The Vox Populi in Poems: Ramsey Nasr as Poet Laureate and Public Intellectual

Odile Heynders, Tilburg University


This paper puts the spotlight on the work of Dutch Poet Laureate Ramsey Nasr. In the four years of his official appointment, he wrote poems and essays articulating a critical perspective on the current political conjuncture in the Netherlands. The Poet Laureate can be considered a public intellectual in that he shows engagement in regard to concrete societal issues and ‘translates’ this into poetry. Using ideas and rhetorical tools from the work of Kenneth Burke, I will show how Nasr’s poetry prompts readers to identify with his perspective while illuminating how such identification leads to division from a perspective that frames nationalism in terms that would exclude multiethnic citizenship.

The Poet Laureate as Public Intellectual

ON MONDAY JANUARY 28, 2013, DUTCH POET RAMSEY NASR (b. 1974) was one of the guests on the popular Dutch TV talk show De Wereld draait door (DWDD),1 being invited on the showin connection with the festivities surrounding the annual ‘Poetry Week’ and the termination of his four-year appointment as Poet Laureate (from 2009 to 2013). On the evening in question, however, he did not get a chance to discuss literature at all, the program being interrupted by a Breaking News item in which the Dutch Queen announced her abdication. After this, the discussion at the DWDD table turned to her thirty-three-year reign and remained there for the rest of the show. The next day, Nasr appeared on the program again, in full swing now, since that morning he had written a long poem addressed to the queen,2 thus underscoring his position as Poet Laureate. He read the poem in a solemn voice, delivering it flawlessly as the trained actor that he is. On Wednesday January 30, Nasr reappeared again on DWDD, this time to really discuss his ideas on the potential and the power of poetry, and his past performances as poet Laureate. Some of his poems and statements had caused quite a stir, being considered by some to be too left wing and, perhaps even more importantly, because they were clearly pro-Palestine.3

Nasr’s appearing on an important prime-time television show three evenings in a row, and expressing his views on political and social topics, reaching a wide general audience in the process (much broader than that of the average readers of poetry), underlined his cultural authority (Collini 452). The prestige involved not only lay in his being Poet Laureate, but also in a broader structure of relations (Collini 52), including his being invited by top TV personality Van Nieuwkerk and his editorial team, expressing clear opinions on the Queen and the monarchy, having met the challenge and writing an appealing poem in response to her abdication, which, as an actor, he could recite convincingly. A successful television appearance on a quality talk show is an obvious indication that one is performing one’s role well, doing the right thing at the right moment.

The Poet Laureateship was introduced into the Dutch literary context when quality newspaper NRC Handelsblad in collaboration with the Poetry International organization and Dutch Public television NPS decided to organize a contest to choose a renowned poet who was to promote poetry by writing on important current events and special occasions. The Poet Laureate was to be an ambassador for poetry. The first to be chosen as Poet Laureate was famous poet and anthologist Gerrit Komrij (1944–2012), in January 2000.4 Four years later the less canonized, light verse poet Driek van Wissen (1943–2010) was elected after an elaborate campaign (which he had organized himself). In 2009, Ramsey Nasr became the third Poet Laureate. When his term was over, a committee of connoisseurs was formed to choose his successor in order to avoid the public voting-procedure, which had turned out too easy to manipulate. The current Poet Laureate is Postmodernist poet Anne Vegter (b. 1958), who accepted the honor in January of 2013.

The Poet Laureate is a historical institution, going all the way back to the Roman Empire in which poets, such as Horace, were officially appointed by the Capitol to compose texts for special events. This institution developed into the tradition of the court poets in the Middle Ages. The Poets Laureate Petrarch and Chaucer are famous representatives of the position in the Renaissance.5 In 1668, the laureateship acquired royal status in the UK when Dryden was appointed to the post and was the first to receive the official title. In England, the Poet Laureate writes for the court at national events. It is a job for life. Ted Hughes was one of the most renowned Poets Laureate in the 20th century. In the US, the Poet Laureateship was introduced as recently as 1937, and there the Poet Laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress for a period of only eight months. S/He is supposed to write poetry for a broader audience. In addition, every Poet Laureate can choose his own personal project to pursue. There is a wide variety of choices open to him, ranging from writing columns on poetry, or compiling an anthology, to organizing poetry projects at schools. Today, every American state has its own Poet Laureate, comparable more or less to the city poets in Dutch cities.

The Dutch Poet Laureate position is obviously a bit different from the ones in the UK and the USA. In the Netherlands, this position has been configured at arm’s length from government—neither the public broadcaster NPS or Poetry International though both subsidized can be taken as representative of the state—whereas in the other countries mentioned the appointment does have clear ties to the state. This, indeed, shapes the auditor’s and reader’s expectations: in the Dutch context the configuration is much more unofficial and progressive. The poet can make his point without taken the representativeness as such as too restrictive.

Ramsey Nasr, born from a Palestinian father and a Dutch mother6, is a jack-of-all-trades: poet, essayist, renowned actor and director. In 2000, he published his debut, the collection 27 Poems & No Song (27 gedichten & Geen lied). His second book of poetry, awkwardly flowering (onhandig bloesemend) appeared four years later. In 2005, Nasr was appointed city poet of Antwerp, a city in the North, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. His third poetry volume our-lady-zeppelin (onze-lieve-vrouwe-zeppelin) (2006) includes all his ‘Antwerp poems’ along with detailed commentary and historical photographs of the city. A selection of articles on art and politics was published in 2006 under the title Of the Enemy and the Musician (Van de vijand en de muzikant). Aside from his literary work, Nasr is also a gifted actor and director. In May 2013, he was appointed a member of the prestigious theatre company Toneelgroep Amsterdam (TGA). He has played parts in films and television series.7 In 2010, Heavenly Life appeared, the first English-language collection of the work of Ramsey Nasr, translated by David Colmer and published by Banipal Books.

