‘Cities are built with language’: how poetry feeds on urban life

cities-are-built-with-languageThe excitement and frustrations of city life have inspired poets from 18th-century Grub Street to the 50s Beats and modern-day rappers. But can poetry actually help us make cities better?

I see the F train’s twin headlights blooming into the station.

When I close my eyes, its warm wind sweeps hair from my face,

the way my grandmother did with her hands, to see my eyes.”
The feeling created by these words, from American poet Erika Meitner’s 2010 poetry collection Ideal Cities, will ring familiar to nearly all who live the urban experience. But the relief of seeing a pair of headlights peek through the tunnel, or the sensation of the hot air of a passing train, are so mundane they can often go uncelebrated save for a fleeting moment.

Poetry like Meitner’s can give us a space to sing the praises and frustrations of the cities we live in. But can it actually help us make those cities better? Can poetry be a way to experience and understand our environment more richly?
Many people’s first formal interaction with poetry – beyond nursery rhymes, at least – tends to be centred on the Romantic-era poets such as Blake, Keats, Wordsworth or Shelley. This particular tradition is known for being rooted in a celebration of the beauty of the natural world, typified in classics such as Keats’ Ode to Autumn (“While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day / And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue”), and Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind:

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams

The blue Mediterranean, where he lay

Lull’d by the coil of his crystalline streams”

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