home books poetry plays criticism video collaborations collaborations calendar biography

Towards a Poetics of Place

Published in Mantis 6, Summer 2007.

The poets included in the following discussion may not form a coherent group, if thought of in terms of conventional groupings, such as poetic schools or lineages.  I could have expanded my discussion of Apollinaire, Denby, and O’Hara to include other “poets of the street” and written solely on this phenomenon in modern and contemporary poetry.  I am more interested in charting a group of poets who have spoken most vividly to me, and who, it seems to me, make strong use of location as an aesthetic principle in their work.  At the end of my essay, I write of wanting to move, in my own poetry, from a poetic that is grounded in the location of the writing of the poem to one that, although influenced by its surroundings, is more interior.  It occurs to me that Elizabeth Bishop does precisely that in the poem I discuss below.  What follows, then, is a discussion of place in poets I admire, followed by a brief discussion of my own relationship to place.

Philip Larkin’s poem, “Dublinesque,” strikes us right away, in the remove built into its title.  It is not a poem of Dublin, but rather a poem that has something of the air of Dublin.  This makes sense for a poet who hated to travel, going only once to France to receive an award, and who grudgingly admitted having heard of someone named Ashbery.  So “Dublinesque” does not depict Dublin, but probably refers to some place in England; Larkin does not tell us explicitly where but he gives us clues: “stucco sidestreets,/Where light is pewter,” shops that sell “race guides and rosaries.”  The clothing of the people in the funeral procession that is the poem’s subject also help to place it: “wide flowered hats/Leg-of-mutton sleeves./And ankle-length dresses.”  But what is most striking about “Dublinesque” is where it takes us.  It is firmly based in a locale these details have sketched for us, and the cultural specificity is ramified  by the closeness of the people central to the poem: “There is an air of great friendliness,/As if they were honouring/One they were fond of”.  In the last few lines, we are taken by surprise by an awareness of distance — between the observer and observed, and between mourners and mourned.  The poet does not make a grand statement about life or death; he simply notes the human voice and its refraction of loss:

A voice is heard singing
Of Kitty, or Katy,
As if the name meant once
All love, all beauty.

As we read these lines, we realize something else: the elusive details seem to paint a picture of women (the clothing would seem to apply only to women) paying their respects in the most effective way they can, through music and dance.  We don’t know the woman’s name; nor does the poet.  We do know what she meant to someone, in the poem’s most significant word, “once.”

Unlike Larkin’s, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and life are marked by various geography.  Book titles like North & South, Questions Of Travel (with its subheadings, “Brazil” and “Elsewhere”), Geography III, and poem titles such as “ Wading At Wellfleet,” “Paris, 7 A.M.” and “Varick Street,” give an idea of the lay of the land.  One poem that makes a particular point of crossing borders, in time as well as space, is the opening poem of Questions Of Travel, “Arrival At Santos.” 

Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
Here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery:
Impractically shaped and—who knows?—self-pitying mountains,
Sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery…

The poem creates a vivid sensation of seeing each thing as it is passing before the poet’s eyes, as the boat she is on, on which she has traveled from the United States to Brazil, cruises the last few kilometers to its destination — the port of Santos.  During the space of ten four-line stanzas, she travels from the boat to land, where she passes through customs and begins her journey into Brazil.  More than simply describing, Bishop is anthropomorphizing — “self-pitying mountains”?  What can she mean by that?  Why are they “sad and harsh”?  Why is their greenery “frivolous”?  These are given as first impressions; perhaps the poet was expecting something more dramatic; perhaps fantasies of exotic jungles and magical natives were squashed by the reality of a busy, workaday sea port.  As we shall see, the harshness of these first impressions stages a mood from which the poet flees later in the poem.
”Arrival at Santos” was written in January of 1952; it appears to recount Bishop’s first arrival in the country:

                            …The tender is coming,
a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange and brilliant rag.
So that’s the flag.  I never saw it before.
I somehow never thought of there being a flag…

In fact, Bishop first went to Brazil in 1951, to visit the Amazon, but fell ill upon eating a cashew fruit and had to be nursed back to health.  Her nurse, Lota de Macedo Soares, become her life companion for the next 16 years.  The use of the word “tender” is particular, given Lota’s eventual relationship to Bishop and the meaning of “to tend to” someone as to care of them.  Here, “tender” is literally a boat, “a strange and ancient craft,” but to Anglo ears, “tender” has an additional connotation, that of money.  And money appears in the following lines, as a kind of token possibly charged with a muddled emotional state in which Bishop found herself in Brazil the previous year.

