Modern Minstrels

City Poets in the Low Countries

The number of city poets in the Netherlands and Flanders is steadily increasing. The present figure for the Netherlands is about thirty. In Flanders only five cities so far have named a city poet: Antwerp, Ghent, Ninove in East Flanders, Damme in West Flanders and Diest in Flemish Brabant, but this figure is sure to increase in the coming years. Brussels, the officially bilingual capital of Belgium and melting-pot of cultures, promptly appointed a quartet, thereby taking account of the ethnic diversity of its population. The city-poet collective comprises the slam poet/hiphopper Manza, the Galician-Brussels biologist, poet, prose writer and European official Xavier Queipo, the female dramatist and poet Laurence Vielle and a pure-bred native of Brussels, the poet/essayist Geert van Istendael.

The origin of the present-day city poets is to be found in the medieval minstrels, who were employed by a lord to sing his praises. Their songs dealt with topical events and juicy gossip. In the Celtic countries these lyric poets were known as bards. Roman historians mention their existence quite early on. Initially, they were rewarded by princes for their musical flattery, but later they also performed for the common people. Today’s city poets can actually best be compared with singer-songwriters or troubadours.

But where did the idea of dressing the medieval minstrels up in modern costumes come from? At the end of last century, the Stichting Poetry International in the Netherlands, the NRC Handelsblad newspaper and the Nederlandse Programma Stichting (Netherlands Programme Service) jointly ran an election to find a ‘Dichter des Vaderlands’ – a national poet. Such a poet was to be appointed every five years to write poems about noteworthy national events, by analogy with the British Poet Laureate, who is now appointed for ten years, though formerly the appointment was for life. The first National Poet, Gerrit Komrij, wanted to be more than just a talking monkey for the House of Orange. He developed a host of initiatives to promote poetry, such as setting up the Poézieclub and the poetry periodical Awater. ‘Queen Beatrix has her court poet, so we should have one too,’ a number of mayors and aldermen must have thought.

A saving in promotion costs

The first city poet in the Low Countries (overlooking for the moment Emma Crebolder’s one-year tenure as city poet in Venlo in 1993 and the late Jan Eijkelboom’s lifelong mandate in Dordrecht) was Bart FM Droog. In 2002, he was appointed city poet of Groningen on Poetry Day – the annual celebration of Low Countries poetry. Term of office: two years. Price tag: € 5,000 for six to eight poems a year. Money down the drain, the Philistines fulminated. Droog had the officials do some calculations and came to the conclusion that he was saving the city around €50,000 a year in promotion costs. Along with performing poems on important occasions, the Groningen poetry officer developed his own initiatives. One of these, the reading of a poem at the funeral of a deceased person with no surviving relatives – the so-called ‘lonely departures’ – has been copied wholesale by other Dutch cities. Or how poetry can be useful and is in the midst of life, even when that life is the one after death.

In Flanders, Antwerp – that proud City on the Scheldt that likes to consider itself the city of literature in Flanders – has already reached city poet number four. After Hugo Claus and Leonard Nolens had declined the honour, Tom Lanoye became the River City’s first city poet in early 2003. Lanoye the extrovert – poet, prose writer, dramatist, performer, polemicist, with the permanently impish air – seemed cut out for the job. He knew the political and cultural bustle of the city as no-one else did, for in the past he had on several occasions been the yapping watchdog of Antwerp’s policy makers. In addition, his poetry is brimful of humour and irony and is thus easily accessible to a wide audience. In short, the perfect twenty-first-century minstrel.

Why should a poet want to be a city poet? In an interview with the Flemish weekly Humo Ramsey Nasr, the son of a Palestinian father and a Rotterdam mother and Lanoye’s successor, made no attempt to hide his delight. His main theme: ‘To be a city poet is an honour.’ The honour, the stroking of one’s vanity and the not-to-be-sneezed-at publicity are more important than the financial aspect. Of course city poets want to win souls for poetry, love their city and are eager to display their métier in clever and neatly crafted poems, but nothing can beat the kick of being asked to fill a unique and prestigious post. The knowledge that one’s colleagues have not been selected makes the pleasure complete, for there can only be the one official city poet. (Except in Brussels. And in Amsterdam, where the city is divided into districts, with a city poet for each part of the city.)

