Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Notes on Poetry, Poetry on Bank Notes: A Guest Posting by P&PC's Netherlands Correspondent, Kila van der Starre

Editor's Note: This past December, the P&PC Board of Directors sent a delegation to the Netherlands where, for twelve days, P&PC staff members traveled, took in the sights, mainlined museums (Rembrandt! Renoir! Van Gogh! Mondrian!) and found poetry just about everywhere we went. Poems accompanying St. Nicholas Day illustrations hung in the Rijksmuseum. Poets were on the cover of a recent magazine in Utrecht. And we took a long and winding walk through the magnificent streets of Leiden where more than 100 poems by international poets have been painted on the exterior walls of the city's buildings. (Note to Salem, Oregon: our city is perfect for this!)

A highlight of our visit to Utrecht was meeting longtime P&PC reader and fellow intellectual soul mate Kila van der Starre (pictured here) who, in pursuit of her PhD at the University of Utrecht, is studying and writing about the artistic, social, and cultural lives of poetry outside the book and magazine and off of the traditional page. As the wall poems in Leiden suggest, the Netherlands is rich with such material, but as is the case in the U.S., few poets, scholars, or critics have taken this ambient poetic landscape as the object of their attention. You can thus imagine how we and Kila jammed for several hours over beer (our first time having the hot mulled beer called glühkriek) and snackies at Cafe Olivier, and how touched we were when Kila presented us with the perfect souvenir—a shower-cap-like bike-seat cover printed with lines of poetry that poetry guerrillas secretly wrap over strangers' bike seats to keep them dry.

We are thrilled, therefore, to be bringing you the following guest posting from our new friend and P&PC Netherlands Correspondent—a posting that introduces and considers a Dutch poem that has a circulation of 325 ... million (yes you read that correctly) while gently chastising P&PC for its English language provincialism. Read on, dear readers, to learn more about Arie van den Berg's poem "IJsvogel" ("Kingfisher"), its appearance on the Netherlands' final 10 guilder bank note, and why the Guinness Book of Records has admitted but nonetheless refused to acknowledge the poem's record-setting circulation. Here's what Kila has to say:

P&PC is my all-time favorite poetry blog, as it is unique in writing about poetry off the page and outside the book—the topic of my PhD research at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. But, P&PC, you do realize that there's more than just English-language poetry, right?

P&PC once speculated that John McCrae's famous World War I poem "In Flanders Fields" may very well be "the most reprinted and most widely circulated poem, like, ever." Not only did the Canadian government make it the central piece of its World War I public relations campaign—printing it on billboards and posters to advertise the sale of the first Victory Loan Bonds—but then, from 2001-2013, English and French language versions of McCrae's first stanza appeared on the back of the Canadian $10 bank note (pictured here), giving it an enormous circulation.

As compelling as it is, this claim appears to have overlooked a poem that was printed 325 million times during the last decade of the twentieth century and passed on by nearly every adult in the Netherlands. This poem was written by a poet who never won a significant prize, who never published a famous book of poetry, who only has a small poetic oeuvre and fan base, and who is actually better known as a literary critic than as a poet: Arie van den Berg (pictured here). Van den Berg wrote the poem "IJsvogel" ("Kingfisher") especially for the last 10 guilder bank note which was introduced in 1997 in the Netherlands. (It was known that this would be the last bank note to be renewed before the euro replaced the guilder in 2002.)

Jaap Drupsteen, who designed the last batch of guilder notes and who's pictured here, regards "his tenner" as his most successful design. He chose "birds" as the theme for this last series and designed watermark illustrations of birds to serve as authenticity features. "The Dutch Bank wanted to add mini texts which would vanish after copying," Drupsteen explained in an interview, "'Let it be a fine text, I thought.'" He suggested using poems as additional markers of the note's authenticity. After consulting the Museum of Literature in The Hague—which couldn't find a Dutch poem about a kingfisher (the symbol and theme of the 10 guilder note)—the Dutch Bank decided to ask Van den Berg, who had previously written poems about the owl and the hill myna, to compose a poem especially for the bill. Van den Berg had three weeks to write the poem from scratch—a blink of an eye compared to the three years Drupsteen had to finish the note's design, and a challenging request for a poet who on average wrote one-and-a-half poems per year.

Still, Van den Berg succeeded, and "IJsvogel" became the most reprinted poem in Dutch history—perhaps even "the most reprinted and most widely circulated poem, like, ever." A student of Van den Berg's contacted the Guinness Book of Records, which admitted the poem had a record circulation but determined that, because Van den Berg himself had not essentially contributed to the enormous spread, it unfortunately could not be included in their database.

