Celebrating Cities in Poetry #NationalPoetryDay, 2018

In honour of National Poetry day, I’ve had a think about some of my favourite poems/poetry set in cities. Whilst I love Lyrical Ballads and all, there’s something about the pace of a poem that I think works really well in capturing the frenetic or harsh nature city life can create.61qXBND0r5L._AC_US218_

1. Howl by Allen Ginsberg (1955) – it’s a noisy, painful assault on the senses and I loved teaching it to Sixth Formers who had thought they were the first ones to feel this sense of anger and alienation. It was often unlike anything they’d read before (although some had heard the opening lines in They Might Be Giants’ I Should be Allowed to Think).

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy
among the scholars of war,


original_400_6002. The Long Take by Robin Robertson (2018) – This is a very recent read for me (my full review is here) and days later, my head is still full of this verse. It captures the seamier side of New York and Los Angeles and the lines below, describing a woman propping up the bar in Los Angeles, really struck me in terms of the violence of the observation. City life is cruel to those who can’t keep up, those who get old:

‘This old doll at the other end of the counter, the look
of fallen masonry about her face
a ruin of crumbling plaster, badly painted,
eyebrows halfway up her forehead, her mouth
like it’d been dug out with a knife’


3. Composed Upon Westminster Bridge by William Wordsworth (1802) – Proving that beauty can be found in cities (although I always loved getting students to compare Wordsworth’s London to that found in Blake’s far bleaker London, written in 1794), 41Xo0HTrqyL._AC_US218_this feels like a young city that we’re looking at. There’s an optimism here:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

4. A London Thoroughfare. 2am by Amy Lovell (1914) – this captures the harsh brilliance of a city at night, and the sense of alienation we can feel in a new place. I’ve always enjoyed Lovell’s way of making the familiar strange and her distinctive voice is really clear here:

They have watered the street,
It shines in the glare of lamps,
Cold, white lamps,
And lies
Like a slow-moving river,
Barred with silver and black.

41AcLxv7T9L._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_5. In a Station of the Metro by Ezra Pound (1913) – a case of a man with very unpleasant views being able to produce something really beautiful – for me, these two lines are Imagism at its most distilled and its most perfect.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear which city-based poetry other people have enjoyed reading.

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