But of course there was [a flag], all along.  And coins, I presume,
and paper money: they remain to be seen.

To me, the poem seems to reconstruct Bishop’s first arrival in Brazil via the hindsight that she would leave Brazil’s surface (the port, Santos, as an edge, or literally superficial point, of Brazil, standing for a tourist’s quick cultural take) and penetrate to its interior.  That cultural penetration would be a necessary condition for the poet to find her lover.  The final lines of the poem — “We leave Santos at once;/we are driving to the interior” — turn it in a different direction: no sooner has one epic journey ended  than another has begun.  The poem functions as a gauge of a moment.  Bishop imbues her observation of a particular situation — its place and time — with wider ramifications.  As time would reveal, though she could not know it when she wrote the poem, Bishop’s verses capture the precise moment at which she moved from one life to another.

“We are driving to the interior” first appears to be a descriptive, even prosaic sentence, although its junction with the preceding line creates a propulsive energy that should alert us to look deeper.  In fact, “driving” and “interior” both have levels of meaning that deepen the seemingly declarative statement: “driving,” in the sense of relentless pursuit of a goal. and “interior” as depths of a person or culture.  Also, we should keep in mind the connotations of the Portuguese word, interior, of which Bishop surely would have been aware by the time she wrote the poem.  The United States does not have an “interior” in the same way a country like Brazil does.  In the U.S., we have “countryside,” “rural areas,” “farmland,” “woods,” etc.  One does not feel culturally distant in those places, and one did not in 1957.  Television had not yet appeared, but radio had, and the great cultural “bringing together” was underway.  In Brazil, by contrast, certainly in 1952 and even today to a lesser degree, the interior connotes a place with cultural references distinct from those of the capital.  Bishop lived in Rio, but she and Lota also had a place in Petropolis, and they lived in Ouro Prêto in the state of Minas Gerais.  Her later poems show a clear understanding both of the center and of the interior.  Bishop finds a way to equate physical geography and her emotional life.  The “interior” becomes as much a sign of her “psychogeography” as of the physical landscape.  It might also be the key to understanding her anthropomorphizations at the port.  Perhaps the projection of human emotions onto the mountains and “greenery” registers her desire to find a place that could reflect both interior and exterior conditions.

A different locating process occurs in Guillaume Apollianire’s poem, “Zone,” here in Roger Shattuck’s translation:

This morning I saw a pretty street whose name I have forgotten
Shining and clean it was the sun’s bugle
Executives and workers and lovely secretaries
From Monday morning to Saturday evening pass here four times a day

In the morning the siren wails three times
A surly bell barks around noon
Lettering on signs and walls
Announcements and billboards shriek like parrots
I love the charm of this industrial street
Located in Paris somewhere between the rue Aumont-Thiéville and the avenue des

In these lines, there is no question of moving from one country to another, or one city to another, or even from one neighborhood to another.  On the contrary, this poem derives its strength in being a poem of exhaustion. from the poet’s description of a location in a very particular zone of Paris.  ”Zone” moves from generalized observation of a nameless street to a slightly wider segment of the city enclosing it: the key fact is the emotion that attaches to particulars: “I love the charm of this industrial street.”   The modern idea of location depends on appreciation of the mundane. 

The idea of depicting “Executives and workers and lovely secretaries” non-judgmentally was a modern one.  Jean-François Millet had brought an appreciation to farmers and therefore to all kinds of manual laborers, while executives were either glorified in portraits or else transformed into sinister figures by artists with social agendas like George Grosz.  Apollinare, however, observes modernity without editorializing, using it instead as a new kind of backdrop to his Classical preoccupations with matters of the heart or else, as in “Zone,” as a subject in itself, a setting and partial cause for his ennui, which is tempered by his enthusiasm for the new.

