Versify #3 by Pamela Burger
Poetry and the City
In an earlier post, I mentioned that I am not a big fan of poetry about nature. I am a city girl through and through, and I like works that reflect an urban aesthetic. The thing is, living in New York day in and day out, it’s easy to forget what’s so great about the urban aesthetic.
About ten years ago, when I entered the MFA program in poetry at NYU, my father—not a poetry fan—asked me, “What do you even write about? You live in a city. How can a person in a city write poetry?”
I responded the way I often respond to my dad: I asked, “What on Earth are you talking about?”
“Well, you know, poetry is supposed to be about nature. Mountains, trees, beautiful things. There’s nothing beautiful in New York.”
The strangest thing about this statement is that my dad—and my mother, for that matter—has lived his entire life on the island of Manhattan and would sooner pull out his own hair than go camping. Once, when my parents and I were visiting my brother at college, he asked if we wanted to go for a nature walk in some nearby woods. My parents spent the four-hour car ride home laughing about this. “He wanted to walk in the woods!” They howled. “What does he think we are? Bears?”
So why was my dad so convinced that every poet would want to write in celebration of the natural world? When I pressed him, he said, “Well, that’s what I remember reading about. You know, Wordsworth, Shelley, didn’t they all write about nature?”
It isn’t surprising that someone educated in the fifties and sixties would have had such a profound and lasting exposure to the Romantic poets. To this day, heir views on the sublime power of nature have made an indelible mark on the way poetry is taught. But then, there are just as many writers who look to the city in the same way the Wordsworth and Shelley looked to the English countryside. But in a city where just getting to the office each morning is a study in irritation, it’s hard to maintain any level of wonder at the urban sublime. But for those of us frustrated with the daily grind, Walt Whitman is a great antidote. Now, there was a man who loved a crowd.
In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman’s ode to commuting in a pre-subway era, the great poet of New York addressed his fellow commuters, both present and future:
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose;
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.
The poem celebrates the universal humanity of the city. Whitman calls out to the future New Yorkers “Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd.” The city for Whitman is its people, and the collective is sublime.
I thought of this poem recently, when I came across Poems by New Yorkers, a blog/social art project that pours meaning from one commuter into another. The premise is simple: Madeline Schwartzman asks strangers on the subway to write a poem. And, surprisingly, they do. Schwartzman then posts the poem, along with a photo of the writer and their handwritten work. My immediate response, before reading any of the poems, was of the eye-rolling variety. But my cynicism faded as soon as I started reading.
A lot of the poems are about actually riding the subway, and for those of us who face the frustrations of the MTA on a daily basis, it’s comforting to glimpse how others think about their commutes. But the spur-of-the-moment reflections about the writer’s day (link ), or the gripes about family, or the child’s ode to a polar bear are all more satisfying than musings about trains. When you sit in a crowded subway car surrounded by so many strangers, it’s easier to ignore the humanity around you than take it all in.
The short poems are not weighty, and they often forego poetic language in favor of prosaic observations, but they are delightful to read, if only because they return some humanity to the “crowds of men and women in usual attire” we pass by every day. The fact that many of the poems are about pedestrian matters is actually refreshing. The poems feel unselfconscious, truly spontaneous, because there isn’t time for revision. These poems reflect the immediate experience of being on a subway car, the visceral reality that so many strangers silently share every day. In this way, I think the project as a whole is a portrait of what can be inspiring about living in a big city. Besides, I’d much rather find the sublime on the subway than in a walk in the woods. I mean, what am I, a bear?
Pamela Burger has a very short attention span, which is why she loves poetry. Her poems have appeared in several small magazines you might never have read. She lives in Brooklyn, teaches writing and literature, and is an instructional technologist for the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College.