Gaston Burssens is an odd man out in the world of Dutch-language poetry. As the author of deliberately disruptive or even provocative poetry he was as much notorious as famous. Yet he was very popular with his fellow-writers and literary connoisseurs. Burssens made his reputation as one of the three ‘real’ Flemish expressionists and won international recognition with his collection Piano (1924), with its strikingly original design.
Burssens’ initial development as a poet was set against the background of the Flemish Movement. He belonged to the first generation of Flemings able to pursue their secondary education partly in their mother tongue and who, under the influence of a number of inspired teachers, were very conscious of the importance of Dutch as a cultural language. On the eve of the First World War he published some sombre romantic juvenilia, which reveal little of the later recalcitrant poet.
The Great War was a turning point. At a stroke it became clear to a whole generation of new Flemish poets that the nineteenth century was over and that the world was ripe for radical change. For this younger generation it also meant that the relationship between the various communities within the Kingdom of Belgium was in need of a radical overhaul. With a mixture of reforming zeal and foolhardiness Burssens and his contemporaries plunged into activist politics; a cultural and social project designed to produce not only a new society, but also a new literature.
Burssens’ poetry from the period 1917-1924 – including the collections Liederen uit de stad en uit de sel (Songs from the City and the Cell, 1920) and Piano – show parallels with the international avant-garde. Formally one can detect influences from German and French expressionism and from the poetry of Paul van Ostaijen, while in terms of subject matter the poems partly follow the line of Kurt Hiller’s ‘Aktivismus’ and Henri Barbusse’s internationally oriented cultural movement Clarté.
The years of high expectations and cherished ideals were inevitably followed by disillusion. From the early 1920s on the struggle for a peaceful and just European League of Nations gave way to a one-man guerrilla campaign against the bourgeois order. His poetry, which up to then had been expressionist, developed via a playful expressive period into what one might call experimental confessional lyricism.
The form of the poems became increasingly regular, rhyme reappeared, but Burssens was never to lose his contrary tone. He remained the anti-bourgeois word-conjurer who was able to raise the strangest of quirky thoughts to the level of poetry. Typical of his later unruly classical period are the deliberately deformed (irregular) sonnets of his last two collections, Adieu (1958) and Posthume verzen (Posthumous Poems, 1961).
Although Burssens has often been dismissed as an epigone of his contemporary and friend Paul van Ostaijen (1896-1928), he has a unique position in the poetry of the Low Countries. His quality was appreciated only relatively late, but despite his lifelong sense of neglect, Burssens did achieve in his lifetime the recognition he deserved with the award of two Belgian State Prizes for Pegasos van Troja (1952) and Adieu (1958). Besides poetry Burssens wrote grotesque prose – the most important examples of which are included in Fabula Rasa, proeve van objektief dagboek (Fabula Rasa, Attempt at an Objective Diary, 1945 and 1964) – and a small number of essays and plays.