter 2, I argue that Kouwenaar’s reception has been influenced by the reading convention of poetic autonomy, which states that the poem ought to be regarded as an autonomous object. I demonstrate that this convention is self-contradictory, due to the fact that it does not account for the difference between the author’s perspective and that of the reader. In Chapter 3, I point out that Kouwenaar’s interview statements, in which he underscores the impersonal nature of his work, cause readers to rely on an anti-intentionalist reading convention. However, this convention again places the author on a pedestal, for readers support their ‘impersonal’ interpretation by referring to personal statements by the poet. I propose an alternative mode of interpretation, by relating the concept of intentionality to the intentions of the reader, instead of the author. Chapter 4 deals with the referential and the self-referential reading convention. The latter is based on the assumption that poetry does not refer to reality, but is a reality in its own right. The referential convention states that the poems do refer to a reality, if not a biographical reality. I argue that the two interpretive strategies are intertwined: it is only by referring to reality that the poems are open to allegorical, self-referential readings. Chapter 5 tackles the issue of literary engagement. According to some, Kouwenaar might have been politically engaged at the start of his career, but later adopted more autonomist views on literature. Others state that he has never ceased to write committed literature. I propose a distinction between two theories on literary engagement (one based on Sartre’s writings, the other based on Barthes’) and demonstrate how Kouwenaar’s poetry incites the reader to reflect on different forms of literary commitment. Finally, in the Conclusion I show how the problems raised by the interpretation of Kouwenaar’s work lie at the heart of modern poetry interpretation. The mechanisms at work in the reception point to a widespread politics of reading, which structures the work of most critics today. The shortcomings of this politics of reading reveal the need for a critical, creative mode of reading which employs the conventions of poetry interpretation as a culturally and historically situated institution

Topics: Specialized histories (international relations, law), Literary theory, analysis and criticism, Culturele activiteiten, Overig maatschappelijk onderzoek
Publisher: Utrecht University
Year: 2008
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