A poem with a circulation of 325 million is impressive, and all the more so considering that the Netherlands only has 16 million inhabitants. I would dare say that roughly all Dutch adults handled a print of the poem between 1997 and 2002. Handling, however, is different than reading. "IJsvogel" was printed in a miniscule font, barely visible to the naked eye as you can see from the image here. An explanatory remark accompanying the poem stated: "The text next to the watermark is readable through a magnifying glass." Ironically enough, this information was printed in a type that was only slightly larger than the poem's font.

So perhaps not many people took the time to sit down with the bank note and magnifying glass to read the poem. But still, it did become Van den Berg's most famous work. He received unexpected responses from people who adored the poetic touch he'd given the bill and who had learned the poem by heart. Literary organizations would ask him to "come and read his tenner." "My next poem has a circulation of three hundred million," he would say before reciting the twelve lines. Afterwards, fans would always come up to him and ask him to autograph their 10 guilder notes, but he never signed his kingfishers. "I think that's inappropriate," he told the Dutch national newspaper de Volkskrant. "Every bank note is owned by the Dutch Bank. Only my children and a few friends own a tenner with my signature and a dedication. This way I'm sure the signed bills will never become a commodity."

Unlike "In Flanders Fields," "IJsvogel" was written especially for the 10 guilder note, which might make one wonder, what is the relationship between the poem and the bank note? And how does the poem relate to money and the financial market? Well, let's have a look. The poem has no title printed above it, but the author's name is printed at the bottom. (Can you imagine paying with an official bank note with your name on it?!) Since no English version exists, I've translated the poem myself, with the original Dutch below:

dagger on sails in a jacket of cobalt
orange belly...but the blink of the eye sees
only briefly a blue flame

for higher hunters as blue as the water
for who dwells underneath (the roach, the bream)
the dull orange of dry leaves

until the twig shortly bows, bounces back,
wings turn out to be fins and the dagger
slashes around the scales, which

will soon make the branch shine, after the slaughter when
the weapon is scrubbed dry, and the glutton sits and
shockingly brings colour to the winter

dolk op wieken in een jasje van kobalt
buik oranje...maar de oogwenk ziet
even maar een blauwe vlam

voor hogere jagers zo blauw als het water
voor wie daaronder huist (de voorn, de bliek)
het grauw oranje van dor blad

totdat de twijg kort neerbuigt, terugveert,
vleugels vinnen blijken en de dolk
zich om de schubben schaart, waarvan

de tak straks glinstert, na de slacht wanneer
het wapen drooggepoetst, de slokop zit en
schokkend kleur geeft aan de winter

The poem describes the kingfisher's physical characteristics—its colors, the shape of its beak, its speed, its food, and its habitat. But the particular feature that Van den Berg attempts to capture is the way the bird hunts its prey: the kingfisher dives into the water, snatches a fish, and kills it by hitting it on a branch.

So what's the relationship between the poem and its medium? First of all, the bill's design corresponds with the description of the kingfisher in the poem: its main colors are blue and orange—loud tones that allow someone to distinguish it from other bills in a split second. Designer Drupsteen said in an interview, "You only need to catch a glimpse of it to recognise it immediately." This is comparable to spotting a blue bird "in the wink of an eye" and immediately identifying it a kingfisher. Also, an image of a stickleback fish, the kingfisher's number-one prey, can be found at the top right corner of the note. This corresponds with the poem's hunting theme.

At first sight a kingfisher appears to have little or nothing to do with finance, currency, banks or economics, right? Well, let’s take a closer look at that as well. The main theme—the kingfisher hunting its prey—is on the one hand portrayed as natural and inevitable. "This is simply the way mother nature works," the poem seems to say. This is comparable to how economic liberalism tends to regard the financial market: the free market moves and develops in an organic, natural way and shouldn't be disturbed by government intervention. In other words, "this is simply the way the market works." On the other hand, there is an implicitly judging voice present in the poem. Even poems without an explicit "I" consist of a narrator—a voyeur who observes and describes—and here the implied narrator is made most present by a gaze in the second line ("but the wink of the eye sees") and a personal observation ("shockingly brings colour to the winter") in the closing line.

That narrator's relationship to the poem's subject is also conducted via the aggressive, violent, and predatory words ("dagger," "flame," "hunters," "slashes," "slaughter," "weapon," and "shockingly") used to describe the bird's actions. The most explicitly expressed opinion of the bird's deeds, however, is the word "glutton" in line eleven, where the implied narrator associates the bird with someone who eats or consumes immoderate amounts of food and drink. A characteristic of a capitalist society, greed marks the actions of individuals handling the note but also commercial companies and banks. (I must add that the Dutch word "slokop" additionally connotes "swallow" and "gulp," referring to how kingfishers swallow their fish whole.)

