The strongest cultural bond between Martinus Nijhoff (1894–1953) and D.J. Opperman (1914–1985) is Calvinism, the religious tradition within which both of them grew up and within which the Bible stood central. Both poets’ focus on the Word reverts to God who created by means of the Word (Gen. 1:1–3: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”) and the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God […] (and) The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1, 14).
When a poet is personally moved, but has to subject his feelings to the formal demands of the poem, the word becomes flesh; it expresses general human nature in a concrete way and does not become mired in abstract reverie or emotions. For both Nijhoff and Opperman the poem has to be detached from its creator and be autonomous. The poet achieves the strongest autonomy in the poem by identifying with a persona remote from himself as a result of the magnetic attraction of flesh to flesh. In Nijhoff’s oeuvre there is a noticeable growth of the poem together with a further confessional tendency towards a poem where the form rather than the pure expression of the poem is in control of the content. From the outset, with his debut, Opperman wrote expressive poems – because of his natural talent and to distance himself from the confessional poetry of his predecessors, the Dertigers.
Both Nijhoff and Opperman wrote in the tradition of T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative”. To Eliot it meant that emotion should not find direct expression in literary art, but should be awakened by an objective premise with which it can correlate. In his essay “Hamlet and his problems”, part of his 1920 study, The sacred wood: Essays on poetry and criticism, he defines objective correlative as follows:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. (Eliot 1950:100)
To Opperman (1959:145, 146), in his lecture about his own work, “Kuns is boos!” (“Art is evil!”), this means the tension between a poet’s being human and being a poet, confessed by Tennyson in his poem “In memoriam” as the tension between “reveal” and “conceal”. In an advanced stage one can revolt against the confession of the poet’s intimate personal experiences and emotions even as the poet urges one on, since this makes good building material for a poem. The poet can relieve this tension, not by direct reveal, but by “hiding his experience behind a form, using Yeats’s ‘mask’, and Nijhoff’s ‘whistle’ or by seeking Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’” (Opperman 1959:147).
The words of the poet who finds Eliot’s objective correlative become flesh in the poetry of Nijhoff and Opperman. Opperman does not use the image of the word having become flesh either in his critical writings or in his poems on being a poet, whereas Nijhoff does it repeatedly in both his poetic short story-essay “De pen op papier” and his poem “Het steenen kindje”. The metaphor for the successful poem as word having become flesh is, however, as valid for Opperman’s poetics as for Nijhoff’s. The word having become flesh provides not only meaning to the corresponding poetry of Nijhoff and Opperman, but also to the Word as flesh as expressed in their religious poems. Generous undogmatic knowledge of the Bible on the part of both of them results in reality religion. However, the creation of this reality religion and their unique confessions of faith differ significantly between the two poets: Nijhoff’s is New Testament-based, and Opperman’s Old Testament-based. Nijhoff finds form in the incarnated God as the crucified Jesus, as opposed to Opperman’s God of creation and covenant.
In this investigation I illustrate Nijhoff’s and Opperman’s development into poets by means of the religious poems in their oeuvres, whereby they show corresponding poetics as basis. What I attempt to demonstrate is that similar poetics manifests itself in their poetry in different ways. Opperman adopts the stature of “the other”, and thereby provides stature to his own acts and thoughts. Nijhoff is the first-person speaker and gives stature to “the other” by what he assumes about him rather than what he knows. He projects his own inner feelings in “the other”. Since his first-person speaker focuses on a figure opposite him, he does not write a confessional poem but an expressive poem. This method is most noticeable in Nijhoff’s poem “Awater”, which I discuss at length, particularly since it features the Old Testament prophets Noah, Jonah and Moses – figures with whom Opperman identifies in some of his most prominent poems. This illustrates that two great poets can have an absorbing conversation with each other over time and distance.
Keywords: Awater; concept of God; Martinus Nijhoff; New Testament; Old Testament; D.J. Opperman; poetics