Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Cities - the way poets perceive them


While a photographer may take snapshots of a city, poets feel its pulse and even more perceive city from both an angle as to what goes on and where there are possible changes to be made. They do so in a sober empirical way and yet take up dialogues there where others have given up. This concerns above all the need to retain a linkage to nature and to the wild, untamed side of man.

Cities in transition

Much has changed since the beginning of mankind. Ever since the midst of the twentieth century, the countryside has been emptied as people moved to cities to start of a completely new life. This departure from the village to the city figures largely in the philosophy of Karl Popper who would contrast the determined life in the narrow confines of a village setting to the abstract order to be found in the city and which would leave one the freedom of choice even with regards to whom to relate to and to marry eventually, if that is contemplated at all.

The transformation of the landscape through the almost exclusive focus upon the city is, therefore, not an intentional exaggeration, but rather a matter of fact. Today 80% of the world population lives in cities, if not more. Consequently cities are crowded, congested and convulsive in the way they form and change themselves as millions of people concentrate around this single reference of gravity. Something of that is touched upon in the explanations Anne Born gives as she refers to London before and after the industrial revolution. To imagine 12 million or more people alone around that area, it takes some imagination to understand how such a huge collectivity manages to organize itself and still sustains life so that children can go to school on a regular basis.

Athens alone experienced first after the disaster in Asia Minor in 1921 a flood of refuges, and then again during the fifties and sixties a massive migration of people coming from islands and other remote places in the countryside. They sought work and found shelter by cousins, sisters or uncles all working for the Greek state. The city grew without planning, without plan, without regarding the wisdom of the past and how to utilize the closeness to the sea as much as the elevation of the surrounding mountains. All this has accumulated into a city with a bad imagine, high noise level and traffic congestions whenever everyone converges upon the center at the same time. (There are times when the roads are literally empty and you wonder where all the 4 Million people have gone to?)

Recognizing when a city has become too large for itself to cope, that is not merely an art but also a question to be answered how to go on from there. A city like Helsinki faces similar problems like Athens. Many people come in from all over the country to just live in the city. The drain of the countryside of people makes the congregation in one city into a huge challenge for the future.

At the same time, there has set in a reverse, with cities ever expanding while people flee ever further into areas build up at first as summer vacation retreats, but over time become ever more urbanized as second homes become prime homes. It is the response to life in cities becoming too expensive, too noisy, too diluted, in order to constitute still worthwhile experiences which could uphold not only life, but the life of one household consisting of at least three generations with business intertwined in the reproduction of life. Louis Baeck had already pointed out in his 1994 lecture which he gave at the Fifth Seminar, Cultural Action for Europe, that the Mediterranean culture did not know what is common within the Atlantic tradition, namely a split between culture and economy; rather the Mediterranean culture integrated the economy into the household where all decisions are made with regards to what needs to be done, in order to survive as an entity with so many people making up the household. [1]

Clearly that transition and confusion was expressed best by Brendan Kennelly when he coined the word ‘rururb’ for the land neither rural nor urban, but somewhere in-between city and countryside. This was discussed at the outset of the Myth of the City when the participants joined university people linked to the communication enterprise Forthnet. In relating to the culture – technology paradigm both poets and city planners got a taste as to what subjects are entailed under the overall theme of ‘Myth of the City’.

Cities: from different ‘no’s’ to a certain way of life to a false tolerance

Poetry has to take that into account many different ‘no’s’ and often more carefully worded ‘yes’ to life in cities, and much more. There may be even at work altogether a ‘no’ often not spoken, but acted out by people with regards to the kind of working world the city has so far been able to tolerate. Not only the industrial revolution with its factories and corresponding social housing complexes (an issue Juergen Eckhardt touches upon as he sees city planning primarily obliged to solve the social question, a question which the state is unable to resolve and therefore hands it to the city, the communal level) can be reflected upon as to what this tolerance means (see writings by Herrmann Broch), but also how this development is contradicted by all kinds of revolutionary, Socialist and otherwise ideological branded attitudes (including that of the Fabian society in England) and still the contradiction between the rich and the poor remains unresolved.

