On 30 August 2017 the Dutch VSB Fund announced to stop financing the VSB Poetry Prize after this year’s (the 24th) edition. The argument is that the VSB Fund changes it’s investment policy and puts all emphasis on ‘active citizenship’. Poetry or ‘the volume of just one individual poet’ is considered to not fit into this policy. Odile Heynders does not agree.
The VSB Poetry Prize is the most prestigious prize for poetry in the Netherlands and Flanders. The prize is awarded every year in January on the occasion of the best volume of the previous year. Each year a new jury is constructed, consisting of poets, readers, translators, critics and academics, and led by a prominent societal figure such as Rotterdam mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb or NRC editor-in-chief Peter Vandermeersch. The prize is celebrated at a public evening organised by Poetry International. The winner receives € 25.000. In 1994 the prize was presented for the first time and it has, since the list of celebrated volumes became longer, developed into a serious and esteemed award. Dutch and Flemish established poets received the prize, such as Gerrit Kouwenaar, Rutger Kopland and Leonard Nolens. Young and less well known poets, such as Mustafa Stitou and Hannah van Binsbergen were awarded as well. Reviews and articles discussing the nominees and winners appeared in newspapers and on literature sites, and this resulted every year in engaged debates on poetic challenges and principles. All winning volumes can be considered important for Dutch literary history.
The voices of poets are heard when leading politicians are in favour of mechanisms of silencing the mass.
That the financing of the prize is stopped in 2017 is a very disappointing decision, but also a sign of the times. More and more cultural institutes openly declare an ‘anti Highbrow art’ agenda, underlining that the participation of all is more important than the observation and reception of one. The idea is that every participant – or craftsman as the term is used by Richard Sennett (2009) - can make an artwork, poetry, or piece of music that is as relevant as the artefact made by an experienced and trained artist. Participation implies enthusiasm and collective energy. Fascinatingly, this argument is never applied in the context of sports: which amateur would pretend to perform as well as Robin van Persie, Lieke Martens or Tom Dumoulin?
The VSB fund uses the argument of ‘social citizenship’ and therewith suggests that poetry has not to do with citizenship, as such neglecting that poets can have a strong voice in writing about important societal and moral issues. ILja Leonard Pfeijffer wrote about migrants in Europe, (Idyllen, winner in 2016), Mustafua Stitou wrote about diversity in society (Varkensroze Ansichten, winner in 2004), Rutger Kopland wrote about another urgent topic: ageing (Tot het ons loslaat, winner in 1998). Due to their position of relative detachment, poets are often sharper in their observations and wording of what happens and what consequences are.
The idea that poetry has nothing to do with citizenship, therefore, is from the perspective of content, not plausible. Neither is it convincing from the perspective of cultural history. It indeed was the citizen in society, in the 18th and 19th centuries, who was the one reading and appreciating poetry and novels. In the transforming public sphere of that time, citizens had more leisure time, more education, more interest in ideas on what happened. The bourgeois class was the main stimulant of literature (Williams 1977). Reading made the citizen more critical towards the politician. It were writers as intellectuals who had the courage to present novel ideas, to deal with public issues from a sideline perspective, as J. Habermas (2009) claims. There are no topics that cannot be discussed by literary authors, was Jean-Paul Sartre’s argument (Sartre 1948). The opposition between citizenship and poetry, between the collective and the individual, supposed by the VSB fund, is a non-existing one.
Poetry is popular in times of crises. Think of the liveliness of poetic debates and poetic sites in Turkey today. The voices of poets are heard when leading politicians are in favour of mechanisms of silencing the mass. Think of Liu Xiabo in China, who died tragically this summer but has left impressive poems and essays voicing critique on the government. When there is no freedom of speech, poetry sometimes escapes and is recognized as counter voice.
In the Netherlands we have no crisis, even though our politicians take months to form a new cabinet –this indeed has no consequences whatsoever for ruling the state. Politics has become Spielerei. Not really serious, even though the words ‘citizenship’ and ‘democracy’ are used all the time. But participation and engaged citizenship are not the only condition for a healthy democratic debate. We need the voices of artists to demonstrate counter arguments and unseen perspectives. By putting the volume of poetry on the bookshelf, and stimulating collective participation, the Netherlands will become more noisy but less wise and visionary.
Habermas Jürgen (2009), Europe, The Faltering Project. Cambridge: Polity.
Sartre Jean-Paul (1968 ), Wat is literatuur. Amsterdam: de Bezige Bij.
Sennett Richard (2009), The Craftsman. London: Penguin Books
Williams Raymond (1977), Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press