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"Poems of New York"

Selected and Edited by Elizabeth Schmidt

Everyman's Library Pocket Poets/Alfred A. Knopf. New York, 256 pages, 2002, $12.50

Book cover

Book cover

By John D. Delmar

I don't know if many centuries ago Native Americans of the Mohawk and Algonquin groups recited to one another about the beauty of the confluence of rivers around Mannahatta Isle-- or spoke to one another in poetic, lyrical terms about the love and pain and struggle and joy of iving here. Perhaps so. Certainly for the last few centuries, New York has been the locus of literary talent, a magnet for poets and Bohemian literati.

If you want to write poetry, this seems to be the place to be inspired.

"Poems of New York" is a small, pocket-sized volume that attempts to condense and select from the many poems written about our egocentric, lyrical metropolis. The real task for the editor would be-- which poems do you include? Which do you cut? New York - home to Poe and Whitman, home to the beats like Ginsberg and Corso, home of the Harlem Renaissance of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, and inspiration for poets from around the world. New York - beacon for writers and hipsters and dreamy lost souls and losers and thinkers, the city where poseurs and flaneurs can sit in dim cafes and writeand recite-- and not be laughed out of town.

And, from the vast volumes of poetry written about and inspired by New York, Ms. Schmidt does select a nice sampling, a taste of this and a dash of that - not enough of any one poet, but a flavoring of many. Of course Whitman is here - the sweep and glory of "Mannahatta," with its description of "Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skys...." And many other favorites: Wallace Stevens's "Arrival at the Waldorf," "where the wild poem is a substitute/For the woman one loves or ought to love"; William Carlos Williams's "The Great Figure," with its evocative "I saw a figure 5/in gold," later immortalized by artist Charles Demuth's famous painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The volume includes tragic Hart Crane's "To Brooklyn Bridge": "Over the chained bay waters Liberty - "; Langston Hughes's timely "Harlem" refrain, "What happens to a dream deferred?"; and Allen Ginsberg's amusing "I am a Victim of Telephone." Many city neighborhoods are described, from wealthy James Merrill's Upper East Side "164 East 72nd Street" ("this neighborhood/Saunters blandly forth, adjusting its clothing) to Charles Simic's Coney Island ("So we put on our best rags/And went for a stroll along the boardwalk"). Poets have lived all over the city: Harlem, the Village, Tribeca, Soho.... And wherever they have lived, the light through the window, or the sounds outside, or a chance encounter, has inspired them.

The collection (sadly) is quite current, with contemporary responses to September 11 - which is almost too new and too raw to be transformed into poetry. Somehow the World Trade Center tragedy seems jarring in an anthology of New York poems, but at least the poets are not exploitive of our grief and pain: Polish Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska describes those who chose to jump from the Towers. She takes a step back from the grusome reality of the situation, writing in "Photograph from September 11" of how a photograph freezes time, "now keeps them above the earth...." David Lehman reminds us, in "September 14, 200l," "in case you forget/all you have to do is/look up and its not there."

Many of these poems remind us of a feeling, or a reaction, or a Proustian nudge.... Yes, I know that, I've been there! The poets have lived down the street from us, and visited the same museums, and hung out at the same bars, and ridden the same subways. We may recognize a familiar emotion or thought, as we watch people walk down the street, or listen to buses at night, or wonder about a huddled homeless beggar. This is life in New York.

And it is nice to be able to have so many clever thoughts and such wit and intelligence in one slim volume. It can be carried in one's pocket like a box of Good n' Plenty or a roll of Necco's, to be consumed in bite-size portions, on the bus or waiting for an elevator, mental candy to melt in your head.

Of course, the book can't include EVERY poet who has ever written about New York - it would have to be a multi-volume compendium. But there are a lot of poets I missed seeing: I'd like to see more of the Harlem Renaissance authors, perhaps: Arna Bontemps, Zora Neale Hurston (the subject of a reading this summer in Central Park), Melvin Tolson, and Countee Cullen. Langston Hughes is well represented, but "Ballad of the Landlord" is missing. Latino poets are not well represented, particularly a whole movement of Newyorican Poets and Poetry Slam artists, Hip Hop Rappers and current urban voices. And it would have been nice to see representatives of the East Side Scene of the '60: Harold Dicker's "Sing a Song of Cities" ("the city moves people/at its own pace"); Paul Blackburn's "Shoeshine Boy" and "The Descent" on subways ("The uptown entrance of the BMT/at 8th St. has/become the bleak doorway of hell"); David Henderson's "Keep on Pushing" ("I walk and the children playing frail games seem/like no other children anywhere"). And no Ralph Pomeroy's "Looking at the Empire State Building" ("when it disappears past clouds, I imagine/the gods holding a picnic") or Harvey Shapiro's "Riding Westward" (Cemetaries/break against the City like seas/A white froth of tombstones").

But there are some eighty odd poets, about a hundred poems, some negative, some positive, creating a portrait of our city: a mass of people of different backgrounds, living, working, thinking, struggling,and occasionally inspired to write poetry.


Copyright 2002 by John D. Delmar. All rights reserved.

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