For instance, it was interesting to experience when living in West Berlin surrounded by the wall that at first everyone was considered to equal, whether rich and poor. All were surrounded by the same wall and so they all sat around the same table. Only once a new Right-wing political direction gained power, a stimulus was introduced into city life after 1981 in response to the squatter movement. The purpose was upgrading the value of the housing estates and properties. It was accompanied by new measures which catered to those wishing privileges and who base self-esteem on such artificial differences as to who would eat at a table covered by a white table cloth compared to those still getting their food at the Doener snack-bar at the corner. Gone was the sense of equality in a city aware that human solidarity is everything.

These examples show that a city can be full of contradictions and still manage to mediate between very different classes. This goes to the degree of upholding a tolerance towards such conditions of life which should never be tolerated in reality. How come there can be this poverty side by side with people lining up with fur coats to enter the opera? Something makes a city work despite these contradictions in a way Karl Marx never managed to explain. As a matter of fact, it might be the function of the city to swallow, subdue, exaggerate, extrapolate, exploit or just ignore all kinds of challenges. Therefore, in the worst of all cases, a city may come much closer than what municipal councils or dedicated citizens are ready to admit, namely to settle into a mode which is based on a kind of appeasement. The latter is identified usually to the outcome after Chamberlain had visited Hitler in Munich in a last ditch effort to avoid

Second World War, but rumors have it when the rubbish strike erupted in Napoli, that there is a clear arrangement between Mafia controlled activities and cleverly managed deals bearing the handwritings of other power holders. This problem needs to be named in much more concrete terms. In Italy, it is not only Berlusconi, but still other social formations make the system work as it does. At times things seem to happen according to some very specific requirements as to who should be hived into power at a certain time. That defines the ‘opportune moment’ when those making the decisions think they can get away with certain things or are able to push through some plan because of a constellation of personalities and situations in the rest of the world.

The city as ‘logos’ of poetry

It is, therefore, pertinent to reflect upon these things bewildering poets, and not only them, as to what has become of life in cities! Poetry has an affinity to the ‘logos’ of the world and means literally unfolding ‘the logic feelings follow’ in view of what man experiences in the world. Thus logos and word have something in common with regards to how feelings and their intuition are respected not merely as reflex of something, but as knowledge, as insight into life. Understanding the logos of the world shows the possibility to exist in such a world and that in an unfolding, hence self understanding manner. [2]

People demonstrate daily their self-understanding by trying to establish and keep up relationships to others. They do so especially towards the ‘family’ as the clearest example of the human need for a social institution which protects them and promises continuity of life over and beyond their own individual existence. The family is designed as institution to secure the reproduction of life itself. Thus it is the clearest example of a human need for some special security and access to community with others, and which is not offered to everyone in the same way at general, i.e. market level. That need translates itself into search for intimacy, recognition, acceptance and indeed ‘love’. It is the realm of freedom where the person does not need to exert him- or herself and still be accepted, indeed loved as he or she is.

This need for freedom from the coercion forcing a person to externalize him- or herself to the point of risking to loose human dignity is recognized, for instance, by the German Constitution. It speaks about ‘human dignity’ should not be externalized even though in contradiction to that Hegel speaks in ‘Philosophy of Law’ about the need for a person having no property, hence no identity to externalize him- or herself in work processes so that the ‘wealth of the nation and state’ can grow. That means human substance is jeopardized if someone without property can be forced to externalize this in order to gain in exchange for that money.

The exchange principle linked to the free market has not merely dominated in society ever since the economy uses money as decision carrier and richness and wealth is defined by the amount of money and its purchasing power. A prime example of this contradiction is the prostitute who gives herself in exchange of money. To this can be added the even more sinister truism on which is based US foreign policy, insofar it is pre-concluded that ‘everyone has a price, hence can be bought’!

