The Dutch city of Utrecht is the fourth largest city in the Netherlands by population, after Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and the Hague. It is home to about 350,000 people and serves as a center for culture and education — Utrecht has dozens of museums and galleries, and the University of Utrecht has more enrolled students of any college in the nation. And once a week, someone comes by and vandalizes the street in the center of town.
You can see their handy work for yourself. If you’re in town one weekend, go to the corner of Oudegracht and Lange Smeestraat, ideally just after noon on any given Saturday. When there, look down. You won’t be able to see it on Google Street View, sorry, but it’s there — a capital letter J engraved into one of the stones which make up the curb. Next to that is an E, then a blank tile, then a Z, followed by a U, then L, then a T.
As you’re probably not in Utrecht right now, here’s a picture.
As you’ve probably guessed, that’s not the act of vandals. It’s the work of poets.
In 2002, a group of patrons decided to fund a project for the ages — a never-ending poem, etched letter by letter for the benefit of time immemorial. A poet writes one sentence at a time, and each week, a stonemason creates a one-letter block. On Saturday afternoons at 1 PM local time, that block is placed in the next open slot, adding a tiny bit to the ever-evolving poem. The subsequent block is then removed and etching begins on the next letter, and then that process continues week after week. After that poet’s sentence is completed, a new poet takes over where his or her predecessor left off. The poem isn’t pre-written — the poets are free to add whatever prose they wish.
To make the project more likely to succeed and, as Atlas Obscura observes, “in order to pinpoint an easy start date, the first 648 blocks were laid out and back-dated to January 1, 2000.” Going forward, the town has reserved enough spaces on the streets for the poem to extend until the year 2350, which seems like a long time, but “it takes about 3 years to publish a sentence” according to Futility Closet — so that’s only a 100-sentence poem, give or take. But the project can go on well past that length and deadline. There’s no preset end date; so long as the city (or another benefactor) funds the poem, it could go on effectively forever. It’s common for city residents to sponsor a stone in honor of a loved one’s birthday or other milestones, so, at only 52 stones a year, there are probably more willing sponsors than there are opportunities.
As for the poem itself, right now, it’s about a journey — or perhaps it’s morphed into a testament to the town that hosts it? You can judge for yourself. If you want to read the poem to date, it’s available in Dutch at this link, and if you need it in English, the Atlas Obscura link translated the first six-plus sentences.
From the Archives: When it Rains, it Poems: More sidewalk poetry.