Roger de Neef: ‘the poet on the soles of the trees and with the voice of the birds’


Roger de Neef: This. Book of poems 1962-2022PoëzieCentrum, Ghent, 2022, 607 pp., ISBN 978-90-56553-10-4, €50
Our Verdict: ****

Gent PoëzieCentrum has previously published the collected works of Flemish poets such as Mark Insingel, Michel Bartosik, Renaat Ramon and Patrick Conrad. It now adds there too This. Book of poems 1962-2022 by Roger de Neef (1941, Wemmel). Sixty years of poetry in a sturdy dust jacket volume, presented in ‘International Klein Blue’, without placing blurbs or excessive praise from the reviewers.

Anyone hoping that all the collections De Neef has published so far – twenty or so – can be found in their entirety and in their original form in this edition will be disappointed. In the footsteps of a poet like Hugo Claus, De Neef took the opportunity to delete or rewrite all the poems that did not find favor in his eyes. He has done this so thoroughly that the collection can be considered a new comprehensive work. Magnum opus by a poet who won the Triennial State Prize for Poetry in 1986 for his collection The story of the flowers (1985).

More accessible work

Roger de Neef has long been known as a writer of hermetic, rhetorical, hymnic and metaphysical poetry. Many of his early poems read like baroque cryptic prayers or incantations with no room for anecdotal or familiarity. It is poetry written for a small group of initiates. It only changed with the bundle Dove collar (1993). From then on, De Neef’s poetry became more accessible and more communicative. Or as lyric critic Hans Vandevoorde put it in his introduction to an anthology of De Neef’s poetry (PoëzieCentrum, 2003): ‘From extreme concentration to long, waving verses in the two main poems from The book about the rose and the salt (2002), from the obscure wording to the ordinary, everyday way of speaking, from the absolute seriousness to the light self-mockery and relative irony.’

Roger de Neef debuted in 1967 with the collection Winter runes. Many poets of the time who followed in the footsteps of Vijftiger and Fifty-Fives – two literary movements of poets – drew the card of the experiment. Influenced by jazz music, the concept of improvisation often played an important role in their work. They juggled images, words and sounds, let their words listen to each other as it were during the writing process, and often only discovered the meaning of their poems – if there was one – afterwards. In De Neef’s debut — according to poetry connoisseur Geert Buelen’s “a typical example of visual confessional poetry” — this was expressed in the form of poems that do not express recognizable anecdotes, but experiences that are mythical and existential at the same time. De Neef himself described the poetics of his time as ‘a metaphysical play with words’. From this emerged themes such as life, love, death, time, the search for an identity, nature and the cosmos. Other topics were added in later collections.

Twenty years later, De Neef no longer wrote to the insiders and strove for a more direct statement. It benefited his poetry. Hans Vandevoorde: ‘Since The story of the flowers At De Neef, the pleasure of making is much more important, the surrender. It now closes without any program or method. This means that the poet himself has to work much harder for a result that looks more spontaneous than the previous “inspired” poems. After all, the range he aims for is much wider: no longer the insider, but the reader all the way.’ In his collection of jazz poems Empty Bed Blues (1996), featuring portraits of beloved jazz musicians, the poet even admitted anecdotally for the first time.

Self-imposed restrictions

But the ‘simplification’ of De Neef’s poetry does not imply that its content is as transparent as a drop of water or as a verse by Willem Wilmink. There are still sufficient kernels of mystery and suggestiveness left in it, which, as the poet himself writes in the introduction to his collection, ‘not always comprehensible [zijn] for purely oral explanation’. De Neef’s simplification is mainly stylistic in nature. De Neef: ‘At best this is parlando prose poetry without directional reading and breath marks.’

Another characteristic of De Neef’s poetry is that it revolves around a number of symbolically charged keywords or core words like Cloud, tree, flower, bird. The titles of some of his collections alone indicate this: The big cloud (1972), The story of the flowers, Pigeon collar, The book about the rose and the salt, Airport for birds (2010). These key words are part of the poet’s basic vocabulary – a limitation he has imposed on himself from the very beginning of his time as a poet. Compare it to Samuel Beckett’s play And companion Godot (1952). The English-speaking Beckett deliberately wrote the text in French because his vocabulary in that language was much smaller and he just wanted to write a play where the words are reduced to their essence and the characters express themselves in simple, short sentences.