All that leaves human relationships exposed to all kinds of betrayals, misgivings and inequalities, and which some societies cannot manage to figure out in view of all these problematic relationships on how best to uphold law and strengthen a sense of justice based on equality, freedom and honesty by being really fair in all policy measures. Poetry has to be here a reflection of true measures and therefore a potential mirror of society.

Life in cities – some clarifications

Unfortunately, or fortunately no one knows really the boundaries of that self-contained reality called ‘life’. Poets do not read into it only one individual; they include as well those passing by. Life is even the breath that people put into a city as if to bring it to life that way. Hence it is important to make a distinction between ‘boundaries’ and ‘borders’. As this distinction raises ethical questions, the best is not to define ‘crime’ simply as going against life, but to include as well attempts to either alter, remove or destroy these boundaries for the sake of wishing to defend some artificial borders within which another life is being manifested compared to what lies beyond them. That includes considerations of where the city ends and the countryside begins, if we wish to make sense of ‘life in cities’.

Much of the poetry written about life in cities conveys a kind of dexterity; instead of a true life, wanted is something ‘true to the point’. It reflects a sense for certain attitudes, fears as well as desires prevailing in cities. That encompasses missing linkages between needs and the kinds of responses as new kind of experiences made in urban settings. Apart from everything else, it is about the experience of the huge discrepancy or gap between what would be needed to sustain life and what is really going on.

The difference between human failure and human mistakes

For sure, a beggar can drag himself along the street while others pass by in their cars, but for how long can these contradictions live side-by-side without any admonition, without any uprising in the name of social justice? All too often the missing element in this equation between the ‘Rich’ and the ‘Poor’ is named a ‘human failure’ or ‘human mistake’. While the former is something which could not be realized, the latter is an admission that something is not taken sufficiently into account. Naturally human error distinguishes itself from the Marxist term of ‘contradiction’ inherent in a Capitalist system. Precisely because poetic language is attempting to free descriptions of reality from any tutelage to whatever ideology, the distinction Paula Meehan makes is crucial. For she admitted in her speech given in Phaistos that dangers loom when myth is transformed into ideology, and she goes on to admit that she has herself participated at times in this kind of conversion. [3]

Poetic criticism of cities

Usually social criticism tends to go in another direction and speaks at quite another level about a lack of perfection and efficiency as to how a city administers itself, runs the services (from buses to hospitals) and manages its resources (water a key element). Sociologists may even call it ‘structural deficiencies’. Yet many will consider this to be too abstract a term to explain really what is meant by a discrepancy between knowing better and doing worse than the norm in-between the two poles of measurement. Naturally all that depends on what base line is being used.

If, for example, business as usual is taken as the middle norm, then ‘practice just the same’ would mean after a few twists and turns, uprisings and protests, things will return to such normality as if nothing has happened. This is when people start believing this system will never change, and maybe technically they are right even if technology is being constantly improved upon, but as to the ‘logic of organization’ the city fails to be complete.

In that sense it is crucial what Bruno Kartheuser outlines in his presentation called ‘the totality of the tower’ or rather while seeking the impossible, and never completing the project, the city grows and expands, in short, lives on and endures endless set-backs but enjoys as well forthcoming developments which do connect the people to the city as well.

However, it is crucial that poetic criticism is done not merely at image or ideological level. When people intertwine with their city, then it is much more complex then whatever kind of ideology could produce or explain. This city governance has to take that into account, if there is to be made any progress at all.  Naturally convenient solutions are not what the rest of the people will do with the left-over of such huge investments and engagements such as for hosting the Olympic Games and then being burdened by a huge deficit for years to come. Rather it does require quite a distinct practice, one which is truly reflective of the life in cities. It is here where poetry does enter.