Frank O’Hara may be the quintessential American poet of the streets; he perfected this mode in his Lunch Poems, written in the mid-1950s, during lunch breaks from his curatorial job at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Take “A Step Away From Them,”, in which a casual walk through Times Square begins with an appreciation of its “laborers,” leads to intimations of sexual beauty, and further, to an awareness of death that shadows our days, but that, in this poem, is not triumphant.  The energy of the street, its carefully evinced light and rhythms, is his primary subject.  O’Hara has taken from Apollinaire, but he has radically transformed the French poet’s observational mode.  Where Apollinaire was charmingly stuck between yes and no, O’Hara wastes no time in plunging definitively on the yes.  There are workers and beautiful women in O’Hara’s poem, but the executives are absent; surely, they are not on the side of life.  In place of the Parisian’s lovely secretaries, O’Hara has peopled his poem with flipping skirts and a blonde chorus girl — both images implying exciting movement as opposed to the static objects of French male gaze (even though they pass, they are passive).  This is but one example of a pattern that is systematically worked out in the poem.  A feeling of constant movement paces the poem, a rhythm that is not frenetic, as in a Futurist cartoon of a scurrying dachshund, but rather “languorous,” to use O’Hara’s own word. 

The movement starts right away:

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs.  First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets

The workers’ glistening torsos imply energy and also an Edenic vision of beauty in a common setting; it should be noted that the compression of the line, “glistening torsos sandwiches” is a typical O’Harian effect for charging the poem — the sandwiches become momentarily identified with the workers, as possible objects of consumption.  Next comes another familiar ploy — the witty aside — here applied to the use of the modern “yellow helmets” — “They protect them from falling/bricks, I guess.”  The idea of unstoppable energy is encapsulated in the offhand remark and therefore resides harmoniously within the poem as a whole.  The motion is cranked up:

                   Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over

Skirts are flipping, heels are moving, skirts are being blown up by gusts of air from subway grates, bringing to mind not only the spectacular image of Marilyn Monroe, but also the mundane recognition that one can see that image any summer day (the poem is dated August 16, 1956)., which is why   Hollywood chose it, to tap into the energy of New York’s Post-War boom feeling.  The motion of the poem is continuous, something akin to a piece of Baroque music, that from its beginning is composed in such a way as to lead the listener (or reader) on without pause to its final denoument.  Cabs stir up the air, the poet looks at bargain wristwatches, cats play in sawdust.  The words are chosen carefully, for this is, after all, a deadly serious poem, and as it runs playfully on, ”A Step Away From Them” offers itself as more than a simple choice of life over death at a particular moment; it is in fact a challenge to death, and the opening of that challenge provides a great opportunity to the poem’s readers. 

The connective words help propel the poem: First, Then, On…  At Times Square, more action: smoke blows, a waterfall pours, and then the ultimate movement is in stop-time:

Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin.  Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
a Thursday.

There is movement also here: the chorus girl clicks because her shoes are clicking against the pavement as she walks past (or she is clicking her chewing gum), but she clicks in another way: she makes sense.  She clicks — and in the zoomed out view presented by the poet, in which we watch the man watching her — everything clicks, or as he puts it, honks.  While the movement does not stop — Times Square’s mid-day bustle continues, naturally — in a cinematic effect, the poem suddenly becomes still and quiet in the image of an African-American man “languorously agitating.”  This strange phrase expresses the pent-up energy that is at the poem’s core; unable to do anything with it, he smiles and rubs his chin.

From this point on, the poem becomes more allusive, referencing Edwin Denby’s observations of the city, Fellini‘s wife and star, Giulietta Masina, and ultimately, friends of the poet’s who have recently died — Bunny Lang, John Latouche, and Jackson Pollock.  A quick question: “But is the/earth as full as life was full, of them?”  Then back to walking, a few final observations before returning to work, and a famous last line.  Ultimately, one returns to that question: Is the world today as full as it was when they were living?  Or, is the earth, having accepted their bodies, as full as the world was then?  We are aware that motion does stop somewhere, but we have been given an ultimate example of how it need not stop, in fact must not stop, before it is absolutely necessary.

