West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 22 | Oct. 31 - Nov. 06, 2007

Columbia University Press

Hanging with the poets below 14th Street

By Stephen Wolf

Ed.’s Note: Lower East Side resident Stephen Wolf is the editor of the recently released poetry anthology “I Speak of the City: Poems of New York” (Columbia University Press). Below is his personal introduction to the book, written expressly for The Villager.

“I Speak of the City: Poems of New York” tells this epic city’s remarkable story in four centuries of poetry. Just released by Columbia University Press, it is the most recent New York collection of verse and also the most extensive, beginning not with Walt Whitman but two hundred years before, when the city was New Amsterdam. All urban poetry shares subject matter and themes, but “I Speak of the City” is about New York, both as the setting and prime character. The poems speak about subways, Harlem, Central Park, bridges, buildings, and the Cyclone, yet a hefty collection could be assembled of only wonderful poems about the New York below 14th Street.

There are many poems about Downtown because that is where the city began. Over a century before fine books by Herbert Asbury and Tyler Anbinger and a film by Martin Scorsese, poet Laughton Osborn spoke of the “starvation, sickness, vermin, stench, and sin” in “Five Points 1838.” That notorious part of town vanished long ago, but the little street called Maiden Lane remains, as does a pretty poem by Louise Morgan Sill who explains how the street was named after the young women who walked it to the river to wash clothes. In Nathaniel Parker Willis’ “City Lyrics,” a young man buys his girlfriend ices, then together they stroll along old Broadway, and Charles Coleman Stoddard imagines even further back to “When Broadway was a Country Road.” Delicate Sara Teasdale takes a breathless walk on the observation deck in “From the Woolworth Tower” and a tragedy’s survivor recalls “girls cracking like cheap buttons/ disappearing like so many dropped stitches” in Robert Phillips’ “The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.”

Certainly “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus appears in “I Speak of the City” but also Yiddish poems from poets who came here with dreams and battered suitcases. Eliezer Greenberg sees a Second Avenue as the very promise of the New World “giving [us] life, winged with faith, and hope,” while for the great Moishe Leib Halpern, there were darker visions of a “huge night city [of] such grim strangeness.” He saw not paradise but “ceilings on ceilings, and beds over beds” where “man and wife sleep by the millions.” These poems are like neglected treasures, just like the small Jewish cemetery still deep in Chinatown, there since 1682, “shaded and obscured,” wrote Naftali Gross, “in the shadow of the Bowery and East Broadway.”

In Greenwich Village a young Edna St. Vincent Millay “lack[s] all will/ To let such happiness go” in her view of Washington Square. E. E. Cummings finds himself “gently decompos-/ ing in the mouth of New York” where “in the soft midst of the tongue sits the Woolworth building a serene/ pastille-shaped…lozenge.” Jack Kerouac mocks “the goofy foolish human parade” buying art in “MacDougal Street Blues” along MacDougal Street, and Tuli Kupferberg takes a mad ride of possibilities in “Greenwich Village of My Dreams.” We sit in W.S. Merwin’s apartment on Waverly Place, watch with Richard Howard as old men play bocce on Leroy Street, and pass twenty years of Village life with L.E. Sissman. Noble Prize-winner Derek Walcott speaks of loss through a Village winter in “A Village Life,” and Edward Field’s “The Last Bohemians” is a touching, funny, ennobling poem of the Village past and present. For in time the Village’s very popularity doomed it for those artists and writers who lived there and gave it so much vitality. Once rents rose beyond their meager means they crossed town where they produced lively, influential poems while declaring what many already knew: the capital of the art world had shifted from Paris to New York, most prominently in the East Village.

Kenneth Koch’s rollicking, heavily autobiographical “Time Zone” preserves these exciting years and exchanges between poets and painters, but New York is, and has always been, a city of extremes. Allen Ginsberg, a friend and neighbor of Koch and his fellow poets of the self-effacing New York School (Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler and Barbara Guest, all included in “I Speak of the City”) saw a far darker vision of New York. His “Mugging” is a frightening though at times funny depiction of a harrowing but common New York experience. June Jordan speaks in “47.00 Windows” about the crammed tenements of the Lower East Side where “unskilled millions…took a corner/ held a place a spot a bed a chair a box.” Galway Kinnell wrote one of the richest, and certainly the longest poem in the collection. His “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World” is a penetrating mosaic of cultures and time periods along Avenue C from 14th Street to Houston. Puerto Rican, Jewish, troubled, inspiring, the poem captures both the past and present, as does Julia Kasdorf’s enchanting “Ladies Night at the Turkish and Russian Baths” on East Tenth Street. After the steam bath — an old tradition still alive today — “our hair wrapped up in towels,/ we climb to a roof that faces the back of Ninth Street…eyes locked on our city’s sky/ aglow with all that lies beneath it.”

Self-proclaimed junkie/thief Miguel Piñero “don’t wanna be buried in Puerto Rico” but pleads “take my ashes and scatter them thru out/ the Lower East Side” where, writes Mark Wunderlich, “someone’s always poor enough/ to covet what’s been cast off.” Longtime East Village resident and notable Ron Padgett begins his day in a bank at 14th and First Avenue where — apart from the sexiest teller in the world — “the greatest thing about today/ Is today itself,” and in “World Trade Center (1993)” David Lehman liked how the two great towers “come into view as you reach Sixth Avenue/ From any side street.” Most haunting is Andrea Carter Brown’s “The Old Neighborhood” where she remembers all the simple merchants who once survived near the Trade Center: “I can see their faces clear/ as I still see everything from that day I ride away from/ the place we once shared.”

Although “I Speak of the City” throws a wide net to include all five boroughs and includes nearly 150 poems, the streets below 14th Street are the subjects for a disproportionately large number of them. It is not because this editor loves it there and spent a quarter century on East First Street, nor that my two children were born there, nor that my grandparents lived on Delancey more than a century ago, but because our city began Downtown. Some of those visions are gathered here, in this new, most extensive collection that “maps a kind of guidebook stroll through New York,” wrote the eminent poet and editor John Hollander in the collection’s Foreword, “as it was, has been, and is now.” And nowhere in the city has that stroll been taken by more poets than the old, teeming, ever-varied streets of New York below 14th.

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