Poetry City
by Cole Swensen
Posted: October 26, 2004 (at identitytheory.com)

I’m going to talk about not poetry of the city, but poetry as a city. Poetry is a city of words, a complex heterogeneity that functions both as its parts and as a whole. It’s full of systems—metaphoric, symbolic, sonic—analogous to the sewage, electrical, and transportation systems that animate a city. You look at a jagged skyline, and see the ragged right margin; you read through the quick shifts of much contemporary poetry, and think of a busy intersection in which your view is cut off by a bus one moment, then opened up the next, and then filled with a crowd crossing the street the next.

The poetic forms most common in the Western world today emerged with modernism, itself a product of the shift in consciousness that accompanied the urban explosion of the mid–nineteenth century. Modernist poetry and cities mirror each other, shed light on each other, and remain together in important works, such as Baudelaire’s, that predict and theorize the city as much as they record it.

I’m being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but only somewhat when I say that a poem is the city of language just as prose is its countryside. Prose extends laterally filling the page’s horizon unimpeded, while poetry is marked by dense verticality, by layerings of meaning and sound. Cities and poetry also share compression, heterogeneity, juxtaposition, and several other things I’m going to touch on briefly in the following.

The base structure of both the city and the poem is the labyrinth. In the city, it’s the physical plan. As in any maze, you can only see to the next corner, never around it. Nineteenth-century Paris is routinely described, in Balzac, Poe, Baudelaire, and elsewhere, as a labyrinth, and as such, something that needs to be unraveled, something coiled up, convoluted, ready to spring. Meaning is often similarly coiled within a poem—not laid out directly; one must follow intricate turns of thought, and unravel.

This is related to another common element: both are based on obscurity, and productive obscurity, at that. The urban imagination is driven more by what it cannot see than by what it can. Urban obscurity can be caused by corners, crowds, passing traffic, or nighttime—which is as occupied as day. Poetry’s obscurities are ambiguity, insinuation, ellipsis, but also darkness—that of the unlit regions beyond logic and reason, regions of impulse and emotion. Poetry is an inherently nocturnal medium, comfortable with shadows, shadowy explanations and shadowy emotions. Keats’s negative capability keeps its balance in the dark world of potential rather than the daylit world of the actual.

Juxtaposition is another crucial common structural element—in a city, we find a church right next to an apartment building right next to a newspaper office. The newspaper itself, the quintessential urban organ, replicates this juxtaposition in miniature: the story of a political coup in right next to an ad for diamond necklaces and a theater review. These things have no connection other than their proximity, and their proximity always demands a mental leap, always serves to put each element out of a context that might naturalize it, making it stand out more vividly. And poetry, too, of course, thrives on juxtaposition on many levels—incongruent images, images right next to abstractions or declarations, sense that doesn’t match its sound, and so forth. It’s the leaps in contrast to moments of flow that allow for the sonic dynamics of poetry and make those dynamics one of its most important aspects.

Collage is an extension of juxtaposition, and arose as a central invention of modernism just as omnibuses, trains, even automobiles were becoming more common. From such vehicles, the city as a collaged composition becomes visible, the eye filling with one scene upon which another was quickly superimposed.

An alternative to juxtaposition, similarity-in-difference plays a lively role in both poetry and city. In the latter, repetitions such as rowhouses, streetlights, street signs, corner groceries supply a repetition of elements that differ slightly, fusing familiarity with novelty, predictability with surprise in the way that refrains or the repeating elements that distinguish a villanelle or a pantoum, or even a haiku do. Even free verse poems often use parallelisms and repetitions to offer coherence, and all rhyme is essentially the exploitation of similarity-in-difference.

The increasing speed of urban life is echoed in modernist poetry’s relative brevity—both make the most of small space, both do compression with grace. Lorine Niedecker’s condensery is a verbal city, pulling in material from all sides and distilling it to clear, active, independent units.

In Paris “Belle époque” par ses écrivans, Marie Claire Bancquart states, “The danger of a capital as extensive as Paris is that it permits all sorts of imposture”—as does the poem, and in both cases, imposture is based on anonymity, which in turn can be seen as a slippage of subjectivity (p. 126). The I gets dispersed in the city as patterns of recognition change—one is known by many, but in fragments; we are glimpsed, a neighbor to one, a regular customer to another, a stranger who walks past every day at five to another. In a poem, the I also shifts, disperses, represents often only a fragment of a whole being. In one instance, it’s a set of memories, in another, a faculty of observation. It can detach, take on personas, switch rapidly among points of view. In both city and poem, the I is set lose from the subject, becomes less attached to the history of a body, of a particular, trackable person.