The Dutch Poet Laureate is supposed to write at least four poems a year on an international event of a cultural, political, sports (sic) or societal character. The poems are published in the NRC newspaper.8 In the four years of his Poet Laureateship, Nasr wrote 23 poems on occasions such as a shooting in a provincial town with seven people dead and seventeen injured (‘the spring gun’ (‘het lentekanon’)), the attack on Queen’s Day—a national Dutch holiday—in 2009 (‘In the land of kings’ (‘In het land der koningen’)) and the installation of a new government in October 2010, made possible by the support from Geert Wilders’ populist Party PVV (‘Mijn nieuwe vaderland’ (My new fatherland)). He also wrote memorial poems on the death of three renowned Dutch writers: Harry Mulisch, Simon Vinkenoog and Gerrit Komrij and, as said, ended his official Poet Laureateship with a poem on the announced abdication of Queen Beatrix.

In this article, I argue that Nasr as Poet Laureate demonstrates how the generic expectations associated with poetry can be ‘sized up’ rhetorically to accommodate the expression of timely political critique. Nasr, so to say, successfully mingles poetry and politics and in doing so intertwines various linguistic dimensions in the Burkean sense, in order to underscore the authority of the poet and the importance of his voice in judging the societal conjuncture. The Poet Laureate is an example of the literary author as a public intellectual,9 addressing an audience on conflicting cultural or social issues that need to be interpreted and commented upon. The ‘intellectual’ element emphasizes the writer having (a certain amount of) authority, often rooted in an academic education or on the prestige of his oeuvre, and being able to judge things from a wider perspective. The ‘public’ element refers to the author performing a role as a social critic and mediator, both from the sideline and from the centre of a public sphere.

Italian philologist Antonio Gramsci, locked up in prison by Mussolini’s fascist regime, wrote in his Prison Notebooks (1926–1937) that “all men are intellectuals” though not all of them have the function of intellectuals in society (Gramsci 9). He distinguished between the traditional intellectual (teacher, priest, literary writer and so on, occupying specific professions in between classes deriving from historical formations in rural society), and the organic intellectual (the organizing and reflective element in a particular social class or group). At first sight, the contemporary Poet Laureate typically is a traditional intellectual, performing the role of the Man of Letters. Today, however, in our mediatized society, the intellectual finds himself in a more organic position in which he frequently has to bridge the gap between intellectualism (high education, well-informed) and the general public (partly well-educated and interested in poetry, and partly not reading poetry at all, but interested in the public figure as a celebrity). While the unique and defining characteristic of intellectuals is that they take a stand on issues and deliver critique from a universal or sophisticated point of view, public intellectuals by the very fact of their having to present their ideas to the general public and performing a role in the media, are forced to popularize their ideas. They find themselves in the middle of a public sphere that they also consciously have to detach themselves from, in order to be active as artists. It is this paradox or bi-dimensionality10 that becomes explicit in the performances of Ramsey Nasr as Poet Laureate, and I will examine it with the help of some of Kenneth Burke’s ideas and rhetorical tools. The particular focus will be on concepts such as poetics, engagement, associational cluster, identification and symbolic action.

As regards the latter, poetry as symbolic act can be analyzed in three subdivisions: the poem as dream, prayer and chart. Burke elaborates on this in the first chapter of Philosophy as Literary Form (1941).11 The prayer and chart dimensions make us aware of the communicative aspect, as well as of the potential of the “realistic sizing up” of poetry, which is relevant when discussing these politically motivated poems. Nasr’s observation is that art-for-art’s-sake (he calls it “postmodern art”) is a luxury, though social and political commitment should be part of poetry without affecting the poetic dimension. This is what he writes in a pivotal passage in one of his essays:

Is it possible to let engagement enter poetry without affecting the poetry? I think it is, as long as one has enough talent and manages to keep solutions at a safe distance. As long as your pen wriggles and lives and slips out of your hands. And particularly: as long as it is up to the reader to decide what is a love poem and what is politics. Engagement is not to choose in favor of or against a party, engagement is simply being engaged in life itself and participating, if only in language (Van de vijand en de muzikant 78).12

This ties in with certain ideas on “life, literature and method” put forward by Burke, connecting the aesthetic with the concrete or referential. What I am aiming at is an analysis and understanding of the political, cultural and social potential of an aesthetic text such as a poem, an examination of the public performance of the poet, and of the responses of the lay audience. The question addressed is: does the audience comprehend the combination of aesthetic practice and popularized political statements, that is inherent in the position of and exemplified by the practice of this Poet Laureate? This article develops as follows: first I will discuss some of Burke’s ideas and analyses, and subsequently relate them to a number of Nasr’s poems. Secondly, I will go into the poet’s performance and the public responses to it. Finally, the third part will present an argument on cultural authority, linguistic dimensions and civic participation.