Poetic experiences

Life is drama, pain, joy, a sprinkle of hope and a series of disillusionment, to end being surprised by finding one’s name already on a gravestone in the cemetery of the city while still alive (Maja Panajotava, Antwerp). Usually the city as destiny is understood quite differently.

As Bruno Kartheuser explains the city leaves behind nature, the living in the cave, and seems to make possible a different life freed from the limitations a primitive or natural existence would entail. Always there is mentioned in one stroke with life in cities culture, i.e. theatre, cinema, concerts, etc. Over centuries, and especially since the Greek city states or the Renaissance cities these models have been used to renew urban centers and to focus on what elevates man’s life above and beyond mere ‘life and death’.

In that urban realm where men sit in cafes to play all day cards while noisy cars and trucks shove each other through narrow streets, so much seems to be happening in complete oblivion of the fact that life is not infinite, but finite, at least for each and everyone by him- or herself. That means the smell which clings to the clothes after having spend all evening in a bar filled with smokers is something similar as to what clings to one’s own words when referring to life in general. While seeing a mother with her child on a playground, it can touch upon what happened to oneself when still a child grandfather used to take one to very same playground.

Memories as the place called home

A better word for that is, of course, memory or even better: memories. They float in the air and remind people what happened in this street hundred years ago. As if not enough, philosophers shall argue that these are as well memories of the future. They predict what shall happen in future is that life continues with other people playing cards or just chatting away with neighbors to catch up on the latest news. There is nothing unusual about life. Only common thieves will try to take away some special meanings. In their act of stealing they wish to make a particular case out of something special.

In retrospect, it may be called a historical event or at least something of importance, therefore to be underlined when a student studies the history of the city and in reality an outcry of people living now in terms of their wish by which they want to be remembered by. That category of people describes well those who leave an unusual stamp upon the city. It may be replicated in a street name, monument or even in an entire building. No matter what, these memories linger on. They join the hungry crowd intermingling outside a night bar as if the thirst for life has still not been quenched by whatever the city managed to offer so far.

Death still stalks through the streets

It does not mean the earth has been touched or for that matter the sky. Below and above are equally powerful metaphors when it comes to narrating about life in cities, only now it matters what happens in time, even before death closes in. Andriette Stathi Schoorel touches upon this existence in midst of the city as Greek poets begin to identify this at first seemingly innocent figure: the backgammon player who always wins. Only when he is identified as death, then it seems possible to reflect upon another meaning of city life not just based on ‘killing time’.

There is the painting by Vincent Van Gogh of the unemployed all sitting half drunk, half dazed in a sparsely lit café and through the glossy eyes the waiter in white clothes like the kitchen chef is perceived as ‘butcher of time’.

All that can be set in relationship to Marcel Proust’s ‘Search for Lost Times’, something to be experienced when crossing through Jardin du Luxembourg to the other side, there where again the small cafes and the chic boutiques begin. But then Paris has started to export life, says Baptiste Marray, and means the loss of a conscious linkage to childhood memories.

Yet it cannot be said poets prefer such a realistic description to what gives them a sense of life. Such a preference is clearly expressed by Katerina Anghelaki Rooke and she does so without denying the existence of death:


Beings and Things on Their Own
by Katerina Angelaki Rooke



Darkness slowly eats the light, like a worm the fruit: from

within. First the presaging shadows fall, then the hen seeks out

yesterday's branch to roost. In her tiny brain she thinks her life

will go on forever. A rustling accompanies the visible world as

it leaves through the door of twilight and, invisible now, will

soon go back in through the same door which we will then call

night. On completion of the cycle, on the hidden side of the

moon, on the other side of "I know," perhaps the scarecrow

which petrifies me now will turn into a butterfly, and ugly

sticks into the limbs of Adonis. And will Death, with his hunt-

ing cap and gun, start missing his target among the flowers?

I am politically minded. I mean, I think about death daily and

compare it with a vastly better system: life.

