Randy Poets Glorify Gotham, They Sing of Urban Liberation

Poems of New York , edited by Elizabeth Schmidt. Everyman’s Library/Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $12.50.

Globalization, we often hear, is making every place identical, Jakarta just another version of Toronto. But in poetry, at least, cities are guaranteed their own distinctive lives. Literature preserves them at the moment not necessarily of their greatest wealth or power, but of their first maturity. Rome remains the aristocratic, rivalrous city of Catullus and Horace; London is still the Augustan clubland of Pope and Swift. In both cases, what makes them metropolitan is a sense of centrality: The poets declare that civilization exists here , in this small society of writers and readers who probably know each other by name.

New York’s great age of poetry was, roughly speaking, from 1870 to 1970. Of course, as Elizabeth Schmidt’s excellent new anthology shows, good poems are still being written here. But the classical, mythical New York was created by the line of poets running from Walt Whitman to Hart Crane to Frank O’Hara. And just as America, even in its imperial phase, is unlike the empires Rome and London ruled, so New York has called forth a very different poetry. It’s urban but not urbane, if urbanity means polish, sophistication, elegance. Instead, it’s all movement, potential, indefiniteness, longing-isolated, but yearning for ultimate connection. This explains why the best New York poems are about sex, and even, perhaps, why New York’s three greatest bards were gay: Erotic attraction, especially to strangers, is an enduringly apt symbol of the city’s democratic promise.

Poems of New York , a new entry in the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series, succeeds extraordinarily well in capturing the major strands of New York poetry. Part of the charm of the book is simply in the details, the familiar things transformed by metaphor. In Charles Reznikoff’s “Walk About the Subway Station,” we recognize the “flat black fungus / that was chewing gum”; in Howard Moss’ “The Roof Garden,” we see the water towers, like “an African village suspended above / The needle hardness of New York.” Even vanished facts come back to life, as in Karl Shapiro’s “Future-Present”: “Remember the old days when the luxury liners in narrow Manhattan / appeared piecemeal in segments at the end of east-west streets … ?”

When it comes to the city as a whole, however, the anthology offers two dueling visions. In “Whitman in Black,” Ted Berrigan writes of “Whitman’s city lived in in Melville’s senses.” Melville and Whitman represent two ways of seeing, and writing about, the city: threat or seduction, loss of nature or gain of culture, nightmare or paradise. Ms. Schmidt takes care to represent both. Melville’s New York appears in “The House-Top,” a poem describing the Civil War draft riots: “The Town is taken by its rats-ship-rats / And rats of the wharves.” This vision resurfaces in Berrigan’s “urban inferno,” where he lives “for my sins.”

Many of the writers in Poems of New York see the city this way. There’s Federico García Lorca: “Dawn arrives and no one receives it in his mouth / because morning and hope are impossible there.” There’s Muriel Rukeyser’s “Seventh Avenue”: “This is the cripples’ hour on Seventh Avenue / when they emerge, the two o’clock night-walkers, / the cane, the crutch, and the black suit.” More recently, there’s Cornelius Eady’s “Dread”: “If you’re a young man in East New York, / Here’s a simple fact of life: / If they don’t shoot with a gun, / They’ll cut you with a knife.”

No one could deny that these poets see a crucial aspect of New York. Yet in these poems they somehow fail to define the anthology, or the city. Partly this is because they are inferior as poetry, with more sincerity than art, and a strong flavor of the sermon and newspaper editorial. Partly it’s because New York’s victims struggle to leave, while true believers keep on coming. But more important, it’s because urban suffering can be just as bad in Chicago or San Diego, while the delights of New York are unique.

That uniqueness comes across clearly in Poems of New York : It’s the city’s intoxicating liberation, its combination of anonymity and potential. This is much better reflected in New York’s poetry than its fiction, which tends to focus on “society,” as in Wharton and James. The poets, on the other hand, are arrivistes, and they adore what they have found. For the women poets of the early 20th century, New York’s sexual freedom called forth a melodramatic and rather self-conscious braggadocio. Sara Teasdale daringly envies “the girls who can ask for love / In the lights of Union Square,” and Amy Lowell boasts, “I am like to be very drunk / with your coming.” The poetess laureate of these is Edna St. Vincent Millay, with the famous “Recuerdo” (“We were very tired, we were very merry”).

For the best expression of this freedom, however, we must turn to Whitman, Crane and O’Hara. They each offer a different version of the city’s delighted energy. O’Hara’s is eminently sociable and comic: He gives us the sense (also found in Catullus) that the poet has a really attractive group of friends. Many of O’Hara’s poems would belong in this anthology; Ms. Schmidt has chosen “Gamin” and “Steps,” where even a traffic jam is eroticized as “a way / for people to rub up against each other.”

Whitman, of course, is the poet of “Mannahatta” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” both of which are included. Whitman shows how simply walking down a New York street is an erotic experience:

Was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,

Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,

Saw many I loved in the street or ferry-boat or public assembly, yet never told them a word ….

But Hart Crane is the essential poet of New York, because he best combines both strains: He fears the city almost as much as he loves it. He takes note of the revolving doors “Where boxed alone a second, eyes take fright,” and of the subway bathroom, where love is “A burnt match skating in a urinal”-a perfect image of disgusted satiety. But he was also, from his Brooklyn Heights apartment, the visionary singer of the Brooklyn Bridge, a massive emblem of potential: “Some motion ever unspent in thy stride- / Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!”

Poems of New York , then, is not just a delightful book to read; it reminds us, in difficult times, of what New York really means. This is not accomplished by the poems relating to Sept. 11, which still feel too raw and testimonial. It succeeds, rather, by showing us that the city, which so often seems to belong merely to its owners, really belongs to the poets, and to anyone who shares Marianne Moore’s credo: “it is not the plunder, / but ‘accessibility to experience.’”

Adam Kirsch’s first book of poems, The Thousand Wells (Ivan R. Dee), will be published this fall.