new york city, ny | april 30, 2011
New York City has been an important place for poetry since the 19th Century when Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville lived and worked here. Hart Crane and Langston Hughes made New York in their own images in the first half of 20th Century. Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and the New York School made it theirs in the second half.
Many of New York’s poets were, and perhaps still are, marginalized people who had multiple stigmas (e.g. class, race, gender) as outsiders. Outsiders are a metaphor for strangers, the anonymous bodies that create barriers between people in a city: they mutually enforce codes of privacy in a public space. Jane Jacobs, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, saw the role of strangers differently. She says, “The streets of a city must do most of the job of handling strangers for this is where strangers come and go. The streets must not only defend the city against predatory strangers, they must protect the many, many peaceable and well-meaning strangers who use them, insuring their safety too as they pass through. Moreover, no normal person can spend his life in some artificial haven, and this includes children. Everyone must use the streets.”1 Jacobs believed the safety of the individual city-dweller depended on being surrounded by strangers, as challenging and invasive as those others may be.
To a first-time visitor to New York, our city is enormous, complicated, overwhelming, and palpitating with light and noise. Poetry is a contemplative and solitary activity, yet it thrives in New York City. In a place of 8 million people (only one and half million of whom live in Manhattan) there is a big population of poetry readers and an even bigger population of poetry writers. What New York has over many other places that gives an advantage to poets is its freedom of the mind, by which I mean a person is confronted with the world every second of the day here; you are forced to make decisions about who you are in relation to language, as each block often contains its own tiny world: a Korean deli, a Malian mosque, a Gujarati sandwich shop.
It is important to know that in New York City cultural experience has always been available and accessible to everyone. The geographical barriers to culture were made invisible, and a multicultural (as distinct from being diverse) collage of neighborhoods, sometimes street-by-street, made the city an ideal site for these cultural productions. Joshua Freeman, in Working-Class New York, says, New York City was a “laboratory for a social urbanism committed to an expansive welfare state, racial equality, and popular access to culture and education.”2 Poetry in New York was part of a long shadow of cultural productions from the start of the 1930s—literature, jazz, photography, musical theater, film, and visual art—that show a vibrant patchwork of Communist and left-leaning ideologies that promoted an egalitarian society through both culture and through social services. Most of this patchwork in New York has been gradually stripped away; meanwhile, the apartheid system of white supremacy, most explicitly in the Southern states, but also in New York City, made the vision of shining diversity a fantasy for many Americans.
I know I hold the minority view, but I don’t value community; I left Facebook and I find most poetry readings too long, too proscribed, and too dull. I don’t need a person to read to me, and I dislike theatrics. I do not believe in poetry’s cult of personality. It is harmful to reading well. At best, a poetry reading is a social opportunity. I am interested in writing; everything else is just ornamental. The best way to engage with poetry, an art of confrontation and celebration, is to walk around the city itself. Walk through Central Park, ride the A train from Inwood to Far Rockaway, ride the D train from the Bronx to Coney Island, sit on a bench on 34th Street and people watch. New York is actually thousands of villages glued together. For example, Harlem, where I live, is its own city within the city.
Nevertheless, the poetry environment or “scene” here offers endless opportunities to go to readings. You could go to a different reading every single night at a different venue, and still not exhaust the possibilities to engage with other poets. New York has a lively and isolating community. O’Hara put it best when he said, in “Mediations in an Emergency”: “One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.”3
The poets I’ve selected have this sentiment in common, yet on other points (tone, mood, form, content, pacing, diction, voice, point-of-view) they differ widely. Of the millions, I’ve chosen these seven: Hossannah Asuncion, Tamiko Beyer, Laura Cronk, Zahra Marie Darby, Herbert Engelhardt, Thomas Fink, and Maya Catherine Popa. These seven are a good overview of what kind of poetry is being made in New York, at this moment in history.
One of the smartest ways to learn a city is to look up. Notice yourself in relation to the skyscrapers’ canyons. Li-Young Lee has said that poetry and architecture use compression to shed meaning on the relationship between a human and space. Poetry uses language in the same way that architecture uses materiality to configure empty space. Architecture uses wood, steel, glass, or stone; a poem uses the white space on the page, so that when a person enters the space meaning is provided; whether it is a sacred space, a public space, or a private space. To paraphrase the great Abstract Expressionist painter Jack Tworkov, the page is a surface, not a space. The words articulate the surface in the way a musician articulates sound. This articulation is the poem, not “space.” In fact, space is not a physical property of the page on which poems are written. Space is an expression.4 Robert Self elucidates on this idea, in the context of Oakland: “Space is also a primary component of social imagination. Spatial analogies are imaginative maps through which people organize and record what cities mean.”5
The poets I’ve selected write poems that are statements about larger social and urban problems beyond being statements of beauty. There should be fresh ways of linking social science, history, and literature to show the commingling of the bodies—structural and personal—in the city these poets love. These poems will last because they are about artistic inquiry into urban problems, and those are problems that remain unsolvable with historical analysis alone.
2. Joshua B. Freeman, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II.
(New York: Free Press, 2000), 55.
3. O’Hara, Frank, The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, ed. by Donald Allen (Berekley: University of California Press, 1995), 197.
4. Jack Tworkov, “Journals and Diaries, 1947-63,” in The Extreme of the Middle: Writings of Jack Tworkov, ed. by Mira Schor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 36.
5. Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 18.
SEAN SINGER's first book Discography won the 2001 Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He is writing his dissertation in American Studies at Rutgers-Newark.