Paul van Ostaijen

How do you capture life in a bustling big city in a poem? Paul van Ostaijen takes us along on a night out at a dance hall buzzing with life.

illustratie: lees in nederlands

Orkestmeester orkestrionpage
arm in strijkstokbeweging
                                                overzij sierlijk gebaar
                        antwoordt simbalen

koppels schuiven de vierkantrust van tafels en verhoog naar


          cirkel draait in vierkant
                 steeds dieper

paren draaien
         kring draait
              gapend gat
                    in het vier-
parenzwalpen hun vallend zweet in diepte

                              zwarte parels

SteP stap OP POPulaire liedjes HOP

Marie Plancher Marie Planchée

dikke cilinder de baas danst mee

wippen        p       p      p
                 i        i        i
              h       h        h

Kort stoP zegt Strijkstokpage houdt dans OP

                                  de ronde
                                             in het


Listen to this poem in Dutch.
Voiced by: Leo van Zanen

illustratie: ontdek dit gedicht in 1 minuut

This poem in 60 seconds

In 1918, Paul van Ostaijen moved to Berlin where he was introduced to experimental artists. Their views influenced his work greatly, but for his following collection of poems, he chose his hometown of Antwerp as his subject instead. Van Ostaijen’s poetry contains impressions from this port city during World War I. In Mobile, he captures a night out on the town in text and image. The way in which he used these two is quite innovative as the two can hardly be seen separate from each other.

Want to know more? On this website you can listen to the poem, discover its origins and its author and find out what the poem means to the people of Leiden.

Paul van Ostaijen

Paul van Ostaijen

Antwerpen 1896 - Miavoye-Anthée 1928

Paul van Ostaijen grew up in Antwerp. Even though he did not finish school, he found a job as a clerk at the city hall during World War I. He really needed the job because he liked to live a life of luxury. He behaved like a real dandy with his bright-yellow suits and cap made from otter fur, and was often found partying. He also got hooked on cocaine.

First poetical work

In 1916, when he was twenty years old, Paul van Ostaijen published his first collection of poetry Music Hall. Two years after this publication his second collection of poetry Het Sienjaal (The signal) appeared. Around this time, he also became politically active in the Flemish movement. In 1898, Dutch was widely accepted as the official language but the Belgian elite looked down on the language. Van Ostaijen took part in a demonstration and fled with his girlfriend to Berlin to escape prosecution.

Berlin and Antwerp

Shortly after he arrived in Berlin, Van Ostaijen got acquainted with several experimental Dadaists. Their influence can clearly be detected in his collection of poetry Bezette Stad (Occupied city). The focus lay on the typography especially and the sentences became shorter fragments which had to be stitched together. Creatively speaking, his period in Berlin was a big success, but unfortunately not financially. He returned to Antwerp where he completed his military duty with great dismay. Shortly after this, Van Ostaijen contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to a sanitarium. Regrettably it was to no avail and on 18 March 1928 he died at the age of 32.

illustratie: over dit gedicht

What is this poem about?

In his collection of poems Bezette Stad (Occupied city), Van Ostaijen published his five part poem Music Hall of which poem Mobile is part of. He let himself be inspired by concert hall Wintergarten along the Antwerp Meir where one of his friend performed on a regular basis. In this poem, he describes a night out on the town from beginning to end. Just listen.

The sound of music...

Music occupies a special place in this poem. It begins with the title ‘mobile’ which means ‘movement in music.’ The first verse introduces two characters who are bound by music: the “orkestmeester” and the “orkestrionpage.” The latter is an instrument used to work the ‘orkestrion’; a mechanic device which can replace the the brass section of a orchestra.

In the second verse, the music starts playing: a stringed instrument sets the tone, the cymbals answer and the dance partners begin to sway to the rhythm of the music. The tables have been pushed to the side, which allows the partners to dance in a circle throughout the room. This creates a hole in the middle, which makes the whole thing looks like a whirlpool.

The dance in motion

The dance hall starts to spin and the dance partners become wavers (“zwalpen”), their sweat (“zwarte parels”) drops. The verse “SteP staP OP” indicates that the beat becomes up-beat because “POPulaire liedjes” follows. This is indicated in the next line: “Marie Plancher” was a popular operetta song. Paul van Ostaijen uses a variation of this by using “Marie Planchée,” which sounds the same in Dutch but has a different meaning. ‘Plancher’ is French for ‘the floor’, which takes us back to the dance floor.