Burkean Perspective on Poetry

Ramsey Nasr’s My New Native Country, Poems of Crisis and Fear (2011) is a collection of sixteen poems and two polemic texts—entitled ‘Beyond Freedom’ (De vrijheid voorbij) and ‘But we put Orcs in charge of Culture’ (Alleen op cultuur zet je een ork)—representative of his laureateship. As such, the volume immediately confronts the reader with the problem of deciding on the attitude to take with regard to the content. After all, one cannot help but recognize that the poetry is written from an official Laureate’s position and thus inspired by particular societal events that the poet was invited to write about as Laureate. Two of the lectures Nasr delivered as Poet Laureate are collected in the volume, which not only makes it more than just a collection of poetry, but also provides a specific context in which the poems are placed and thus, one would assume, are expected to be read. In Burkean terms: these poems are not just poems in their own right—they are explicitly presented in a more broadly defining general language context. Moreover, Nasr’s poems can be considered to be didactic poetry, as Burke has described this poetic category in Attitudes Toward History; the didactic impliying: “coaching the imagination in obedience to critical postulates” (75). Poets can deal with issues that cannot be solved by essayistic legislation, Burke observes, and the didactic poet attempts to avoid the confusion of synthesis by a schematic decision to label certain people “friends” or “enemies,” though this sometimes leads to oversimplification and sentimentality (79). Nasr is not unfamiliar with an enemy discourse, and more than once feels tempted to make others aware of the dangers of fascism and anti-Islam sentiment. In a ‘Letter to my Enemy’ from 2006, he confronts Dutch (Jewish and evidently pro-Israel) writer Leon de Winter with his negative and bellicose rhetoric in regard to Palestinian issues (Van de vijand en de muzikant 108). Nasr’s plea is to resist the simplification of putting Israel and Palestine in opposition, and considering all Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians as the same people.

Before we focus on Nasr’s poetry, it will be helpful to draw some more ideas from Burke’s texts. In the essay ‘Poetics in particular, Language in General’ (from: Language as Symbolic Language, Essays of Life, Literature, and Method), Burke discusses Edgar Allen Poe’s famous essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition,’ and observes that for the 19th century American author “supremeness, perfection” is the ideal, not only with regard to composition but also with regard to the things one writes about. The most poetical topic in the world, according to Poe, is the death of a beautiful woman. Burke points out that this should not just be taken at face value, as capturing the quintessential characteristic of Poe’s poems. There are other motivating factors besides those of a poetic nature that stand out in this work, the most conspicuous being the necrophile theme that is linked to the psychiatric disorder the poet was suffering from. In other words, what we might say about a poem as a poem “might not adequately cover the wider motivational problem of what we might say about the poem ( . . . ) as aspects of language in general” (27). Hence, we can make a deliberate choice to read a poem beyond its poetic dimension.

Poetics is but one of the four primary linguistic dimensions: there are also logic, rhetoric, and ethics (28). The poetic motive is understood by Burke as “the sheer exercise of ‘symbolicity’ for its own sake” (29). As said, an approach to the poem in terms merely of poetics is not enough in itself; sometimes a poem requires an analysis as an example of language in general. Burke is very clear on this issue when he states that “the very attempt to discuss the poem purely as the product of a poet should eventually help sharpen our perception of the respects in which the poem must be analyzed rather as the product of a citizen and taxpayer, subject to various social embarrassments, physical ills, and mental aberrations” (38). In an earlier reading of Coleridge (1941) he had pointed at the “associational clusters” that can be picked up in a work, implying that acts, images, personalities and situations come together and have to be examined to disclose the structure of motivation in a work. The poet as a person survives in his work. It is clear that the four dimensions of language are related, and that poetics is the principle of perfection, in the sense that component parts of a work are produced in perfect relationship to one another. But the aesthetic principle should not be viewed in too simple a sense. The study of a work in terms of poetics alone is not sufficient, if we are also “inquiring humanistically into the poem’s full nature as symbolic act” (Language as symbolic Language 41).

Burke’s essays and readings help to clarify the complicated motives underlying the poems of Poet Laureate Ramsey Nasr; motives rooted in personal experiences, political contrasts, as well as in the societal conjuncture, and motives involved in his efforts aimed at reaching and encouraging a general audience. Burke’s point of poetry as symbolic action moves midway between a formalistic and a Marxist approach, the former studying the text in terms of poetics and treating the work as anonymous, the latter studying the text as language in relation to the author and his environment. Burke rediscovers, so to say, the rhetorical elements that aesthetics had banned. It is important to become conscious of this essence of Burke’s work, in order to make his ideas even more functional in the contemporary political context of the poetry of Ramsey Nasr.

This being said, we can zoom in on another concept relevant when discussing this didactic poetry: identification. Burke discusses this notion as a key term for rhetoric, and argues: “identification ranges from the politician who, addressing an audience of farmers, says, ‘I was a farm boy myself,’ through the mysteries of social status, to the mystic’s devout identification with the source of all being” (A Rhetoric of Motives XIV). Rhetorical analysis throws light on literary texts and human relationships in general, since there are two main aspects of rhetoric: its use of identification and its nature as being or intended to be addressed. Aristotle refers to rhetoric as the art of persuasion. Burke refines this to “rhetoric as art of identification,” thus placing the activity of speaking in a wider context. He underlines that in regard to the relation between identification and persuasion, we might keep in mind “that a speaker persuades an audience by the use of stylistic identifications; his act of persuasion may be for the purpose of causing the audience to identify itself with the speaker’s interests; and the speaker draws on identification of interests to establish rapport between himself and his audience” (46). This seems particularly applicable in the context of Nasr’s work as poet Laureate, thus as public figure, prompting the reader to think and to form an opinion about literature as well as politics, without blurring the two categories.13

Burke appears to have been ahead of his time, since we observe that feminist literary theories, postcolonial theories, and cultural studies in the second half of the twentieth century started from a similar assumption that texts cannot fully be understood in terms of their aesthetic qualities only. The rhetorical project of identification is indeed based on the idea that language is used by individuals to persuade others, and to identify and recognize themselves in regard to others. Values and beliefs are shaped in ways we are not always aware of. It is precisely in the unawareness of expressions and the use of language, that identification as association becomes most clear. This is often achieved without rational assent. Burke, as Jennifer Richards has clearly pointed out, “makes us routinely and deeply suspicious” of the words used (166).