So in the little drama suggested by the relationship between the poem and the banknote, who would be the kingfisher in our economic world and who the fish? The poem shows that all is a matter of perspective. From the perspective of the "higher hunters" looking down, the bird is "as blue as the water." Yet from the fish's point of view, looking up, the bird is a "dull orange of dry leaves." Also, line eight shows that looks can be deceiving: "wings turn out to be fins." Thus, the opposition or binary between predator and prey is not as straightforward as it might seem. The predator turns out to have similar characteristics as the prey (fin-like limbs) and is apparently able to achieve similar goals (moving through water).

The design of the note itself only reenforces the subject of perspective. Only by holding the bill in a certain angle towards the light does the kingfisher watermark become visible and the fragmented image of the stickleback become a whole. Similar to the birds of prey above and the fish below, the background determines the view. The birds high in the sky see the kingfisher's blue back in front of the blue water surface, while the fish see the kingfisher's orange belly against a backdrop of orange tree leaves. Likewise, the "higher hunters" regard the kingfisher as their prey, while the fish view the same kingfisher as their predator. Note that just like the rhetoric of social class or the business or banking world, perspective also entails the "level" you're on (high or low).

Predator-prey metaphors and animal comparisons are common in discussions of economics. For example, "greedy wolves," "sly foxes," and, in Dutch, "gehaaide" businesspeople ("gehaaid" meaning "shrewd" and the embedded word "haai" meaning "shark"). A decade after the publication of "IJsvogel," the ambiguous relation between predator and prey with regard to the economic market became an even more widespread metaphor due to the great success of Jeroen Smit's Dutch "financial thriller" De prooi (2008). The bestseller was quickly translated into English as The Perfect Prey (2009) and turned into a Dutch theatre piece (2012) and television series (2013). The book, which is based on real events, describes the collapse of the banking system and the financial crises and credit crunch triggered by the downfall of The Dutch bank ABN Amro. While citizens and customers initially were regarded as the bank's prey, in the end the bank actually fell prey to its own system. The blurb of Smit's book reads: "In little more than a decade, one of Europe's largest, longest established banks went from powerful predator to the perfect prey."

The publication of Van den Berg's poem via bank note was criticized in different ways. Some people were of the opinion that the Dutch Bank should have issued an open call for poems. Others protested against the use of a poem as an authenticity feature; poetry, they argued, doesn't belong on banknotes. Poet and critic René Puthaar stated: "A poem on a bank note is like an oiled water bird."

Van den Berg himself has also criticized the course of events. His concern was—how very appropriate—the amount of money he was paid. "The bank's economists had decided that a poet requires thirty hours to write a poem," he explained. "I have no idea where they got that number from. They had formulated an hourly rate, and their opinion on what a poet should earn per hour was—to put it mildly—quite modest." Van den Berg remarked that a typical fee for contract work is one percent of a project's costs, which in this case would have amounted to about 1.8 million guilders. But the Dutch Bank refused to discuss royalties. "I considered hiring a detective to find out how often people borrow a tenner from friends," Van den Berg joked. "That way I could have asked the Ministry of Education for loan payments, just as writers get for the books people borrow from the library. I say this in jest, but it does point out I wasn't content. Eventually we reached an acceptable agreement."

If there's a lesson to draw from this poem's story, it might be "It's all about the money." But perhaps that too depends on one's perspective—and the medium in which the poem was published. By now you might be asking yourself if "IJsvogel" ever got published in a book. It did indeed. In 1998 Libris published an anthology with a selection of poems by Dutch and Flemish poets. The title of that book? Poëzie verkoopt niet. Or, in English, Poetry Doesn't Sell.


"In Flanders Fields" and "IJsvogel" are not the only poems that found their way to bank notes. Below are some other examples. Perhaps there are P&PC readers out there who can expand the list?
  • A poem by Nezahualcóyoltl on the 100 pesos note in Mexico
  • A verse from Alykul Osmonov's poem "Jenishbek" on the 200 som bank note in the Kyrgyz Republic
  • The poem "To My Comrades" by Stefan Stambolov on the Bulgarian 20 Lev bank note, and Pencho Slaveykov's "Song of Blood" on the 50 Lev bill 
  • A line from Tchernichovsky's poem "Oh, My Land, My Homeland" on the front of the 50 shekel note in Israel, and a line from "I Believe" on the back
  • The Australian ten dollar note has two poems printed on it: excerpts from Andrew Barton Paterson's "The Man from Snowy River" on one side and lines from Dame Mary Gilmore's "No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest" on the other