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The letters project

The letters project


  • Someone conceives (the begin of) a poem but keeps it secret. We hope to involve Ingmar Heytze and the Utrechts dichtersgilde.
  • The poem is published at a rate of one letter/character per week, on the first workday of the week. About three years for a sentence. A website shows the poem up to its current letter.
    • In the streets of the center of Utrecht a cobblestone is replaced with one bearing the first letter on it (or other character or empty space).
    • The following week another stone with the next letter is set next to the previous one, and so forth, so that the poem slowly becomes legible.
  • With the first stone, stones with time markers (e.g., year numbers) are set in the pavement along the planned route marking the year when the poem is expected to reach the marker.
This should go a considerable number of years, say 100, ahead. When a marker is reached, another is placed further up to maintain the number of years the markers walk ahead.
  • Before the poem is published completely, someone else will extend the poem, and again keep it secret to be published only one stone per week. (still discuss how this person is named. E.g., named by the previous poet at the outset, or could the Utrechts dichtersgilde ensure continuity, or determine by determine by vote?)
  • The local authorities determine the route and organize the placement of the stones.
  • Funds to pay for the engraving of the stones (and stones themselves if the cobblestones themselves are not used) are solicited from the public. The donor can have a name published on the website, and possibly have it engraved on the (side of the) stone.
  • The intention is to continue this for as long as someone writes poems, makes stone letters and can place them.
    • Future individuals can decide whether or not they want to continue the effort
    • Authorities can at any time decide to discontinue placements of stones on their teritorry, or to alter the route.

  • The effort is not-for-profit.
    • Suppliers and participants are asked to contribute for free or at cost.
    • If contributors/participants benefit disproportionately from their effort e.g., by increasing their reputation beyond an adequate return for the effort, a good cause of their choice should benefit accordingly.
    • If more funding can be obtained than is required to maintain the project, a good cause should benefit that makes it more likely that civilization continues.

Example (picture modified): Example-of-stone-poem-engraved in situ.jpg


Name of the Effort

  • Letters
Letters can be small units of information. Civilization is about information over time.
nice because it has a double meaning in English and is also a Dutch word
    • Variants
      • Letters to future / 2future
      • Letters for future / 4future
  • poem without end
  • endless poem
  • slow poem
  • Stone clock - the original name

The stone clock project--or ' might be a better name--provides a visible representation of the long-term passage of time.

Place of publication

  • online
  • In the center of Utrecht, The Netherlands
if the authorities are supportive
  • Oudegracht has a suitable dividing line of stones between the pedestrian part and the traffic part of the street running from Lijnmarkt towards Ledig Erf, and similarly Nieuwegracht, probably enough stones for 200 years.
    • It is an old street, the canal goes back to the 12th/13th century and is a major attraction of the city that probably will stay for a while.
    • Not too crowded.
  • People are going to read, so have the line run across a part where not paying attention to traffic has a low chance of leading to accidents.
  • Let letters/poem be legible when viewed from the 'pedestrian side' of the street.
  • In Utrecht, Netherlands, on streets for traffic most cobblestones run in a way that gives a crooked line if one wants to follow the street (picture below). Pedestrian parts of the streets often have thin stones placed in parallel but shifted from row to row. Neither are ideal for reading a slow poem. Some streets have a divider between pedestrian and vehicle sections made from stones of about square cross sections. They seem good candidates (picture above).


A never ending poem. The poets or the public ask successors to carry the work on when the letters of the previous poem are published.

If one poet makes a contribution unduly long that risks disinterest and stopping (who would want to be responsible for that?)


  • material should be widely available, unharmful, lasting
    • granite?
  • Have a batch of cobblestones made with the letters engraved. Make sure replacements for vandalism can be ordered later. Could ask local artists to contribute to the surfaces or the letters or embed something in the stones (makes vandalism and theft more likely, though...).

  • If you have suitable stones in the street, you could engrave them in situ rather than place a new one. Easier to start, more expensive in the long term.

Why a letter per week

A week is a unit of culture, less dictated by nature than day or year. The year marks along the route still link to nature.

A letter per day or word per week are too fast and less likely to be continued over long periods. A letter per day is rather expensive. A word per stone is difficult to read or destroys the link between distance and time.

Keep it cheap

A project is sustainable if it is cheap enough to be the first of a series continuing indefinitely into the future. A project is unsustainable if it is so expensive that it cannot be repeated without major political battles. A sustainable project marks the beginning of a new era. An unsustainable project marks the end of an old era. -- Freeman Dyson (thanks, @Treyka)

Maintenance and Resilience

Keep doing it for as long as possible and make the project independent from any particular person as soon as possible. If the community around it doesn't want to continue, it will likely stop.
  • Vandalism
Like civilization itself, the stone letters are vulnerable to vandalism, as well as neglect. If the project is worthwhile, means for repair will be found.
  • Changes to infrastructure
Repairs to the streets are complicated by the line, and stones wear and might have to be replaced. Broad support might give it a chance to continue.
The street along the route could change or disappear. If the project is worthwhile, future individuals will move it.


The letters of a poem convey the will to culture in addition to the content, the weekly rhythm and yearly marks bind civilization and nature. The will to continue expresses the duty felt to posterity.

To last, civilization, too, might need constant care and attention. It's for posterity that we strive, to pass on our genes, or just in the hope that someone will continue to be there and realize that life is wonderful. The continued effort becomes the monument: not only our effort but the continued effort of those after us. Worth a try.

Next to being a monument of our actions for posterity, the poem could become a tourist attraction. Both could help convince the authorities.

Placement of stones

  • With the right tool ('klinkertrekker/stenentrekker') pulling out a stone it a matter of seconds (see picture below). Replacing it with one of the same size should not take much time either.

Stones of alternating direction, pulling out a stone (image modified): Example-of-stone-poem.jpg

Steps to implementation

  • meeting of people from milliongenerations with the dichtersgilde
  • engage the authorities

History of the project

The project grew out of the Stone clock project. After a discussion with Ingmar Heytze in Utrecht early in 2011 the idea arose to add meaning to the stones by putting letters on them. Ingmar suggested that the guild of poets in Utrecht, the dichtersgilde, could devise the poem.

The stone clock project was inspired by Danny Hillis' 10,000 year clock and reports (1)(2) about it in The Economist with the thought that human intervention might be acceptable as means of perpetuation. Greg Blonder's TiWalkMe Ten Thousand Year Forest was found later but provides important inspiration and is much closer conceptually. The idea of the (endless) poem was inspired by a meeting and exchange with Ingmar Heytze in 2011.


Similar efforts, to support, build on, cooperate with or be inspired by

  • Danny Hillis' 10,000 year clock built by the LongNow Foundation
  • Greg Blonder's TiWalkMe Escapement, a Ten Thousand Year Forest - Timepiece
  • John Cage planned his composition ORGAN2/ASLSP (as slow as possible) to last 639 years. A performance in Halberstadt Germany was begun in 2001.
  • Longplayer is a one thousand year long musical composition conceived and composed by Jem Finer. It began playing at midnight on the 31st of December 1999 at the Lighthouse in Trinity Buoy Wharf, London, and intends to continue to play without repetition until the last moment of 2999, at which point it hopes to complete its cycle and begin again.
  • TiWalkMe's site has links to related efforts

efforts similar by name or nature, with different objective

endless poem