Nasr was followed by Bart Moeyaert, born in Bruges and thus, like his predecessors and his successor, an immigrant. That successor, Joke van Leeuwen, even has Dutch nationality. But the Dutch are generally mad about Antwerp, so that works out all right. Van Leeuwen, besides being a poet, also writes books for young people and is an illustrator. Her CV is well-furnished with awards and nominations. Every time, the Antwerp city administration chooses prestigious names rather than poets who have local roots but are less well known.

The other Flemish cities have also opted for a city poet of some standing. In Ghent Roel Richelieu van Londersele was the first city poet. He has published innumerable collections of poetry, a couple of novels and a thriller. His successor, Erwin Mortier, enjoys if anything even greater fame. His work, poetry as well as prose, has been awarded prizes on several occasions. In Ninove, a historic old city, the post of city poet is tailor-made for Willie Verhegghe, the cycling poet of Flanders. His original appointment has been extended by three years. For lack of other credible candidates? Who knows?

The poet as feel-good figure?

Which brings us to one of the painful issues of appointing a city poet, especially in the smaller cities and municipalities: how many poets can an administration serve up before the pot of suitable candidates is empty? In Diest, Ina Stabergh became the first female city poet in Flanders. She deserved her mandate because of her years of involvement with the literary circle Apollo. And finally Damme, a picturesque little book-town not far from Bruges, has a city poet who does not even live there. At the request of Damme Council Frederik Lucien De Caere, a native and resident of Bruges, wrote a poem that was hung up on boards in the town. Shortly after, he was made city poet.

In the Netherlands people are less worried about a city poet’s reputation. You do not absolutely have to be a top writer descending from your ivory tower to entertain, instruct or prick the conscience of fellow citizens with your verses. Often a competition is held to decide on the city poet. So, in a manner of speaking, the city poet could be a neighbour or an acquaintance who just happens to write poetry. In Flanders, a city poet is a Poet (with a capital P), who happens to live in the same city (or in the case of Frederik Lucien De Laere not even that). As we have said, to date all Flemish city poets have enjoyed a certain reputation. As far as most of the Dutch city poets are concerned, their reputation stretches no further than the next village, but then they are much more numerous than their Flemish counterparts. The smaller the town or municipality, the more modest the city poet. And things seem to be moving in that direction in Flanders as well.

How good is the average city poet? Let me pick one at random: Gerard Beense, the first city poet of Lelystad, capital of the province of Flevoland. Beense wrote a poem to mark National Oldtimer Day, which celebrates veteran cars and takes place every year in Lelystad on the third Sunday in June. Such an event is child’s play for a city poet:

There is one day in the year
when old times live again
in Lelystad’s scenic lanes
when the cars of yesteryear
in procession all pass by
causing the distant past
to return for a while to the eye
of this our present age
that gladly directs its gaze
to a cortege of former days.

Such is the opening of his poem for this occasion. It is doggerel, scarcely worthy of the name of poetry. Argument for the defence: I can imagine that in the small city of Lelystad top poets are thin on the ground.

Is quality the only thing that counts, or are there other norms and values involved as regards city poems? Yes and no. On the one hand, even if we ram the verses down the throats of the general public, that doesn’t stop them being powerful poems. On the other hand, being a city poet would seem to be much more a socio-cultural job than a purely literary one. In a number of cities and municipalities, the authorities want to create or engender a feel-good feeling. People are to come out onto the street once more, meet each other and enjoy each other’s company. Districts, squares and avenues are laid out with little or no traffic, with plenty of grass and open space. Cars – those anti-social stinking beasts of steel, rubber and glass – spend more and more time following the parking signs around and, once at their destination, are stowed away underground. The citizen is once more to feel good in his or her biotope, and it is the city poet’s job to assist in this by parading with a broad – but mysteriously poetic – smile wherever he can be of use, and of course by writing the odd poem.

The counterpart of the city is the countryside. In 2007, the province of East Flanders named Lut De Block as its first countryside poet. Poets stand for awareness, sensuality, emotion and reflection. For them to be involved here and there in the social establishment is a good thing, for poetry – just like music has charms to soothe the savage breast. And nobody can object to that.

By Philip Hoorne
Translated by John Irons

First published in The Low Countries, 2008