In the third part of A Rhetoric of Motives Burke discusses three elements of vocabulary: positive terms (naming the things of experience; the imagery of poetry is positive to the extent that it names things having a visible, tangible existence), dialectical terms (referring to ideas, concerned with action and idea rather than things) and ultimate terms (placing competing voices in a hierarchy or sequence, it is the guiding idea or unitary principle behind the diversity of voices) (183–187). He uses these terms to analyze poetry as a form of identification, and discusses works by T.S Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and other canonical poets. These are analytical tools that can likewise be applied to the poems of Nasr, and they can help us grasp the device of identification as well as the various linguistics motives underlying the poetry, thus locating the poet’s voice moving in between poetic and general language.

To sum up, I argue that Burke’s texts offer an appropriate framework for analyzing and understanding the poems of Dutch Poet Laureate Ramsey Nasr, since these poems are strong in rhetorical aspects of identification, and specific in their prickly critique of current societal and political issues. The singularity of Nasr’s didactic poetry lies in particular in its popularizing lyrical voice, effective in prompting a broad audience to react. A purely poetic approach would not be sufficient to understand the tough public dimension of these poems.

The Poems of the Poet Laureate

To build up my argument, I will focus on four poems from the volume, My New Native Country, Poems of Crisis and Fear. The first poem that I would like to analyze is entitled ‘My new native country.’ It consists of seven stanzas of eight rhythmic lines each. In terms of form and phrasing, this poem explicitly refers to the lyrics of ‘Wien Neerlands bloed’14, written by 19th century poet Hendrik Tollens (1780–1856), which was the Dutch national anthem before the well-known ‘Wilhelmus’ was chosen to replace it 1932. Nasr wrote the poem in the autumn of 2010, honoring Tollens as predecessor, as a first Poet Laureate so to say. The occasion on which Nasr wrote this poem was the installation of the first ‘Mark Rutte coalition’ government. This was a right-wing minority coalition of liberal conservatives and Christian democrats made possible by the support (laid down in an official agreement) of the PVV,15 the anti-Islam party led by populist politician Geert Wilders. In return for his support, Wilders got stricter immigration checks, a ban on burqas, and conditional passports for new immigrants. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek warned in The Guardian that Wilders is part of a European trend in which centrism is being challenged by populist neo-fascism.16

In the poem, we find Poet Laureate Nasr identifying with and at the same distancing himself from his predecessor Tollens, who in no mistaken terms wrote about the “cleanliness of his country.” Indeed, it was Tollens who introduced the image of Dutch blood “free from foreign stains” (“Wie Neerlands bloed in d’aders vloeit / van vreemde smetten vrij”—“All those with Dutch blood flowing through their veins/ free from foreign stains”). Nasr uses this image and ironizes it, ridiculing the connotations of a stainless native land by deliberately referring to the populist politician: “Today I sing my song of joy / for fatherland and scum.” Here I quote the complete first stanza,

Wie Neerlands bloed in d’aders vloeit
      van vreemde smetten vrij
wiens hart voor volk en orde gloeit
verhef uw zang als wij.
Vandaag zien wij weer één van zin
de vlaggen afgestoft
Vandaag zet ik mijn feestlied in
voor vaderland en schoft.

All those with Dutch blood flowing through their veins
      free of foreign stains
whose hearts for our people and order burn,
join us in song and sing in praise.
Today once more in unison we see
the flags are dusted down
Today I sing my song of joy
for fatherland and scum.17

Tollens, whose patriotic ideas were expressed in response to and as a rejection of the Napoleonic reign, can be considered a Poet Laureate because of his ambition to appeal to and reach a specific public.18 This public first of all consisted of the audience of the ‘literary societies’ in which his poems found response and support. In this intimate circle, the poet was free to express his thoughts; publishing, on the contrary, was a more restricted activity. Thus, the first identification in this poem is with Tollens as a voice raised against suppression, immediately followed, if not simultaneously accompanied by, a critical distancing from his words and images.

In the second stanza, the lyrical voice uses the clear and positive term fascist: “and most high sits a fascist / supporting you and me / as long as he decides.” I use the qualifying term positive in the Burkean sense of it, referring to something that has a tangible, visible existence. Nasr is very clear in his statement that fascism is not just a thing of the past—a dialectical term—“when in the name of the country / a whole people was burnt”,19 but very much also a thing of the present, as evidenced by the presence of Geert Wilders as a politician at the center of power in Dutch politics. Fascism also is an ultimate term, as recognizable behind the voices of the people deliberately misbehaving in the fourth stanza: “Humiliate what you don’t like / destroy what you deny / show how you love this fatherland / embrace it at its smallest.”20 The voices of the people heard here are not just those of the Dutch white trash21, but also the voices of educated citizens expressing the view that freedom of speech is sacred, thus implying that every offensive and hurtful remark should be tolerated. The lyrical voice, by contrast, seems to address mainstream democratic politicians and other opinion-leaders and intellectuals, inviting them to be braver and more outspoken in combating this sort of inflammatory rhetoric. The final words are very clear: “I’d rather be raped by Huns than to be taken along by this vortex of scum and fatherland.”22

Identification is a multifaceted rhetorical strategy central to this poem. As said, Nasr, while at the same time identifying with and distancing himself from Hendrik Tollens, also identifies with the common people–“you and me”—who, against their will, though effected by the system of representative democracy, are ruled by a government supported by and thus depending on a populist politician. Populism inflates democracy; the people have voted for someone who brings democracy down. This is the message of the didactic poem; speaking out and addressing others immediately presupposes an act of identification as well as of distanciation.