The “dikke cilinder” could be perceived as drums or other percussion instrument which sets the beat. Even the director, the “baas,” starts to dance and Van Ostaijen shows the dance steps. Feet are bobbing up and down which is mimicked in the typography as the “hip” moves up.

The music stops - and so does the dance

But then the music stops: the string instruments say “stoP” on which the dancing stops. As a result, the circle disappears in which the dance partners were dancing in and so does the whirlpool, the “ronde” (round) in a “vierkant” (square) room.

illustratie: ontstaan van dit gedicht

Origin story of this poem

In the 1920s, Berlin was considered the homefront for a group of Dadaists. Paul van Ostaijen got acquainted with this art movement and used their ideas for his new collection of poems Bezette Stad (Occupied city). In this, he captured his experiences in Antwerp during the World War I. The collection of poems also contains the eye-catching poem Mobile, in which not only the content plays a big role but also the striking typography. The form and content of the poem become one.

illustratie: stadsverhalen

Stories from Leiden

The technical ‘Don Bosco’ school at Boerhaavelaan 44 was built in 1954 of glass and concrete. Tough yet efficient, as suits the post-war reconstruction. On its 40th anniversary, the school received a wall poem: Mobile by Paul van Ostaijen. The text dances gracefully across the wall from left to right, suddenly going down, and coming together at a ladder of words that ends on the floor. Then SteP staP OP to the neighboring wall. The form follows the content, as befits an old technical school. Imre Boomsluiter was once an intern at the school. The poem was beautiful, even without reading it. Now, Imre works in demolition. As long as he is leaning on his crowbar, the poem stays up. Still, in shaky balance on the half-demolished facade. Like a ballerina between the scenes. The blow will follow soon. Tough yet efficient. Short stoP. End of dance.

Photography: Patricia Nauta
Text: Joop van Gerven

illustratie: ik heb een verhaal bij dit gedicht

Share your story

Does this poem hold a special place in your heart? For example, do you remember when you first read the poem? Or did you come across it someplace unexpected? Let us know! We would love to add your story to our website.

illustratie: gedicht in leiden

Paul van Ostaijen in Leiden

Photo Leo van Zanen

This poem could be found in Leiden since 1994 on the schoolyard at Boerhaavelaan 44. Unfortunately, it was removed in 2018.


Even though the poem in the poetry collection already diverts strongly from traditional poetry, other additions have been made to the wall poem as well. The poem is painted on two of the three panels and the middle one contains a whirlpool which serves as the background of Mobile. The small lines could be seen as different dance partners making separate steps into a dance. The name Paul van Ostaijen is painted in between the panels.

illustratie: citaten


I wake up in the morning with this problem: ‘what can I do that has not been done before.’ I make myself interesting by arrogance, which at least is more honest than pretending to be interesting with modesty.

Paul van Ostaijen about his poetry.

No one admires literature less than an admirer of literature. He who admires, does something. The admirer of literature pretends like he did something. The longer he is under the illusion that he admires literature - he says: classical literature - the bigger this illusion becomes.

Paul van Ostaijen

illustratie: wist je dat

Fun facts

  • Paul van Ostaijen had many jobs in his life. For example, he was a clerk at city hall, administrator of a second-hand bookshop and organized expositions with the work of international artists.
  • Paul van Ostaijen was the first foreign translator of German writer Franz Kafka. He translated five of his short stories to Dutch.
  • The collection of poems Bezette stad (Occupied city) is now world-famous but was first published by Van Ostaijen himself as he could not find a publisher. The publishing was funded by his brother and the publishing company was named Het Sienjaal (The signal) after Van Ostaijen’s second collection of poems.
illustratie: video

Paul van Ostaijen also wrote a film script. The film was going to be called De bankroet jazz and was about the Dadaistic revolution in Europe. It was not until 2009 that the film was finally created with images from the 1920s. You can watch the film here.

illustratie: meer weten

Learn more

This entry was written by Het Taalmuseum in collaboration with Chris Flinterman. The translation into English is by Natasja Oorthuis. The following publications were consulted: