The heartland of Dutch-language literature is covered in poetry routes. The number of bicycle and walking tracks covered in poems seems to have grown exponentially in the Netherlands and Flanders in the last decade. Some are occasional byways; others have a more permanent character. Their paths cross at the point where the love for poetry and the appreciation of greenery or historical surroundings meet. What follows is an impression of the landscape, complemented with a practical, non-exhaustive list of poetry trails in the language region.
The list of permanent poetry paths in the Low Countries looks long and varied. They seem to have become pretty much a must for every town or city that wants to claim any cultural credibility. The design and ambitions sound different: Some want to honor a local poet, while in other areas a thematic route is created. One organization sticks to a modest course along picturesque meadows with cows, the other wants to see a city occupied by poets, with a poetic signpost on every street corner. This does not suggest a value judgment. After all, “the master shows himself first in confinement,” as a poet of few words once revealingly said.
Vistas of Beauty
This does not mean, however, that some routes do not reflect uniqueness, originality or reputation. In the Netherlands, Leiden impresses with the biggest wall poetry project. No fewer than 101 poems adorn the facades of the city, in various languages. On top of that, Leiden also counts dozens of wall poems that do not belong to the aforementioned project, making poetry in the city completely unavoidable. Also in Aardenburg, literary aficionados can find their way along the three extensive and diverse poetry pathways through the Zeeland municipality. For more than a mere trail, but an actual event, Gwy Mandelinck’s well-known Poetry Summer is held in the West Flemish village of Watou. The clash of cultural expressions that play out there every year can count on attention from both the press and the public.
In Flanders, the Ghent poetry route remains a popular cultural excursion. The walking tour was the first major and permanent one of its kind in Flanders. It lets its visitor discover the rich historic heart of Ghent in a poetic way. Poetry stands out at unexpected places in the city center. Since 2000, there have been poems in eighteen locations. The Ghent poetry “perambulation” was conceived and organized by the local Poetry Center and Motte Claus (the late Hugo Claus’ sister-in-law) in collaboration with the Honest Arts Movement (HAM). This movement puts “humanity” at its center, and lets art appear in places that symbolize the violation or defense of human rights, in particular the Belfry (the repository of municipal freedom), the Hof van Ryhove (site of the tyranny of the Ghent patricians), the Gravensteen (the castle, a symbol of feudal oppression), het Gerechtshof/the Judiciary (judiciary powers), the Kouter (a place of deportation during occupation) and Saint Peter’s Square (where there is a memorial stone commemorating extreme poverty). The poems are by famous Flemish poets, such as Hugo Claus, Paul van Ostaijen, Hugues C. Pernath, Maurice Maeterlinck, Miriam Van Hee and Stefan Hertmans. The Ghent Poetry Route starts at the Poetry Center on the Vrijdagmarkt and runs through the historic city center south to S.M.A.K. in the Citadel Park.
Through the existence and popularity of such routes, poetry can prove that it is not the esoteric, or even alienated art form that some claim it is. The Rotterdam district of Het Nieuwe Westen, for example, turns to international poetry to emphasize the multicultural nature of the neighborhood as an added value. The poems are accompanied with interpretations by visual artists. Just as it is on the Wall of Geraardsbergen, where Willie Verhegge’s cycling poems work as stimulants for the classic poetry of the Tour of Flanders. And the fact that poetry evolves along with the multimedia-dominated times in which we live, is shown by the poetry route Wijnjeterperschar: The visitor can listen to the poems in Dutch, the Frisian or the regional language, Stellingwarfs.
As for the lesser-known poetry walks: Their scale and vision varies. Smaller projects often choose poets or poems related to the region or location. The literary routes in Moerbeke-Waas and Sint-Amands, which wish to honor the villages where Anton Van Wilderode and Emile Verhaeren grew up and lived, are striking examples of this. Typically, one chooses pre-existing poetry to compose a walking tour, but sometimes all or a selection of the poems were written specifically for the occasion of the project. Guided walks, as you might expect, turn out to be offered mainly by the more famous routes.
Staša Pavlovič (Slovenia, 1987 – )
Translation by Stefanie Van de Peer