Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Introduction by Hatto Fischer

When poets face the city, they may hear ‘Jazz’ like in Sofia Yannatou’s description of Athens. It was already amazing the discussion in the car, when some membes of the Touch Stone group went after last year’s Poetry Festival “Mythology and Poetry” to a meeting in Glyfada where Emer Ronan-Assimikopoulou lives. They discovered that the them “city” had run more or less consciously or unconsciously like a red thread through their poetry. Of course, Sofia Yannatou referred very often to the writings she did for her sister, the singer Savinna Yannatou who was producing at that time for Radio 3 program something on the theme “voices of cities”. A departure point for that program was Calvino’s book “Invisible cities”.

The connection with modernity or even post-modernity is that the physical presence of a city is changing constantly due to the introduction of new, that is learning and communication technology. The information highway system stretches not only across continents, “internet” but a closer focus upon that possibility to have really ‘world connections’, but also over the urban grid. In discussions with Sue Tilden it became very clear that cities have the option of new technical solutions and hence they develop what can be termed as ‘invisible infrastructures’. The use of mobile phones is but one indication of that kind of development with people driving while phoning at the same time for either private or business reasons. At the same time, the development leaves also a shepherd up in the hills connected with the world. It is a way of overcoming loneliness, provided you have enough telephone numbers, in order to contact people and enough money to pay for the ever increasing, indeed over expensive telephone bill. Still the most recent joke in business ventures with more or less an unserious touch, but with an appeal as it satisfies demands to be called on the mobile phone, is to have arranged with a company to be called while having a business lunch just to give the impression of being in high demand. The exploitation of such communication means for the sake of appearance is just a side phenomenon, but as an anecdote it highlights nevertheless the same old struggle for survival in recognition of the need to produce chances and opportunities to make something work and come to fulfill financial prerequisites to be clarified by gaining a contract which secures payment for a certain work to be done.

Now that is an interesting point: what is contractual in life? Is it to life itself, in order to uphold life by heeding the Biblical command “thou shall’st not kill anyone”, or is it a formal agreement to serve the state and only the state whether now as a citizen, civil servant or soldier while agreeing with a kind of judicial system which can put any citizen into the stand and before answering any questions put forth to vow “to say nothing but the truth, so help me God!”? Of course, this raises immediately the question how much and which truth can a state take, accept or even tolerate? In terms of poetic differences when it comes to truth, Bruno Kartheuser drew attention to this in his remarkable paper he gave last year with the title “An undefeatable Summer”. In that paper he distinguishes Homer from Virgil; while the former followed his creative, indeed free spirit, the latter was a producer of myths which the Roman empire as a state could use to exercise its power, insofar as myths were used to enact state rituals which legitimized many other and subsequent actions. Bruno Kartheuser explains the difference by the fact that Virgil was under contractual obligations to the state and not free when compared to Homer. That is important for understanding equally the relationship between myth and poetry when it comes to life in the city.

The importance of contract law is that it is state governed. The state is interested that the person is committed to the state. For instance, the Aristocratic politician Richard von Weizsaecker during his election campaign for mayor of Berlin in 1981 stated that the young men in Berlin West (that is before the wall came down in 1989) had a different attitude towards life, society and state, since they were exempted from having to serve in the army (in recognition of the special status of Berlin West). He denoted that the youth of Berlin West had an entirely different attitude towards the state (when compared with young men in West Germany after they had gone through their compulsory military training).  His recommendation was to make sure that every young man goes through military training as part of a program aimed to fulfill contractual obligations to the state.

Those contractual obligations can be best understood when reading Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Law’. In it Hegel went so far to say “a Jew is a Cosmopolitan and hence not a citizen of the state since he never binds himself to the state”. In that sense, it may be that this gave already rise to anti-Semitism even before Hitler came to power. Such a notion of making a distinction between those who believe in having obligations to the state compared to those who deem themselves to be free of such contractual obligations would allow discriminatory measures against those who do not. Forgotten would be in such a case the question whether becoming a citizen is at all a ‘voluntary’ option. It seems in the case of the German state that the opposite is the case, namely by necessity one is obliged to give recognition first to the state and only then one is recognized as citizen of that state. It means in practical and political terms, one is granted citizenship if one has given up completely all powers to the state. In German this is circumscribed with the demand of “Gewaltverzicht”: to renounce use of force (violence) to get one’s way. [1]

Thus the citizen in Germany (in German “der Buerger”) is defined by the necessity of transcribing all powers to the state. That is further underlined by the Constitution claiming all sovereignty is derived from the power (violence) of the people, insofar as the German constitution claims “die Gewalt geht vom Volke aus” (the violence stems from the people – with ‘violence’ having to be interpreted as state power to ensure laws are followed; however, there is an ambivalence in the term ‘Gewalt’ as it entails a double meaning of ‘power’: legitimate use of violence by the state and potentially ‘illegal’ whenever the citizen wishes to take power into his or her own hands).

