Poetry’s rich tradition of urban wandering

BY KATHLEEN ROONEY

poetrys-rich-tradition-of-urban-wandering“The day turned into the city / and the city turned into the mind.” So Jessica Greenbaum begins her breathless, single-sentence poem “I Love You More Than All the Windows in New York City.” Often when we think of the kinds of landscapes that poets physically traverse and turn their minds to, we think not of the city but of the countryside. The conception of walking as a pastoral pastime to stimulate one’s creativity comes in large part from the legendary rural rambling of the Romantic poets: William Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s week-long solo walking tour of the Cumbrian mountains. But Greenbaum’s poem participates in, and perhaps even helps define, an equally rich tradition of the poetry of urban wandering.
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An aimless urban walk—no map, no GPS—can resemble the experience of flipping through a poetry collection: the turn you take on a given street or to a given page, the forms or structures you’re drawn to, the storefront or poem you pass in favor of another. Or as Michel de Certeau puts it in a chapter called “Walking in the City” in his landmark 1984 book, The Practice of Everyday Life, “There is a rhetoric of walking. The art of ‘turning’ phrases or ‘stylistic figures’ finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path.”
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Frank O’Hara is well-known for his pleasurable depictions of such directionless literary and pedestrian detours. His “Meditations in an Emergency” offers as solid an explanation as any as to why some people and poets prefer urban walking to rural and prefer to do their browsing through culture, not nature. “I have never,” he writes:

   clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. 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.

Read the complete essay

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