Edwin Denby, to whom O’Hara refers in “A Step Away From Them” as an acute observer of the city, was one of America’s premiere dance critics.  He also wrote brilliantly about New York:

Daily life is wonderfully full of things to see.  Not only people’s movements but the objects around them, the shape of the rooms they live in, the ornaments architects make around windows and doors, the peculiar ways buildings end in the air, the water tanks, the fantastic differences in their street facades on the first floor…  And then the masses, the way the office and factory buildings pile up together in perspective.  And under them the drive of traffic, those brilliantly colored trucks with their fanciful lettering, the violent paint on cars, signs, houses as well as lips.  Sunsets turn the red-painted houses in the cross streets to the flush of live rose petals.  And the summer sky of New York for that matter is as magnificent as the sky of Venice.  Do you see all this?  Do you see what a forty- or sixty-story building looks like from straight below.  And do you see how it comes up from the sidewalk as if it intended to go up no more than five stories?  Do you see the bluish haze on the city as if you were in a forest?  As for myself, I wouldn’t have seen such things if I hadn’t seen them first in the photographs of Rudolph Burckhardt.  But after seeing them in his photographs, I went out to look if it were true.  And it was.

                                                            from “Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets” 1954

Denby’s vision of New York is the transformative vision of the poet: buildings become rose petals, New York becomes Venice, the city becomes a forest.  Notably, Denby credits his friend, the photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt, for having triggered this vision.  The photographs Denby refers to are in black and white, so there too is a transformative vision — not simply that we intuit color in black and white, but that we intuit orange rose petals in a photo of a building.  There is an air of life that is poetic in the photographs and in Denby’s description of them and of the city.

In my own poetry, I began by following, very consciously, a poetics of place as I have marked it out here in the New York School poets.  In my book, Understanding Objects (2000), there are poems about Chicago, Rome, Oxford, London, Budapest, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Paris, Valencia, Berlin, Zürich, and Pasadena, as well as New York.  In one poem, “June In Progress,” I wrote, “June is not only a time/but a place” and the corollary is that New York is not only a place but a time, or is time itself, or any place in which one finds oneself is also time, and I saw that poetry could be useful in staking oneself against the passing of time, not by bemoaning or even challenging it, but simply by observing it.  I noticed in James Schuyler’s poems often a way of applying steady observation to a situation, such that observation would ultimately pay off in a sudden insight: “I can’t get over/ how it all works in together…”  (“February”).

I used that approach as a way of living through poetry; if I could apply my observation to what I was living — good, bad, or indifferent — and if my attention could be focused, inevitably some sign of life or change would creep in, and that would become the poem’s key element.  It often worked on the scale of an afternoon, which usually was equivalent to one poem.  It also worked on a larger scale, when I was writing the poems that ended up being published in the book Pearl (1998).  Those poems were written in a notebook over about a six-month period; I gave myself the rule that I would not look back at any of the finished pages until I reached the end of the notebook.  What resulted was a large-scale frame, into which I could fit a variety of city incident — parties, nights out at the theater with friends, holidays, jazz, my record collection, poetry readings, a train ride, television.  Ultimately, something occurred of much greater moment than all these daily occurrences, or more perhaps it was not that its moment was greater —daily activity is momentous after all — but it put it in perspective: the poet James Schuyler died.  This is recounted in a few poems in Pearl, and then the notebook (and book) continue, life picking up where it left off after the appropriate time for grieving. 

Since the publication of Understanding Objects, I have turned somewhat away from a poetics of place.  I felt, in my own writing, it had become too automatic a response to being in a place.  I wanted a writing that was more meditative and interior.  I was able to pursue that in Rome, where a fellowship allowed me the opportunity to wake up every morning, go out on the veranda with a cup of coffee, look at the light shifting on buildings and gardens, feel the city somewhere below me, and try to listen to the sounds and rhythms inside my head.  I was reading Robert Creeley’s novel, The Island, and it impressed me that the story itself was less important on some level than the words in which it was told.  I tried to be more particular about my word choices, placing less emphasis on observation.  Oddly, writing in the same place and time every day took the specificity of place out of the equation.  I was no longer in some urgent relation to the moment, struggling to stake it before it passed.  It felt as though the moment lasted forever, or maybe not the moment — I still wrote poems about the passing of time — maybe it was the place that felt like it could last forever.