Copyright © 1986 by BOA Editions


A key story about the city and reasons for expansion

But to come back to the other elements of city life, there is nothing better than to describe contradictions in life as love transformed into something else, even when the lover becomes a fugitive and the married woman to whom he once made to love in a hotel in a side street turns to prostitution in disguise as she cannot get enough of those men thirsty for the kind of escape between 14.00 and 18.00, that is prior to them going home where their wives and children await ‘Daddy’. It was Lewis Mumford who would say the expansion of the city can be explained by a man setting up his business no longer at home, but across town so that he can meet up with his mistress!

Certainty in uncertainties

Poets like all artists know about uncertainties in life. They differ very much from planners in that, especially if these planners happen to be civil servants or else well paid professionals. Hence poetic lessons appear to be about not depending too much on certainties while learning to live positively with uncertainties, in order to discover ‘certainties in uncertainties’!

Even the slightest deviation, the lack of a proper word can create misunderstanding in communication. Hence the break-up of a relationship becomes an integral part of a ‘certain’ kind of knowledge about life in cities. By ‘certain’ is meant knowing difficulties in upholding relationships. They can come and go like trains do in the cold stations in the North, West, East and South. Surrealists had claimed this had brought the real death into the heart of the city: the iron fist punching right through to grasp the heart. Yet as a modern interpretation it can be said of ‘certain’ knowledge that everyone realizes the city is no paradise, but filled with uncertainties. This is the quality of life in cities.

Certain in uncertainties’ means the city offers something in-between heaven and hell, between a warm place inside the station and a cold wind blowing through the streets. In the best of all knowledge, what a city can offer to everyone is what one knows to be at best a consolation to all human efforts and failings. The combination of the two does not really add up. Also it does not contribute fully towards finding a solution to the ancient problem every human relationship faces sooner or later, namely why break up now and say forever good-bye when he or she does not even need to board the next train? To depart forever out of the life of the other will take these relationships to another resolution, another level and yet also to the reproduction of the same old stories to which songs refer to repeatedly such as “don’t you come back no more, no more”.

That is especially the case when there have been deeply touching moments with that geography where she or he used to play and to walk to school when still living in that part of the city. Those flights of stairs, the familiar scent of autumn leaves, the winter with every house gleaming with candle light, and the waiting for the spring with already the old woman at the corner selling flowers, all that and more can encompass and envelope those memories not only of having lived there, but passed on to the one getting to know as potential love forever. Yet the city reminds that there is no such thing as forever. That loss of time and of innocence is the purpose of the city. In other words, even the best contemplation about love may not be of any help. At least not when faced all alone suddenly with the same problem that others have gone through apparently already and therefore can be considered as experts of separation. At the very least this gap between the knowledge available and what does not help, that can be covered by poetry and songs.

Thus for this discussion there should be kept in mind when looking at poetic responses to these discrepancies, that poetry and poets belong to a world of real practice. Call it figuring out the puzzle of life, or why she did not love me when everything seemed to be going so well, for they can contribute to this kind of human knowledge by ensuring not to mystify it as if the answer. Rather they can demonstrate through their poems that this knowledge is at best useful to console, but even then at the very best something like second hand. In that sense it reminds how Paula Meehan would describe her mother handing down the dress she wore and what embarrassment it meant for her as a young girl when forced to go to the party with the second best dress. Paula remarks she was glad to outgrow that dress by the next year and hence it was passed on to her younger sister.


[1] Prof. Louis Baeck, Mediterranean Economic Thought and Atlantic Tradition, 5th Seminar, Athens 1994: http://poieinkaiprattein.org/cultural-actions-for-europe/the-workshops/workshop-5-culture-driven-economy/mediterranean-economic-thought-and-atlantic-economics/

[2] Adorno said in ‘Minima Moralia’ a key ethical principle for gaining insights into the self understanding is to “write down everything you don’t understand”!

[3] See Paula Meehan, Myth of the inner City, in: Phaistos discussion, 1995

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