What we have read here is a poem based on an intertextual link with another poem, in which the current situation in Dutch politics is brought to the fore. In both poems, the 19th and the 21st century one, a political statement is made in poetical language. The reader has to open up the lyrical context in order to really grasp the political critique. This, obviously, can be understood as a negotiation between a poetical and a general language reading, as found in Burke’s essay on Edgar Allen Poe. Yet, there also is another text by Burke, which is relevant here. In ‘Literature as equipment for living,’ an early text from the volume The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), Burke emphasizes the importance of a “sociological criticism of literature,” focusing on what we might call the proverbial aspect of literature, i.e., its succinct manner of expression in short, well-known pithy sayings, stating a general truth or piece of advice. It is the proverb-like or proverbial quality of literature that is designed for consolation or vengeance, for admonition, exhortation, or foretelling. His argument is again a stimulating one: could we consider literary texts as proverbs, and as such could we apply them to life in general? In other words, can literature be used in a non-literary, social situation, be considered as social knowledge? Although Burke, in my opinion, is somewhat imprecise in working out this argument, I do think that his idea about the wider applicability of literature is encouraging. Striking recent examples can be found in the work of Martha C. Nussbaum (Poetic Justice) or Rita Felski (Uses of Literature). Returning to Nasr’s poem, we notice that certain lines can indeed be read deliberately as proverbs, warning us about the consequences of populist politics in contemporary western societies.

Burke’s texts offer a framework for analyzing and understanding the poems of the Dutch Poet Laureate, since these poems are strong in the rhetorical aspect of identification and in using proverbial phrasings in relation to current societal issues. The poet as a public voice criticizes the political circumstances in his native country, and takes responsibility as a recognizable authoritative voice in offering the audience a counterstatement regarding the anti-Muslim accounts of a prominent politician. A purely poetic approach to this poem would fail to bring out its specific social and political dimensions.

Similar observations can be made with regard to another work by Ramsey Nasr, that I would like to discuss. It is a series of three sonnets (en)titled ‘Transatlantic.’ The poems were translated into English by David Colmer and they once again reveal a sharp critique of politics. This time the focus is not merely on the disquieting Dutch political climate, but also on American imperialist strategies. I quote the sonnets in the English translation.

I—hudson’s shortcut
our outcome was that you were in the way
we sailed to that conclusion on a dream
dreamt by a fool: our captain hudson claimed
that he could find a shortcut to the east
go straight and keep the north pole on your left
then you can slip down quickly to the indies
and we believed the guy and followed him
yes, even when he said: “or maybe west . . . ?”
henry hudson had been dismissed before
and when he swore on the shore of a foreign bay
that all we had to do to reach the orient
was set a course straight through america
we’d wisely lowered sail—already wedged
from stem to stern in this new continent

This straightforwardly written poem refers to the discovery of America, and Hudson’s historic enterprise. Henry Hudson (1565–1611) was an English navigator and explorer who sailed on a Dutch ship in 1609 to find a short route from Europe to Asia, through the Arctic Ocean. The outcome of this adventure was,—“our outcome” as the poet says, ironizing his words as if he is speaking for and identifying with the Dutch representative majority—that “you were in the way.” It turned out America lay on the perceived route to the East-Indies, effectively blocking it, and the Dutch ship got stuck on its way as a result. However, after this catastrophe, New Amsterdam was built on the new-found shore and became the city of colonizers and entrepreneurs, and as such representative of “the true world champions of immigration.” This is what we read in the next poem.

II—new amsterdam
the waiting bay lay like an outstretched finger
at the end of an invisible dutch arm
we went exploring, stamping round we found
our way in a deserted fertile backwater
perhaps no other body but ours, which never
managed to win one god, one people for itself
which rose from drifting, loose minorities
could lay the seed for such a babelopolis
who taught you how to use the melting pot?
who said, be equal, be diverse and free
your trade, who told you, dreams can spread like shares?
the true world champions of immigration
we were, a distant spark of liberty
america, the netherlands writ small

The people from New Amsterdam, then Dutch and now American, were the champions of immigration. The lyrical voice here is obviously mocking the anti-immigration rhetoric of the populist politicians. If we take the words of Geert Wilders as an example: “because immigration results in enormous problems for Dutch society (problems of integration, crime, and too much of a strain on the welfare system), it is more than reasonable to stop family reunion in regard to not-western “allochtonen” (i.e., immigrants and their offspring) in the coming five years.”23 It is not only Wilders, however, who employs this kind of rhetoric, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen, seemed to accept this kind of talk as normal as well. He was party leader of the Christian-Democrats and very much in favor of forming a government with the support of the PVV (some 30% of his fellow party members, including many high-ranking ones, such as former ministers and party leaders, were dead against it). In the last stanza, the humanist ideals, which the Dutch were so fond of in the Golden Age, are pushed aside by the Christian-Democrats, accepting the American rule without any critical thought.

