A fading sheet of yellowish thin paper with corners curling inwards snagged my eye. It was sloppily glued to the abrasive surface of the bridge facing Brouwerij’t IJ. Four brisk lines of text titled “A Moment For Shitty Poetry”. Four intentionally mawkish, almost childish descriptions of the anguish of not being around your loved one provoked a smile. I came across it in early July. I came back two weeks later. It was gone, any conspicuous traces of it vanished. Moments for poetry are ephemeral.
Those lines made me think – how many more flimsy looking, battered sheets of paper are peppered around the city? Certainly more than one. Do they change our experience of poetry? Certainly they do.
An obvious impulse to Google revealed Straatpoezie platform, created by Kila van der Starre, a PhD researcher from the University of Utrecht. The platform has accumulated an astonishing number of street poems through crowdsourcing – 1353 so far and still counting. Around 115 of them are verses scattered around the landscape of Amsterdam, displayed from buildings, streetlamps, and bridges.
Kila has been stumbling across poetry in the streets of the Netherlands and Flanders for as long as she can remember. She discovered that encountering poems in public places is the third most common way to experience poetry among Dutch adults, right after special events and television. But despite its ubiquity, street poetry has never been traced, documented or collected. Kila resolved to fill this void by creating www.straatpoezie.nl as a part of her research project on ‘poetry off the page’ and the website was launched during the National Poetry Week in January 2017.
Street poetry is a bemusing phenomenon. “It pops up in the most unexpected places and it’s not always clear who placed the text in our public area, or even who wrote the text,” – says Kila. With some associating it with the worlds of rebellious performance or music, others labeling it ‘accessible art’, the exercise of shrinking its kaleidoscopic nature into one definition proves to be futile. Straatpoezie website opts for an all-encompassing umbrella term, diluting labels with inclusivity: “street poetry is written poetry placed in public space. This means that the text must be accessible day and night”. The definition is stretched even further as it is left up to the community to establish whether the work they are confronted with is poetry or not – depending on the cultural, historical, social and institutional context of the text. Thus far Straatpoezie features poems by canonical authors (Ida Gerhardt, Ingmar Heytze, J.J. Slauerhoff, Joke van Leeuwen, Lucebert and Rutger Kopland) rubbing shoulders with poems by unknown talents and even song lyrics. Street poetry is a genre that sweeps across other cultural and social phenomena. Kila points out that poems are part of our literary heritage that has not been archived.
They are also a form of art, equal to poems that beam at us from books or that we see performed on stage. Kila explains that poetry in book form has eclipsed other forms of poetry expression: “all poetry prizes go to books, all poetry reviews are written about books, all poetry funding goes to poets who write books. But the book is not the only way in which poetry exists. In fact, empirical research shows most people experience poetry outside of books: during special occasions, on tv, on social media, in newspapers, on the radio, in public areas and so on.” And even beyond the book the means of poetry circulation are staggeringly versatile. Along with the more recognized ones – posters, plaques on houses, glass etchings – Straatpoezie introduces counterintuitive spots for creativity outpouring. Be it a stanza stretching across someone’s window; a ribbon of words meandering around a building defying the laws of verse; a poem craftily engraved into a seat or a drinking fountain stand – poem locations are competing with the lushness of language in ingenuity. Finally, street poems might as well be a subversive vehicle for protest. “The slogan ‘La poésie est dans la rue’ was written on walls in France in the sixties and in 2013 it was used again during protests in Turkey. Some graffiti artists can also be seen as protest street poets, such as Laser 3.14 in Amsterdam,” – remarks Kila.
Critics might decry street poetry as vandalism and hide it from public gaze by removing poems or painting over them. Kila agrees that in theory “painting, spraying or placing poetry in any other way on a wall, window, pavement or any other piece of public area without consent is vandalism”. But the public consciousness of the literary community slowly starts waking up to the realisation that street poetry should be respected and preserved as an integral part of our literary heritage, rather than cracked down upon – a transformation akin to the debate on street art in the art world.
I skip back to my undocumented “Moment For Shitty Poetry”. Although just for a couple of weeks, it refashioned the surrounding public space with its presence. Kila suggests that it is a unique type of language without a hint of capitalistic function: “I would say our public area is the most diverse poetry anthology you can walk through. And it’s free for everyone!” Ultimately, its aim is not sell, offer, persuade or bend our wills. Street poetry exists in its own poetic vacuum of visceral emotion and contemplation, igniting thinking and oiling the wheels of reflection. It celebrates the diversity of languages, styles, themes and lengths. Look out for your own moment of poetry, in whatever shape and form. And do not forget to add it to the Straatpoezie map.