When streets talk
‘Heel de aarde is je vaderland’ (tr. ‘All of earth is your homeland’). This Erasmus quote can be seen in large neon letters on the roof of the Rotterdam library. It is one of the many examples of poetry on Rotterdam’s streets. Actually, there’s no need to buy another poetry book, because poetry is everywhere you look: on the streets, squares, façades, roofs, garbage trucks and recently, even underneath bridges. In Rotterdam, the streets do the talking.
Words: Jasmijn Lobik
Street poetry in Rotterdam is very diverse. There are poems from well-known Dutch poets such as Gerrit Kouwenaar, Joke van Leeuwen and P.C. Hooft, but also ones written by city poets, and graffiti texts from unknown authors. All these texts alter the city in their own way. They give meaning or provide subtle commentary to Rotterdam events or places. Time to take a closer look.
“Wither Never” by Derek Otte – Park 1943
Last year it was exactly 75 years since the forgotten bombing of Bospolder-Tussendijken, when a big part of the neighbourhood was ravaged by American bombers. To mark this occasion, Rotterdam city poet Derek Otte wrote the poem Verwelken Nooit [tr. “Wither never”] based on a story he heard the year before at the memorial. It was the story of Jan van Ettekoven, gardener and florist, who has been missing ever since the day of the bombing. The translation of the last paragraph of the poem reads: “That is how they stay alive / Colours of knowing forever / Things that are described in words / Will never be forgotten.” According to Derek Otte, stories such as this one need to be told continuously, so they will never be forgotten. By giving the poem a permanent place on one of the Gijsingsflats and on a plaque in the park, it will be read over and over by whoever passes by and therefore, always remembered.
“Fellow Sufferers” by J.A. Deelders – Aleidisstraat
On a façade in the Middelland neighbourhood, you can read the poem “Fellow Sufferers” by well-known Rotterdam poet Jules Deelder. The neighbourhood had a rough past, with poverty, drugs and violence. The poem was put on the façade by people from the neighborhood as part of a programme to improve the area. The poem reads (freely translated): “Fellow sufferers, the destiny we share, leaves no one alone.” It is an appeal for humanity to show compassion and overlook differences. By seeing the poem on this façade, residents are reminded that they are part of the neighbourhood, even though there might be significant differences between them. Everyone shares the same fate, and so, they are in it together.
“Mi have een droom (Rotterdam, 2059)” by Ramsey Nasr – Luchtsingel
It is probably one of the best-known street poems in Rotterdam: “mi have a droom (Rotterdam, 59)”, seen on the air bridge connecting the centre with North. Still, it is hard to read, as it is spread out over 800 metres and stretches over and under Luchtsingel and Delftsehof. It is a modified version of the poem by Ramsey Nasr, written in the Rotterdam slang of the future, a combination of several languages. By applying the poem to the bridge, it becomes not only a literal, but also a symbolic connection; language as a link between different groups of people. Those who use the bridge can see far, just like the poem reminds them to look further. It encourages people to look at the future of the city and go beyond cultural borders.
Some might say, these poems are just words. Even though it took a massive 700 litres of paint, 52 brushes, 61 rollers and 1800 metres of tape to apply “mi have a droom” to the air bridge, it is still just paint on surfaces. And yet, they alter the city, each in their own way. When you start looking for them, you might see them everywhere. Just being there, day and night, for all to read.
Want to see more Rotterdam-related street poetry? Take a look at these great ones:
- Don’t rush at the entrance of metrostop Coolhaven. In front of the gates you can read the interesting poem Cool J.A. Deelder wrote about this place. (Hint: in Dutch, ‘harbour’ and ‘heaven’ are only one letter apart.)
- Short poem For this city was written by architect Piet Blom, who designed the Cube Houses. You can read it at Blaak 4. It is about all the things he would do for Rotterdam.
- Waiting for an open bridge? That is certainly less annoying at the Mathenesserbridge, where you can now read the poem open/ dicht_ by Rotterdam poet Daniel Dee. Nine other ‘bridge poems’ will soon be realised, so keep a lookout.