Monday, April 20, 2009

The Belgian Conundrum

Belgium, which is the size of Maryland, is a complicated place.

Belgium has given the world Audrey Hepburn, René Magritte, the saxophone and deep-fried potato slices that are called French because of the style of cut. 10.4 million people live there, and Elaine Sciolino of the NYT is not far off when she refers to their bitter division as "a bad marriage writ large."

According to the NYT, radical Flemish separatists want to slice the country horizontally along ethnic and economic lines: to the north, their beloved Flanders — where Dutch (known locally as Flemish) is spoken and money is increasingly made — and to the south, French-speaking Wallonia, where a kind of provincial snobbery was once polished to a fine sheen and where today old factories dominate the gray landscape. Tensions run high between the French speakers and the Flemish speakers; speak French or Flemish in the wrong region and you're likely to be met with hostility.

This tension emerged in the 19th century, when it was necessary to speak French to belong to the governing upper class; those who could only speak Dutch were effectively second-class citizens. Late that century, and continuing into the 20th century, Flemish movements evolved to counter this situation. While the Walloons and most Brusselers adopted French as their first language, the Flemings refused to do so and succeeded progressively in imposing Dutch as Flanders' official language. Following World War II, Belgian politics became increasingly dominated by the autonomy of its two main language communities. Intercommunal tensions rose and the constitution was amended in order to minimize the conflict potentials.

A legal division between the French, Flemish/Dutch and German languages was established in 1963 under the Second Gilson Act. The act was instituted in order to reduce tensions between the different language-defined regions. A satisfactory explanation of this, with visuals, can be found here.

In 2007 and 2008, there was a major snafu with the "Belgian" government. Read here, here and here for interesting analysis.

All of this probably makes you wonder what's going on with the poetry in Belgium. Google "Belgian Poetry" and not much happens, but search "Flemish Poetry" or "French Poetry" and names start to pop up. I used the English, Dutch and French Wikipedias to research this week's authors, and discovered that William Cliff is a well-known French poet (wikis in English and French, but not Dutch); that Erik Spinoy only has a link in Dutch; that Stefan Hertmans has a link only in English and Dutch; and that Werner Lambersy is only available to us in French.

Enjoying this Wiki-Political tour, I decided to see how wacky the wikis for Belgian Literature could get. Check it out:

Dutch Literature

Flemish Literature
Belgian Literature
Belgian Poets in French
Walloon Writers
Flemish Writers

Wiki-Fail, or rather Belgium-Fail, right?

There isn't much out there on Belgian Poets (just let me categorize them that way, for brevity's sake) written in English. I wish there was, since the cultural turmoil interests me. Poetry International Web has some decent stuff, including some William Cliff sound clips, but there isn't much else to see.

What else there is:

A bit on Stefan Hertmans here,

and a bit on Werner Lambersy here.


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