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Writer and urban planner Arden Levine ’01 on the vitality of poetry and the modern city.
oetry is dead. Until it isn’t anymore. And then is and isn’t again.
Go all existential on a search engine and ask: Is poetry dead? You’ll find that even when the authors of any number of media hot takes are asserting just the opposite, some version of this hyperbolic rhetoric is necessary, for whatever reason.
Poetry may be, per The Washington Post, “going extinct” in 2015 only to be, according to NPR, “making a comeback” three years later, and, says USA Today, “on the rise” last year—all as if it were a precious threatened species that thankfully no longer requires federal protections. For now, anyway.
In this condition, poetry joins another dead-or-maybe-not entity: the American city. Frenzies in 2020 over anarchic jurisdictions and dystopian urban abandonment and the unhealthiness of high-density geographies (toxic air, viral spread) follow a tradition of intellectual hand-wringing.
In the 1960s, city developer Robert Moses and community organizer Jane Jacobs played out their mutual antagonism in New York City’s streets and in celebrated treatises. The former engineered massive public construction projects, from roads to residences, and held that a thriving urban future often required taking a literal wrecking ball to the “blighted” portions of its present; the latter saw the bonds between neighbors as important as mortar and doubly strong, fiercely advocating for the preservation of the city’s mosaic of neighborhoods and protesting their sanctioned destruction.
But though their approaches to civic stewardship were wholly opposite, these ardent nemeses had a common commitment: schooling the throngs of contemporary haters who asserted that cities were done for. And even then, none of this was new.
I take all this personally: By craft, I’m a poet; my collection Ladies’ Abecedary (Harbor Editions) debuted in 2021, preceded by publication and participation in various literary outlets. By profession, I’m a public servant; my decade-plus as a nonprofit manager and advocate for affordable housing and homelessness prevention segued into a career in municipal government.
There’s a saying among writers: Kill your darlings. It refers to the editorial practice of deleting beloved content that has been rendered unnecessary in the process of revision. I get the whole “kill your darlings” thing; I’m not clear, though, on why everyone is trying to kill both of mine.
Let’s have it done with, then: Poetry isn’t dead. Neither, by the way, is the promise of the metropolis. Also, I’m pretty certain they were never, at any point, dead. But I’ll go further: For my own part, I see and use poetry in the way I live and serve cities and their residents. I see and use poetry not only as a literary art but as a practical one. I see the vitality of poetry in the task of preserving the vitality of urban communities. I see the discipline of poetry and the concept of the city not just as alive, but as keeping each other alive.
Cities are defined by their constriction, by the great combustive results promised by pressing large numbers of humans into shared public spaces or tight personal spaces. When those results are good (creative, collaborative), they’re really good; when they’re bad (breeding contagion or contention), they’re disastrous. Likewise, the art of city policymaking is walled in by design, beset by rules and criteria (from fund usage to voting practices) intended to preserve the integrity of government and the well-being of the governed.
So, what’s another art that’s all rules and restrictions, that demands of the author that she generate a game-changing artifact within an authorized set of maneuvers? I’ll say this: In an analysis of Elizabeth Bishop’s revered poem “One Art,” The New York Times remarked on her use of the villanelle, a taut and brutal poetic form of meter and repetition that packs a power punch when applied to the correct topic: “For her, it was the exquisite compression and technical precision of poetry that appealed.”
And I’m with Bishop on this one. In a recent interview with Newfound Magazine, I explained the process of writing Ladies’ Abecedary this way: “The tightest economy of text is the alphabet itself, and an abecedary (or alphabet book) is a primary tool of teaching and learning. If I could create a collection where each letter was a tiny poem-story of a woman, perhaps I could place those poem-ladies in conversation (with each other and with the reader) and reveal something about how visibility begins with the fundaments of language.”
It’s a lot to ask of a book that contains only about twice as many words as this essay. But, like furnishing wee urban apartments or financing social programs, narrow conditions can often broaden ingenuity. And sometime later while on the job, when I reduced a set of complex policy topics into a little bouillon cube of content that retained the emotional intent while draining out the excess, I knew I didn’t learn that trick in my management degree program. (No shade to my management degree program.)
Why are the existence and relevance of poetry debated? And why is the significance and staying power of the modern city questioned? Hazarding a guess, I come back to visibility: Poetry is dead to you if you don’t participate in its creation or enjoyment, just as cities may be dead to you if you don’t dwell in, work for, or visit one. From the outside, maybe they look like dusty tomes or haunted ruins, the content of tombs. It’s been easy enough for a long time to avoid both.
But I wonder, why would you want to:
When Los Angeles–based poet-activist Amanda Gorman presents a brilliant referendum-in-verse on the American condition in its capital city during the presidential inauguration? When Urban Word’s young slam poets convey their astute talking points, better than any I could prepare for a city council meeting, in sharpened stanzas at the Apollo Theater? When Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize win introduces to a new generation a version of a politically galvanized poetry-saturated New York that miraculously lived right through the death that midcentury naysayers insisted was totally happening?
No matter. Poetry isn’t dead. It’s alive and well and living in the briefing memo, the architectural diagram, the park signage, the case summary. It’s alive and well in still-very-much-alive metropolitan America and everywhere else. It’s alive if you want it to be, if you notice it when it shows up or, better yet, if you call it in. For my own part, I sit at my office desk thinking about how well-structured language girds the masonry of social action. Then I sit at my writing desk thinking about how, when, and why humans ping off each other. I like to believe that both desks are better for it.
Arden Levine’s poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Harvard Review, Barrow Street and American Life in Poetry (a project of the Poetry Foundation). Read more, and learn more about Ladies’ Abecedary, at www.ardenlevine.com.
On this great good morning, we would
once have said that the city had
the streetlight fronds fading,
the buildings quiet beneath
the breaking surface.
From my bed, I hear tidal strokes of
car car car then truck
(a heavier wave, it dredges up parkway sediment).
I draw in sentiment.Open
the window and gather the day’s
first glinting net.
“Wake” first appeared in Delmarva Review (Volume 8 - 2015)