There was something else involved in De Neef: ‘putting the poet’s influence in perspective, because the poet realizes that he is on the fringes of society. That’s why De Neef once called him “the longshoreman of culture”. (…) This doubt about the independence of one’s own words has led to De Neef only wanting to use a basic vocabulary of around eight hundred words, which he wanted to leave sacred.’ (Hans Vandevoorde)

At first misunderstanding

De Neef’s poetry has long been met with great incomprehension. When he with The story of the flowers won the Triennial State Prize for Poetry, there was even no less than a smear campaign. Academics, critics and other poets had been shot in the wings and were at a loss for words to destroy De Neef. Among them Hugo Brems, Lieve de Boeck (then editor of the literary magazine The bratty dog) and Herman de Coninck.

The irony is that De Neef is hardly disputed today and has rightly grown into a valuable stayer. The reason for this is, as we touched on above, the simplified expression and partial ‘desecration’ of his poetry, which thereby gained readability. After more than twenty collections, it has become clear that De Neef’s writing as a poet bears witness to great authenticity, and that for six decades he has always been true to himself and his poetic principles. The release of This. Book of poems 1962-2022 is therefore a happy fact.

Rework and tear down

The only question is: is it De Neef’s collected poems, supplemented by the new, previously unpublished collection This and several dozen pages of scattered poems, or is This (the collection) a brand new work that has six hundred pages? In his seven-page introduction to the volume, entitled Written, rewrittenDe Neef explains:

‘I regard this collection, containing some six hundred poems from twenty previously published editions, supplemented by an as yet unpublished collection of the same name, as a truly original work. In addition to the already known direction, it seeks its own path. The poems previously handed over by the author were weighed and weighed again. In the course of decades rotten places, hollowed out language, redundant constructions, fillers, empty words, digressions, even whole stories and stanzas were torn down and, if necessary, replaced by opposing forces.’

This process of consideration led the poet to rework, rethink and rewrite many of the poems in his collection. He also changed the poems typographically. In most of his collections, he capitalized each verse line, giving the poems a certain monumentality. IN This each stanza begins with a capital letter and each poem ends with a period—the only punctuation mark that counts the poems. Whether De Neef has achieved a definitive version of his life’s work remains to be seen, because ‘there is no way around it either: each collection is a snapshot.’


Here, the jazz musician De Neef speaks, for whom the concept of improvisation is almost a way of life. No jazz musician plays the same solo on the same theme two nights in a row. De Neef can speak for himself: As an electric bassist, he himself accompanied blues and jazz musicians for years. The title of the bundle Thisalso refers, among other things, to the composition This here by jazz pianist Bobby Timmons (1935-1974), who saw De Neef playing in Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderley’s band in 1962 during the legendary Comblain-la-Tour jazz festival in Wallonia.

The new bundle-in-collection bundle, Thisends with a cycle of poems that hearkens back to the title Now’s the Time (by Charlie Parker and Jean-Michel Basquiat)a composition by the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920-1955), who first recorded the song in 1945. Forty years later, the visual artist Basquiat (1960-1988) was inspired by it when he created a painting.

In the cycle of fourteen poems, De Neef tried to ‘closely connect language, jazz music, lifestyle and visual arts’. De Neef: ‘I supplemented that cocktail myself with ever-changing words, broken down commentary, rap, bits of dark topical Black Lives Matter, with pure muscle writing and rebellion. The whole swirling mix has grown into an infectious live recording under the thorough direction of alto saxophonist Ben Sluijs and double bassist Brice Soniano [streaming] from Now is the time [2022]’. The live recording can be viewed via this Vimeo link. A fine addition to an indispensable collection that, in our opinion, already has classic status.

The story of the flowers

Among the highlights of the bundle are the addition series Now is the time including cycles The Minor Operation (Ballad of Wounded Knee) (pp. 51-60), The clear doves (pp. 97-99), The story of the flowers (pp. 100-108), Suffering red (pp. 304-308) and Portrait of my hands (pp. 309-313). As a foretaste of the seventh poem from the cycle The story of the flowers:

Rivers they are the earth’s circulatory system
even if they close their eyes
they open the land like fresh sheets
and never rest

Rivers they move away from their source
never return remain equal to itself
several times they put their ear down to listen
and hear how fish move in shoals

Rivers sometimes celebrate
then they talk to the sky and get excited
they multiply the food
and in their loins the cities move so hard

Rivers are lovers
with their last mouth
they throw themselves into the sea.

Finally, how does the poet who has written on numerous themes present himself? De Neef: ‘And if I had to portray myself, I would be quite satisfied with ‘the poet on the sole of a tree and with the voice of the birds’. I have written, at least at first glance, persistently and each time in a different and varied way about clouds and water, about the longing of birds and flowers, about trees as people.’

This. Book of poems 1962-2022 by Roger de Neef is available on our webshop.

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