III—new netherland
oh font of humanism, oh shining beacon
oh cradle of exemplary citizenship
who listens to us now? we have our leaders
they blare their christian values round the place
and mount the moralistic foghorn high
but in america their frightened faces
all gleam with drooling pride, it’s not prime time
but still we steal a slot in the cool white house
what kind of model country toes this line?
we bob along behind the big boss boat
impressive, don’t you think? a fifty-state fleet
with an inspiring airbed at the back
WANTED URGENTLY: foolish fools with vision
who dare to dream and make the cold sea crack24

The Netherlands has become the fifty-first state of the US by accepting American rules and strategies on a global level. The Dutch and their representatives are the “foolish fools.” Most likely, Nasr is making an intertextual link here to Erasmus of Rotterdam, contemporary of Hudson, who wrote The Praise of Folly (1509), in which he advocated a return to a more simple Christianity. The lyrical voice expresses a strong and critical opinion, and in fact expresses it on behalf of a “we.” It is not easy to decide who exactly this “we” is meant to represent. Whose words do we hear resonating in the words of the poet? Whose voices are encapsulated, or—following M. Bakhtin -, should we say ventriloquized, by Nasr? Since he is the Poet Laureate, it is obvious that Nasr speaks for the Dutch in general, he expresses the vox populi, the opinions or beliefs of the majority, for whom politics is becoming more and more incoherent. But if we take a look at the responses to Nasr’s poems and performances generated on the web, we can no longer be quite so sure that the poet does indeed speak the general public’s mind.

Public Responses and Engagement

The words of the lyrical voice did not leave any room for doubt in regard to his ideas on the emerging populist current in Holland. The poem as symbolic act is a very public affair. The subsequent step now is to raise the question if this reflects the personal opinion of the poet, Ramsey Nasr himself, and if so, what the implications of these words are if we expect a Poet Laureate to also represent the vox populi, the voice of the people, and to reflect the communis opinio.

The poem ‘My new native country’ was published in NRC Handelsblad on 28 October 2010 and a day later in the Belgian newspaper De Standaard. On the evening of the 28th, Nasr read three stanzas of the poem on the television talkshow Pauw & Witteman and discussed his political ideas with Stef Blok, the leader of the liberal conservative VVD party. Nasr explained that what had inspired him to write the poem was a television interview with working people from Volendam (a well-known provincial town, famous for its singers, and showing one of the largest percentages (one in three) of populist party PVV voters).25 Interviewees from Volendam had uttered opinions such as: “the taxpayer isn’t getting anything in return for his money,” “nobody works anymore,” “nothing is transparent.” It is phrases like these, Nasr emphasized, that are representative of the climate of silliness created by Dutch politics.

Thus, asked to read parts of his poem in a television talk show, the poet expresses his personal commitment and ideas, including his aversion in regard to the political climate of stupidity and lack of nuances, and he positions himself as an engagedwriter criticizing ordinary men as well as politicians. This is how he gives additional substance to the Poet Laureateship: he not only writes poems, he also discusses the context in which they were written, and takes a personal stand underlining the superficiality of the public debate. Nasr makes a point of calling attention to the fact that Geert Wilders’ ideas are essentially fascist and dangerous. This interview caused a lot of commotion. Responses to the poem and to his television performance, mainly in blogs by lay people, were both positive and very negative in character. Some bloggers applauded Nasr as “the true Poet Laureate,” others called him “a communist” and “Left-wing extremist.” Other comments included “a left-wing Muslim telling me that Wilders is a fascist” and “neo-nationalist.”26 Dominique Weesie, hosting the right-wing TV show Powned, made it very clear that he did not consider Nasr his Poet Laureate: “Away with Ramsey Nasr.”27

The Poet Laureate writes engaged poetry, prompting the audience to respond, to identify with his words. And bloggers do indeed react, though more often in negative rather than positive terms. But what exactly does this engagement involve? Is it something the poet decides upon, or something that the reader arrives at, brings in, or reads into it? It is precisely this question that Nasr answers in the essay ‘Look, there! The engagement of the poet,’ published in Of the Enemy and the Musician. Starting with an anecdote on reading poetry on tours in Indonesia and Palestine, Nasr points out that in non-western societies engagement is quite a different issue from the way it is interpreted in the west. Thus, his Palestinian audience interpreted a poem on love as being a political poem: “not only did they misunderstand the poem, ( . . . ) crying men came to shake my hands afterwards” (72).28 His Indonesian listeners interpreted a poem on a painting as being a pro-Islam statement, and Nasr realized that “not the poet but the public had given birth to a huge monster” (74).29 He subsequently states that it probably is not the poet but his audience that decides what the work is about: “The artist is the worst exegete. It is the reader, the public, the listener, who can pick up the engagement, whether it is there or not” (74).30 Engagement is not the result of the wish to engage in politics, but emerges from events in which politics rule life. Engagement, Nasr stresses, is not writing pamphlets. Engagement implies having a heart, being a living human being in a world that does not make sense. Nasr ends with the sentence already quoted: “engagement is simply being engaged in life itself and participating, if only in language” (78). This, I think, ties in exactly with Burke’s ideas on poetics and symbolic action: on the poem as poem, and the poem as language. Engagement is understanding the symbolizing poem as general language, and acting on it when the community asks for responsibility and participation. This presupposes identification and establishes the Poet Laureate’s cultural, political and social authority.