Indeed Bruno Kartheuser develops further this idea when he talks about the city as being both a ‘utopian place’, but also one of ‘coercion’. Alone the title lets one anticipate questions about city states as they were known in times of Ancient Greece and which took on another modified form during the Italian Renaissance with Venetian power spreading throughout the Mediterranean and later on followed by the so-called Hansa-state cities which today like Hamburg are considered to be both cities and regional states (Laender) in their own Rights.

Since a main theme of this conference “Myth of the City” is after all about planning and what technical solutions are available for cities, focus needs to be given as to what is happening to the people, indeed to the citizens of these towns, villages and human enclaves? Poetry seems more apt in describing their lives being shaped by forces which they do not control while there is always also the human tragedy in play. As poetry works with the imagination, it becomes equally a matter of how people gain insights through poetry into what shapes their lives in the cities, in order to gain some knowledge as to how they can make their lives become more ‘poetic’. Thus a ‘poetic life’ not of only poets, but of everyone is already an important criterion to be set apart from the life as experienced in the cities of today. The difference between the empirical and the imagined poetic life may well be a matter of knowing where freedom as a life filled with creativity ends and coercion starts. The latter may begin already where the absence of participation in decision making processes affecting the life in cities becomes noticeable.

In the presentation by Bruno Kartheuser as to the theme “The City as the Tension Field between Utopia and Coercion”, he shall touch upon following themes:

These themes should be expanded and developed according to the intention of the overall conference:


Poetic observations of life in cities

Poetic observations of life in cities can start with the fragments of Parmenides collected under the title “Das Seiende” (the Being). Remarkable are his observations since they respond and describe the beginning of man’s transportation e.g. turning of wheels as the goddess takes her chariot out of the city and smoke bellowing out of the hole holding the axe of the wheels. He does so in connection with acknowledging the impact life of the city has upon the identity and perception of man. He considers everything to be fragmented inside the city. Thus a main thesis of the poem is that only once man finds himself once again outside the city’s walls, in nature, then ‘sense perception’ is united by nature.

Insofar as the European Commission is interested in ‘holistic concepts’ to develop further urban policies / planning procedures for the future, the question can be reformulated as to what does not so much unify, but makes possible first of all an overview i.e. the sense of being able to talk about the whole city despite all its complex and indeed fragmented composition which people experience daily.

Therefore, the real question to be put to the poets is whether they would prefer another kind of metaphorical language being spoken by everyone who lives in the city? In short, what language is really used when speaking about “life in the city”: is it still about that “unusual song in the morning”? (title of my paper I gave last year i.e. 1994 at the XVIth European Poetry Festival in Kamilari, Crete around the theme “Myth and Poetry”) or just about modern sirens used to lure people into buying all sorts of things? What are then the voices not heard since traffic noise drowns them out? Or what contradictory sounds make up the streets through which we use by not walking but by driving through them? Do there still exist streets in which people live in? (see the work by Brendan Kennelly, The Dubliners). For the examination and discussion of poems which provide key insights into cities at different levels of meanings, it might be useful to develop a taxonomy in order to keep different levels apart:


When reading poetry, whether our own or that of others, figurative speeches are used to refer to changes in cities. The question is whether poetic observations can make analytical approaches more accessible to the real life going on in cities? Is this a way to overcome some methodological dilemmas even ‘Philosophy of Science’ has yet to resolve i.e. the issue of sense perception versus use of abstract concepts within specific modelling to analyse developments of cities?

One example can be taken from Paula Meehan’s notion of ‘imaginative mappings of citizens’ with every citizen having his or her own unique map. Another can be derived out of what Voula Mega refers to when she quotes Borges’ description who says that “the city is also the other street, the one we never take, it is the secret centre of blocks, the ultimate courtyards, it is what facades conceal, it is my enemy if I have one, it is the person who doesn’t like my verses, it is what is lost and what will be, it is the ulterior, the different, the lateral, the quarter that is not yours, neither unique, the one we ignore and we love.” [2]

The aim of starting a discussion about ‘poetic observations’ with regards to life in cities is really twofold: first of all, we do have to differentiate between real facts of life and mythical or other properties being ascribed to cities, including the life within or the life outside of them; and second, there is being expressed through poetry another way of letting yourself into the life of a city very much like going bathing or else by feeling your way through the streets as if not rushing from point A to B, but going with the drift of experiences made along the way. By letting the urban situation speak, then poetry becomes a response to a new urban plan when old houses disappear and instead a tall building with underground parking garage replaces the old junk yard “where we used to play when still kids”.