In both poem and city, we more clearly see the I as a construct, while simultaneously, more possibilities for its creative construction are available. In both, the I is stripped down past its name, becoming only an immediate presence and action, and inverting the notion of anonymity—suddenly rather than meaning invisibility, it means the acute visibility of that which is right in front of you, that which determines the moment, and thus those that follow. The abstractions of identity become the concrete of activity in both the city and the poem.

Imposture also implies illusion, and both city and poem have specific and similar relations to illusion. Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s reconstruction of Paris was based on the illusion of the endless avenue, accentuated by trees and planned vistas, a pattern that’s been picked up by many city planners worldwide; American cities splice the illusions of billboards and advertising posters into the “real” view, while poems rely on all sorts of illusions from metaphor and metonymy to persona and vivid image.

Modernism saw the rise of new forms of the city, and along with it, new forms of the poem, one of the most prominent being free verse. Poetry, broadly speaking, became less regular, with more various rhythms, denser images, and more violent juxtapositions. Its unpatterned but nonetheless foregrounded sound reflects the increasing cacophony of increasingly industrialized and mechanized living.

Prose poetry was the most radical new poetic form, and the one most tied to the urban, though it happens to refute some of my points. But what it lacks in the ragged right margin and vertical orientation, it makes up in its block structure, which echoes the delimitation of space by city streets. Even cities without a grid structure, such as Paris, where the prose poem originated, still divide space relatively uniformly. The city occurs in chunks just large enough to hold in the mind, just as a prose poem is usually a single gesture, whether image, thought, or impression. The second collection of prose poems ever written was Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen, and many of them directly address Paris.

Paris offers a particularly fruitful instance of the city/poetry cross-over. It went through a complete transformation during the second half of the nineteenth century, becoming emblematic of industrial urban explosion, and it has fostered some of the poetry most firmly indebted to the city. Paris’s poets are marked by their specificity—they name the streets they walk down and the churches or monuments they pass. One can often mentally follow them through the city they’re writing about.

Three of the best known—Charles Baudelaire of the mid–nineteenth century, Guillaume Apollinaire of the early twentieth century, and Jacques Roubaud of the late twentieth, early twenty-first century, all approach Paris walking. As they write it, Paris becomes a map of the mind and the heart, a map of the place where mind and heart intersect into daily life.

The city is itself a walking, which the poet merely traces, trying to stay on its trail. The city is always something going on ahead, something that just turned the corner, that just slipped out of view. The city is posited as something unseizeable, something whose body is necessarily amorphous, and that just might be concretized by the mapping the poet does in his walking. If the city can never be stable, at the least the poet, through the two-sided walking-mapping that is writing, can construct a complementary version in which he or she can live in relative stability.

Baudelaire captured this essential transience in a famous line from his poem “The Swan”: “La forme d’une ville / Change plus vite, helas! que le coeur d’un mortel” [The form of a city / changes faster, alas, than the heart of a mortal]. And Jacques Roubaud picked it up with a slight variation (“La forme d’une ville change plus vite, helas, que le coeur des humains”) as the title for a book of 150 poems on Paris published in 2000.

And in between them, Apollinaire wrote one of his most famous poems, “Zone,” as a day-long walk through Paris. In the middle, he takes a mental detour, and wanders all over Europe, as if the city simply expanded and expanded. And like Baudelaire, who, in “Crowds” wrote, “The solitary meditative walker draws an unusual excitement from this universal communion,” Apollinaire’s walking is also solitary, as is Roubaud’s: “This incidental day in the rue Saussure / I walk slowly fearing to forget”—it is, above all, Saussure’s city, a system of signs that attains meaning through differences that are always arbitrary, but often arranged in a deeply moving way.


Cole Swensen has published nine books of poetry and has won the National Poetry Series, the Iowa Poetry Prize, the San Francisco State Poetry Center Book Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Her latest book, Goest (Alice James 2004), is currently a finalist for the National Book Award. She lives in Iowa City and Washington D.C.