Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The city by Anne Born

The City: Gem of all joy or the place where houses thick and sewers annoy the air? [1] by Anne Born

Is it still true: ‘The man who is tired of London is tired of life’, as Dr. Johnson famously said, holding court at the smoky Cheshire Cheese Inn in Fleet Street? What was/is it that is so energizing about cities? Architect Richard Rogers has a lot of answers to the question in his 1995 Reith lectures: community life, work, opportunities, activities of all kinds of a vibrant creative society – amenities that need much work and improvement to realize properly. Then there is the ease cities provide for people to meet and converse, by which we come to learn good, bad and irrelevant things.

Cities were more manageable in Johnson’s time, the countryside was closer. But he was glad to get back to London after his Hebridean tour, to carry on the conversations and compose his dictionary – to a great extent, one might think, out of them – and agree with William Dunbar, an early 16th century Scot, that London was ‘the flower of cities all’ and ‘forth issuing on a summer’s morn to breathe’/ Among the pleasant villages and farms’. Wordsworth in 1807 found the country in the city, on ‘Westminster Bridge’ where he felt ‘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, war/ 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’. Then the full effects of the Industrial Revolution spread through the cities so that William Morris, writing in 1868, could say: ‘Forget six counties overhung with smoke, /Forget the snorting steam and piston stroke,/ Forget the spreading of the hideous town; / Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,/ And dream of London, small and white and clean,/ The clear Thames bordered by its gardens green.’ In the 20th century, Eliot caught the depressed mood of the twenties in The Waste Land when his ‘crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many/ I had not thought death had undone so many’, in Dantesque gloom which expressed a mythical tone.

The long history of this one city has naturally been written by many authors, from Dunbar to Defoe, with his History of the Plague Year in the 17th century, to modern commentators like Richard Rogers. What then do cities mean to the modern poet? What are the advantages and disadvantages? On balance the advantages would seem to win: culture, in its material presences, stimulation, new thinking, in universities, art galleries, theatres, libraries; in meetings of societies, readings, social gatherings. They offer architecture and history, associations of all kinds; and cities are also where some poets work at other occupations as well, as publishers and editors, for instance.

Although it receives criticism for its architecture, London’s South Bank Centre is a story of success in many fields: literature, drama, art and community. In the Royal Festival Hall, as well as nightly concerts by international artists, there are free lunchtime performances by small groups, including school children. Standards are high and audiences large. There may be handicapped people among the audience who love to join in the music. Other people sit around, some listening, some writing or drawing or discussing plans with colleagues. It is truly communal. And on Level 5 is the Poetry Library, a welcoming place for all poets and offering the fullest bank of information on all aspects of the poetry world. Next to the library is The Voice Box, for performances. Several other London venues hold regular readings. This pattern is followed in other cities and at the many British festivals based on towns.

Some disadvantages of the city are: chaos and noise, lack of space and wide perspective, of open landscape, of the natural world – although London is fortunate in its fine parks; lack of quietness and peace for reflection, of the sense of time and timelessness, of the continuity offered by an old landscape and its geology; of its detail, and, particularly, its trees and the earth that welcomes our feet.

I reflect a personal view in those last listings, for have a love-hate relationship with the city, my own city of London known from the age of two, although I have not lived for long periods in the centre. I have come to value the country far more, and it is the landscape I primarily want to perceive and absorb when abroad, to see, through its geology and vegetation, why it is as it is and what grows and lives on it. This does not mean I am not interested in people. A great part of the planet has been shaped by man and is in danger, as we know, of being wrecked by us. So looking at a landscape, especially in a small country like England, is observing human activity and sensing past lines moving over the hills. This is one of the main sources of inspiration – feeling a part, with some chosen companion, of the huge span of time and of the lives lived in it; trying to relate our own time, lives and relationships to that. I like, too, to meditate alone in some remote cliff top or riverside place.

As a published writer, I naturally hope my work will have a small niche in cities! In libraries or personal collections. I enjoy reading to others in cities and so communicating. So, tired and wilted ‘flowers of cities all’ , London, whose streets I hold the freedom of to walk, you may be corrupt, criminal and crumbling, allowing the gap between rich and poor to widen, but I can’t desert you totally. For me, too, the wonderful variety of nationality in London is indeed a privilege to be among. It is also both exciting and instructive to visit cities around the world.

In England, in London especially, rural poetry is out of mode. Strange, in a literary land where Shakespeare was born in, and returned to, his native country town, and wrote so often of it, followed by many other great writers. There are a few respected poets today in rural isolation, possibility the greatest amongst them being R.S. Thomas in Wales, who has written of the hard lot of the hill farmer and his own problems as their spiritual caretaker – he is a country clergyman. The present poet laureate, Ted Hughes, is a Yorkshireman living reclusively in rural Devon. And Seamus heany in Ireland coined the term ‘hedge school’ in recollection of the oppressed Irish children educated in the open air when they had no school buildings, and to describe his own rural themes.

But the majority live and write in cities. There is a flourishing school in the north of Enland based on Huddersfield and Newcastle, of poets who mostly write on working class subjects, of life in poverty or unemployment, the problems of the homeless, frustrated youth, single parenthood, broken relationships. This is of course good, we need to know and write about social problems and about all kinds of people. But too much blackness where the idiom must above all be colloquial is a kind of inverted snobbery.

However, there can be some grim humor, or pure humor, or witty poetry, to leaven the lump. There are many schools, in fact, with sub-divisions and individual poets, and not a few in-fights between them. There is plenty of activity although compared with, say, the poets of Australia, a lack of fresh energies.

Poets must, I agree, work with the urban planners to make cities better environments for all, including themselves and their performance venues. We must try to make our voice heard in plans for the future, engage in discussions so that cities are hubs to which the turning moving progressing wheels of the rest of the land return again and again. No, I can’t turn my back on them! And I have to admit I am writing this looking out on a Mayfair street! And looking forward to the symposium in September.

[1] William Dunbar, 1465? – 1530?, and John Milton, 1608 - 1674

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