This aspect of poetic observations can be highlighted, for example, by a poem of Heike Willingham whose usage of language indicates what happens to people’s abilities to perceive things, for there may be only ‘side looks’, or the ‘filter allowing us to perceive has become empty’. By deploying these key figurative speeches she begins to relate to the ‘poverty of meaning’ (in life? Or in the way we use things?), and this in relation to all the richness a city displays as part of an ongoing game around what she describes accurately as “as signs of a strengthening of life”. This can include a man buying a powerful motorcycle and the leather jacket which goes with it. Indeed, the latter is an important ideological justification given to all those efforts which supposed to strengthen life in the city. It is not merely the gym to get muscles or the chemicals used to replenish the hair or the oils and creams to tune up the body, but transferred onto the city as a whole, there are many more signs which appear to strengthen the city, but not necessarily the life within that city. It is interesting to read the poems of Heike Willingham as it transposes me immediately back to some of the experiences I made while living in Berlin and going through streets where consumption palaces dominate and no answers found to the emptiness of streets once the shops have closed and everyone has gone home. Why is then, that streets in Athens come even more to life after the shops have closed?


What is the relationship between urban planning, concepts thereof and poetic remarks about cities?

The question has been reformulated by Voula Mega in a direction which focuses really on the conditions of good planning, that is when ‘poetic life’ brings about such good ideas as to make European cities be liveable again.

“I do believe that planning systems need to improve the imaginative capacity to envisage a better future. I also believe that each citizen can be a little poet and contribute to the planning systems if there is a context of effective participation and co-decision.” [3]

She adds that the conference around the theme ‘Myth of the City’ “can contribute in enhancing the enlightened abilities of planners (who in continuation will enhance the context and substance of citizen’s participation).” [4]

As an afterthought, she expects the outcome of the conference to be the following:

“Bringing together planners and poets (and it would be the same with plastic artists or film makers) will be substantial when based on selection of poets who wrote a lot on cities and planners with outstanding poetic achievements in their planning work. But even if this precondition is not fulfilled, the encounter can still be enriching if, i.e. organised around the analysis of poems of urbanity or pulling messages from planning experiments with poetry and art of living.”

Immediately there come to mind two examples discussed already in advance of the conference:

What is poetic life?

The most obvious question to follow is “what is poetic life” or else what are the solutions and not just ‘myths’, translated into powerful images, by which cities portray themselves and become identified with?

Now in the analytical group, Sue Tilden makes the crucial distinction between images which give to a city a vision, a set of positive values which govern both planners and the behaviour or attitude of its citizens towards their city and those ‘images’ which take on if negative, often a symbolic, rather cheap character making it hard for that particular city to get a grip of its most urgent problems to be faced not only in the present, but also in near future when there is no more ‘untouched land’ around  or else streets which used to be places for conversations are converted into through-ways. These transformations, if not accompanied by planning, reduce finally the ‘spirit of place’ to nothingness. It is, therefore, important on how poets see possible linkages between unresolved problems and inadequate means and ways of bringing about such a planning, that if fulfils democratic criteria, including participation and co-decision making. For a ‘poetic life’ is surely an active, ongoing life with the city caring about the future of its citizens. Hence the linkage to planning concepts such as ‘sustainable cities’ (a term used officially by the European Commission) must be re-examined in terms of what concept of life comes into the discussion about urban centres, human settlements, suburbs etc. Fore mostly this sets what kinds of priorities and implies what issues are in need to be focused upon? For instance, Andre Loeckx emphasizes in his paper given last year at the Fifth Seminar, “Cultural action for Europe, that in the city as a ‘culture of ambivalence’ such observations can be made that in forsaken areas all of a sudden the light is switched on again by people moving in, but different people to those who used to live there in the past e.g. in certain districts of London there are more people from India, China, Africa etc. than from England. Andre Loeckx pointed out that those who had remained behind grow afraid of the newcomers since they appear to be much better ‘networked’ amongst themselves while by comparison the population left behind in poor districts tend to have few resources to live by, especially due to the fact that “those with high income either moved out or never moved in.” [5]

In that context of relevance is the question by Brendan Kennelly why people hate the city or wish to express their anti-city feelings in more than one way. He emphasizes one line where it says in the poem ‘Blue Print’ (written by Hatto Fischer) that there is something driving everything out of town, insofar as “that one line says a great deal about city life. The need to escape created by the need to live leading to the need for money dictating the way to live creating the need to escape so…” [6]

In other words, life in cities requires a description of the ‘dependencies’ and ‘the chain of needs’ driving everyone to join in the expansion of the city by getting, for example, a second home in the countryside and thus contribute towards further destruction of nature. That is why the ‘wild and tamed’ as a theme ever since Homer a clear reference for Odyssey when coming finally home and as discussed by Paula Meehan when she gave her paper at Phaistos around the theme of the ‘Myth of the Inner City’ is so important here. It has to be linked thematically to what Bruno Kartheuser meant already with cities taking on a coercive character the moment there is no longer any freedom from those daily pressing needs having become ‘necessities’, if ‘one is to live’, but at what level of survival?

