Nonsense in the Netherlands
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Nonsense in the Netherlands
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As is the case in other cultures, the scope and tradition of literary nonsense in the Netherlands are as wide and as long as scholars, anthologists, and compilers are willing to stretch their definitions. This paper primarily aims to provide an overview of the best-known Dutch authors in the field, whose nonsense verse and prose have been conveniently collected in several anthologies from the 1950s onwards. An advantage of focusing mainly on anthologies is that from the compilers’ introductory remarks and choice of items, the reader may also obtain a proper insight into the grounds upon which the genre of literary nonsense has been variously defined in this country. For instance, if nonsense is defined as “topsy-turveydom” or as endlessly extrapolated logic or creative word-play, it includes almost anything more or less absurd or fanciful. In his exhaustive collection of Dutch poetry for (and even by) children, Gerrit Komrij (1944–2012)—a major poet, essayist, literary translator, and anthologist—includes an extensive section of traditional Dutch nursery rhymes, a genre frequently considered to lie at the basis of literary nonsense. Often originating in an unspecified and distant past, they may range from the purely or almost purely musical (Oze wiezewoze wiezewalla kristalla, kristoze wiezewoze wiezewies wies wies wies) via the semantically random (Iene miene mutte, tien pond grutten, tien pond kaas, iene miene mutte is de baas) to the reasonably meaningful (“In Den Haag daar woont een graaf”: In The Hague there lives a Count / And his son’s named Johnny. / If you ask: “Where is your Pa?” / He’ll point with his little hand, / First his finger, then his thumb, / On his hat he wears a plume, / On his arm a little basket—Bye, dear little Johnny!).

In this survey, I will primarily adhere to the narrower definition argued and illustrated in my Anatomy of Literary Nonsense, namely that of “a genre of narrative literature which balances a multiplicity of meaning with a simultaneous absence of meaning” (47). The tension between meaning and its absence [End Page 9] must ideally remain unresolved (51). Moral intent, any appeal to human emotions, and a “point” or sensible denouement must all be in permanent abeyance. As Komrij points out in his brief introduction, children’s verse (as well as prose, for that matter) is often didactic if not moralistic, and even if playfully so, this would ultimately rule out many items which more liberal compilers of anthologies for children qualify as primarily “funny” or “whimsical.” A recent collection of children’s verse compiled by Jan Van Coillie uses the subtitle “The 120 funniest poems for children” (my emphasis). Besides a few older Dutch items and translations from English (e.g., four poems by Roald Dahl and no fewer than eleven by Shel Silverstein!),Van Coillie mainly includes a handful of poems each by such well-known twentieth-century Dutch poets and writers (for adults as well as children) as Han G. Hoekstra (1906–1988), Annie M.G. Schmidt (1911–1995), Diet Huber (1924–2008), Rudy Kousbroek (1929–2010), and Willem Wilmink (1936–2003). All of these poems are funny or fanciful in one way or another, but are they also “nonsense”? In his two-page introduction, Van Coillie just hammers the word “humour.”

If the major exponents and often mentioned test-cases of Anglo-Saxon nonsense are children’s writers Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, in the Netherlands the incontestable grandmasters of the genre are “Daan Zonderland” (Daniël van der Vat, 1909–1977) and C. (Kees) Buddingh’ (1918–1985; the apostrophe is an authentic part of his surname)—both of whom wrote mainly for adults. All the same, both Van Coillie and Komrij include some items by these poets. Their arrival on the literary scene, which (like that of the other above-mentioned writers) took place shortly after World War II and the German occupation of Holland, corresponds to a flowering interest in what may be generally referred to as humorous verse and probably also to a general post-war shift towards a more light-hearted and optimistic attitude. The war also caused a...