Ramsey Nasr addresses the audience in various ways: by writing poems that are published in a newspaper and thus are immediately readable in the context of particular events, by speaking out on political and social issues and by doing so in the public sphere—on television, in demonstrations, at cultural events–, and by writing and publishing official volumes of poetry and positioning himself as a writer. The role of Poet Laureate is that of a public intellectual who has already built up artistic prestige with his writings, and subsequently expresses his views on the political, ethical and social landscape. The public intellectual is a mediator in articulating and popularizing ideas and as such he again and again confirms his cultural authority.

In analyzing Nasr’s activities, I have distinguished the various linguistic dimensions that Burke discussed. The rhetorical dimension is opened up when the poet addresses the audience and identifies with the people in general or with particular social groups. In addressing them, he encourages their identification. The ethical dimension can be observed when the poet shows and requests explicit engagement. And the poetical dimension is recognized when the poet articulates what poetry is about—the poem as poem. Nasr’s specific position as Poet Laureate emphasizes his conviction that poetry, art and culture demand responsibility. An artist cannot stay “pure” and “naïve” (Mijn nieuwe vaderland 8). The examination of the various activities and linguistic dimensions also shows how specifically symbolic and more general linguistic actions are interwoven in the performances of the Poet Laureate. Analyzing Nasr’s work in the context of Burkean ideas, one becomes aware both of the layered quality of linguistic dimensions, and of the various strategies and discourses employed by the public intellectual voice. Participation in the debate on television requires another voice than speaking before an audience of poetry readers, or when taking the floor at a cultural protest meeting on behalf of fellow-artists. The poet accepts his civic responsibility, he identifies with general, political as well as artistic audiences. In the last few decades, literary studies have put too much energy in distinguishing literariness from discursive language. Arguments based on the uselessness of literature (Bloom 1994) were supposed to disengage the aesthetic from the social and the ideological. Recently, scholars like Rita Felski and Marjorie Garber in the footsteps of Martha C. Nussbaum have tried to bridge the divide.31 In this article I have shown that Kenneth Burke defended the same position as early as the 1930s.

The final question is whether the identification of the poet can also be comprehended as a form of engagement, even though Nasr himself looks upon engagement merely as a reader’s perspective. What is it that the poet wants to share and advocate, is it experience or knowledge, belief or truth? Obviously, it is difficult to draw the line between participation and teaching, or between being one with the people and keeping a distance as an intellectual public figure. This leads us back to the challenges involved in the conceptualization of the notion of a public intellectual as someone who is committed and aloof at the same time, both contributing to discussion and keeping a certain distance, moving up and down from the center of the debate back to the writing desk in order to recapitulate ideas and discussions. Ramsey Nasr, as I hope to have shown, deliberately unites the various interventions. He is poet and columnist, artist and critical observer, commentator and actor at the same time. His voice is heard in didactic poems as well as in presentations, performances, interviews and other media appearances, and in all these various manifestations Nasr articulates the dynamic process of identifying as an intellectual in a complicated political conjuncture. The main message of this engaged Poet Laureate is that democracy is at stake. Identification requires that the auditors and readers affirm the value of a democratic mediatized culture, that is ethnically and religiously plural in its constitution.


1. The World keeps on turning [De wereld draait door] is a TV show broadcast live from an Amsterdam studio every day between 7.00 and 8.00 p.m., in which host Matthijs van Nieuwkerk discusses politics, culture and social issues with various guests. More than one million people watch this infotainment program every day. See <> [Accessed on 8 October 2013]

2. The poem was entitled ‘O, zoete onbereikbaarheid’ (‘Oh, sweet unreachable one’) and marked the end of his Poet Laureateship.

3. A clip was shown from Pow Nieuws, another Dutch TV show, in which host Dominique Weesie declared that Nasr was too left-wing and should resign as Poet Laureate: ‘Ramsey Nasr, take your leave, You are not my poet.’ Pow Nieuws 29–10–2013.

4. Gerrit Komrij was chosen by the general public—some 3000 people had voted—as ‘second best.’ The poet who had actually won the election was Rutger Kopland (1934–2012), but he rejected the job.

5. The origin of the term lies in the metamorphosis myth of Apollo and Daphne; he tried to seize her, upon which she turned into a laurel tree. He ordained that the laurels should be the prize for poets and victors, Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 682.

6. For more biographical information, I refer to his official website <> [Accessed on 9 May 2013].

7. Including De man met de hond (1998), Mariken (2000), Liefje (2001), Magonia (2001) and Het Echte Leven (2008).

8. As described on the official website: “De Dichter des Vaderlands hoeft niets in opdracht te schrijven, hij schrijft alleen wanneer hij zich daartoe bewogen voelt. Aan hem zal slechts worden gevraagd zo’n vier keer per jaar een gedicht te schrijven bij een (inter)nationale gebeurtenis van culturele, politieke, sportieve of maatschappelijke aard. Welke gebeurtenis dit is, bepaalt de dichter zelf, er zijn geen verplichte thema’s. De gedichten zullen worden geplaatst in NRC Handelsblad.” <—2016> [Accessed on 18 May 2013]

(“There is nothing the Dutch Poet Laureate will be commissioned to write on; he will only write on things when he feels the urge to do so. All that will be asked of him is that he write a poem some four times a year on a national or international event or occasion of a cultural, political, or societal nature, or sports event. It is up to the poet himself to decide which events or occasions these will be; there are no required themes. The poems will be published in NRC Handelsblad”).