The poem ‘Blue Print’ was stirred as well by the news that the owners of the American baseball club ‘New York Giants’ have plans either to move their stadium out of the poor district where is right now located since marked by drug addicts, crime and violence or else build special bridges connecting the metro station directly to the stadium in order to by-pass the district itself. The latter would be like those freeways which pass overhead the ghettos steeped down below in poverty. Such a design would mean the fans reach the stadium without getting in touch with the poor district. That prompted the following line in the poem ‘Blue Print’: Nor do the notorious winds arouse interest in the well protected stadium of New York.

Brendan Kennelly made to this the following remark: “that line says so much. So true. ‘It is good to sit and to listen to the wind’, an American poet said once. Your poem is about those who cannot, will not, listen.” [7]

In thinking about power based on money making mechanisms which can combine to select a boy growing up in poverty to join the National Baseball League and thus be courted through his former part of town in an air conditioned bus (which is “another kind of ghetto” according to Katerina Anghelaki Rooke), there is a clear contradiction in need to be faced when it comes to life in cities dominated by money, capital, speculation, affluence and poverty. For then it is a matter of that life being shoved from one extreme end to another, from employment to unemployment, from chances of a life time to having no opportunities whatsoever to defend oneself against this ‘cutting edge of success and failure’ determined and sharpened by factors and mechanisms not of one’s own making.

Practical advise:

The group of poets select some key questions of the analytical group when wishing to make some definite remarks about ‘life in cities’.

One of these remarks have been made already by Brendan Kennelly and which becomes important when faced by such programs as designed for Medium Sized Cities and initiated by the European Commission, for it has something to do with the relationship between quantity and quality, that is how people can cope with what degree of abstraction and ‘complexity of life’?

“What seems to be emerging is that its almost impossible to contemplate big cities without the image of the small community suggesting itself as if the image of a vast, moving, restless anonymous togetherness must always return to a small, shared, communal intimacy. Why does the village we were born in haunt us in mid-city?” [8]

Does this mean as the slogan ‘small is beautiful’ would suggest that everything must be reduced to human scale? Must the poets contribute, therefore, towards a life which does turn away from big cities, especially from the kind of ‘urbanity’ which was the premise for so much cultural development in Europe, but which means as well to experience all the hustle and bustle of modern life, but equally to take advantage of what the abstract life in a city offers, namely ‘freedom of choice’ (Karl Popper).

Yet cities are not only progressive, but can loose that quality of life. Nikos Stavroulakis describes this in his book about Thessalonika as to the consequences when multi-cultural life is driven out of a city and a single cultural stamp destroys its ‘cultural heritage’. [9]

[1] Note added in 2010: As this raises many complicated questions, including how to envision a practice free of ‘violence’ when the state assumes it has the legitimate means to violence in its hands after the citizens have given up their power, it would be too much to discuss all the implications here. Certainly it does touch upon life of people in cities and can be assessed as to what kind of relationship to the state they consider to be forthcoming with regards to their own needs. As this affects also city planning, a possible bridge to the analytical group could be found here. It would also lead to a comparative study of city-state relationships and governing principles – see here the essay of Juergen Eckhardt – between Greece and Germany. As planner Anna Arvanitaki states, in Greece the city never had this social function as outlined by Juergen Eckhardt. Rather private ownership of the house in which one lives was allowed to expand for the reason of not having any large scale social housing scheme to answer the social question. That explains as well what kind of ‘mind set’ developed over time in Greece as expressed best by illegal building activities but with people at personal and private level developing a special sense of ownership for their property and hence Rights.


[2] Borges, La Ville, 1994 and quoted by Voula Mega, “Visions and Actions for Medium-sized Cities” in: Reports from the European Workshops of Alicante, Volos and Oviedo, Luxembourg, 1994.

[3] Voula Mega, Letter from Dublin, 19 June 1995

[4] Op.cit., Voula Mega…

[5] Andre Loeckx, “ Urban place and flow: Towards a culture of ambivalence”, 5th Seminar, ‘Cultural action for Europe”, Athens 1994, http://poieinkaiprattein.org/cultural-actions-for-europe/second-plenary-session/urban-place-and-flow/

[6] Letter by Brendan Kennelly to Hatto Fischer, Dublin 19.2.1995.

[7] Brendan Kennelly, letter from Dublin, 19.2.1995

[8] Brendan Kennelly, Letter from Dublin, 19.2.1995

[9] As follow-up to the conference ‘Myth of the City’ Hatto Fischer shall give a paper at the ATTICA Workshop of Intermediate Cities organized by Voula Mega in Lavrion, 4 – 6 October 1995 with the title: “The political support needed for Cultural Activities to reach the conceptual level of Urban Sustainability”.

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