9. See Heynders (2013) for a comprehensive conceptualization of the public intellectual.

10. It was French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu who defined the intellectual as both “a paradoxical being” and a “bi-dimensional being.” The paradox involves the classical combination of pure culture and political engagement. The intellectual as literary writer grounds his authority in the autonomous world of art, and on the basis of this prestige interferes in political life. The intellectual is a bi-dimensional being, because he has to fulfill two conditions: he has to belong to an autonomous intellectual field, independent from religious, economic and political powers, while at the same time investing his competence and authority in political action which occurs outside the intellectual field proper. Cf. Bourdieu 1991 and Heynders 2013.

11. “We might make the following three subdivisions for the analysis of an act in poetry: dream (the unconscious or subconscious factors in a poem) . . . , prayer (the communicative functions of a poem, which leads us into the many considerations of form, since the poet’s inducements can lead us to participate in his poem only in so far as his work has a public, or communicative, structure . . . ), chart (the realistic sizing-up of situations that is sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, in poetic strategies . . . ).” (5–6)

12. “Is het mogelijk engagement in de poëzie toe te laten zonder dat het die poëzie aantast? Ik ben overtuigd van wel, zolang je maar genoeg talent hebt en oplossingen buiten de deur houdt. Zolang je pen maar kronkelt en leeft en uit je handen glipt. En vooral: zolang het maar aan de lezer wordt overgelaten wat een liefdesgedicht is en wat politiek. Engagement is niet het kiezen voor of tegen een partij, engagement is eenvoudigweg in het leven staan en deelnemen, desnoods alleen in taal (Nasr 2006, 78).”

13. When Ramsey was appointed ‘Poet of the city of Antwerp’ he was involved in a polemical debate on the difference between ‘fiction and propaganda.’ Being accused of mixing politics and his function, he defended himself by saying that he had an opinion “not as city poet, but as human being” (2006, 128).

14. This poem was the national anthem from 1815 to 1932.

15. Party for Freedom.

16. Zizek: Liberal multiculturalism masks an old barbarism with a human face. < >[Accessed on 21 May 2013]

17. Translation Hans Verhulst, Tilburg University.

18. See: N.C.F. Sas, 2008: “Voor de ideale dichter van deze tijd was de dichtkunst nauw verweven met deze ‘orale communicatiesituatie,’ die weer aansloot bij het verlichte sociabiliteitsideaal. De literaire genootschappelijkheid gaf de dichtkunst zowel een klankbord als een draagvlak. Dichters als Helmers, Loots en Tollens waren geen toevallige enkelingen, geen roependen in de woestijn, zoals wel is gesuggereerd. Ze waren juist de steunpilaren van deze genootschappelijkheid. Van belang is ook dat op de katheder een grote mate van vrijheid gold.”

(“For the ideal poet of his time, the art of poetry was closely interwoven with this ‘situation of oral communication,’ which in turn linked up with the ideal of sociability. The literary societies provided the art of poetry with a sounding board as well as support from others. Poets like Helmers, Loots and Tollens were not isolated single individuals, not voices crying in the wilderness, as some have suggested. On the contrary, they were pillars of this structure of societies. It is also important to realize that the lecterns of these societies were characterized by a great amount of freedom.”)

19. ‘toen in het landsbelang / een heel volk werd verbrand’

20. Verneder dus wat u niet zint / sla stuk wat niet bevalt / laat zien hoe u dit land bemint / omhels het op zijn smalst.’

21. White trash in the sense as used by another Dutch public intellectual Anil Ramdas (1958–2012): white people not interested in civilization, social order, or education. These people are often considered as dangerous because they are unpredictable, and without respect for authority whether it be political, legal, or moral.

22. “Veel liever word ik door een volk / van hunnen aangerand / dan mee te gaan in deze kolk / van schoft en vaderland.”

23. As stated on the PVV website, accessed on 8 October 2013: <

24. Poets’s Note: 400 years ago, in September 1609, a Dutch East India Company ship sailed into an unknown bay on the North American coast. Captain Henry Hudson hoped to find a shorter, northern route to the Indies. Instead he stumbled upon a territory that would be populated in the years that followed by Dutch merchants and colonists, eventually developing into the most renowned city in the world: New Amsterdam, later New York.

The 400th anniversary of Dutch-American relations was celebrated in the Choir Church in Middelburg on 2 September 2009 in the presence of Princess Margriet, the U.S. ambassador and the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, Maxime Verhagen. At the invitation of the Roosevelt Study Center, Ramsey Nasr wrote three sonnets, which he recited during this ceremony. That same day the poems were published in the NRC Handelsblad. See:

< > [Accessed on 8 October 2013]

25. > [Accessed on 21 May 2013]

26. See: < > [Accessed on 21 May 2013] and < > [Accessed on 21 May 2013]

27. Pownews 29–10–2010.

28. ‘Niet alleen begreep men het gedicht ( . . . ) verkeerd, de mensen waren tot tranen toe geroerd. Huilende mannen kwamen me na afloop de hand schudden (2006: 72).’

29. ‘Niet de dichter maar het publiek had een groot monster gebaard (2006: 74).’

30. ‘Ik vraag me sterk af of de kunstenaar zelf in staat is te bepalen waarover zijn werk gaat. De kunstenaar is zelf zijn slechtste exegeet. En het is de lezer, de toeschouwer of de luisteraar, die engegament kan opzoeken—of het er nu is of niet (2006: 74).’

31. As Garber (116) writes: “literature is a status rather than a quality. To say that a text or a body of work is literature means that it is regarded, studied, read, and analyzed in a literary way.”

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