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Poets, Poetry and Life in Cities: Urban Drama, Styles and Words

When poets face a city, they see already things others never experience. It may be one of agony or else they hear ‘Jazz’, as does Sofia Yannatou, but with damaged ears due to all that noise in the streets of Athens. At least, this she reveals when writing about her relationship to Athens. As a matter of fact the theme of the city runs through many of her writings and not only hers. Almost all members of the Touch Stone group (precedent to Poiein kai Prattein) have a special relationship to cities, may that be London, Paris, New York, Berlin, Dublin and, of course, Athens.

What is then the outcome of viewing Athens and other cities through poems written about them? Writing about some city is not all what matters. Fore mostly Poetry is as well a measure of response as to what seems to be impossible, and this despite the urban illusion of everything being possible between the houses, in the streets, on the pavement, after five and before dawn! It means poetry cannot be limited solely to the urban question (as outlined by Anne Born), but not only differences between urban and rural poetry exist, but there are as well various genres of urban poetry. These differences prevail due to how life in cities is being experienced and then expressed in poetry. These urban based poems may reflect more the absence of a poetic life than a real sense of things, but at the very least poets seek to take measure as to what seems possible in reality ending more often in apparently the same impossibilities as encountered already in the past. Here disillusionment sets in. This can be said in view of human reality being experienced as mere people bobbing up and down like corks as they all walk towards the metro entrance where they vanish into the underground.

In order to take up this poetic measure despite the tension between the possibilities and the impossible, poets search for a life in cities at least a bit more poetic than what they can imagine. Katerina Anghelaki Rooke loves to repeat her basic principle, namely that life is greater than what can be imagined. Hence it is a matter of staying open and receptive as to what is going on in life. It is that simple.

If this tension is not experienced positively, then poetry measures at least what can be perceived within the sea of people mingling in the streets as a possibility, even if merely a remote one, to get a glimpse of human reality. There come to mind many fleeting moments. It may include just a side glance of a man admiring the woman standing beside him while waiting for the red light to change to green, if only to disappear forever thereafter in the crowd while he follows his daily path: first to the bakery, then to the newspaper stand and finally to the office. Routines are like that: habitual, filled with tight lipped accommodations to be surrounded by lots of familiarities, as best method to ward of the overall complexity of a city and the permanent danger of over alienation.

Indeed poetry likes to be understood (misunderstanding included) as a metaphorical reference to life itself. What is being referred to, however, cannot be limited or curtailed to some concrete physical object which we may call city. Especially to poets a city consists not only of houses and streets, and if then it says a lot about the current state of mind reflected in poetry. There are people living in these houses and who use the streets in different ways. With that come experiences and these do not have to be metaphysical ones to grasp what urban reality is about.

Poetic descriptions of life in a city are also not just a mere substitute for lack of words as to the meaning of life in a city. This does not alter when reference is made to a particular one, whether now Paris, London or Athens. Moreover poetry does not relate to just anyone. Uplifting the human spirit (even if ‘down and out’ as Orwell characterized it when comparing poverty in London and Paris) is always a wish which accompanies the writing of poetry. It means as well entering relationships and thereby relating to specific characteristics which enhance those relationships. Altogether they constitute life in the city.

Thus it is up to the poets to put something into words where otherwise there would be a lack of an exact description. And not just any words will do. As Katerina Anghelaki Rooke points out poetry is first of all ‘empirical’. Consequently the criticism poets have of city planners or what they view as outcome of bad planning practices should be taken serious. Otherwise, this envisioned dialogue between poets and city planners, architects, philosophers etc. within this conference ‘Myth of the City’ will not come to fruition.

Of course, there are always interesting and varied ways of relating to how poets would describe and even map life in cities. Paula Meehan points out this ‘mental mapping’ especially of Dublin has been done already by poets like James Joyce. And if you read her poems, you do get a sense as to what is going on in a city like Dublin with its pubs, river running to the sea and very often sadly enough a woman ending up ‘battered to pulp’ in some dark alley. With this topic ‘violence in cities’ ‘The Myth of the City’ conference shall deal with separately, but here it suffices to say that poets consider violence to be very much a part of the life in cities.

Naturally the question about poets and city life will require still further clarification even after this conference is over. By clarification is meant among other things the creation of a descriptive scheme of categories to comprehend more fully the different genres of urban poetry. Andriette Stathi-Schoorel traces this on hand of Greek poets and shows how with time they attempt to go beyond mere symbolism and Surrealism while they begin to notice ever more starkly that ‘death’ as “the player who never looses” stalks through the streets. That then touches upon the time modus and what observations are to be made about life in cities. Such attentive eyes can be traced back to poetic observations made in Ancient Greece by Parmenides.

Hopefully such clarification facilitates future interpretation of poetry or more precisely promotes an understanding as to how poets differently from planners understand the urban setting. It will show itself in the way they do write about (their) cities. We need to think only of Cavafy and the profound influence Alexandria had upon his spoken and written poetic words. There is the one poem in which he describes how he looks out the window and contemplates what he sees down below in the streets. A similar look out of the window Katerina Anghelaki Rooke allows herself when she describes in her poem what is happening on the street below, a street where she used to live on in Athens, namely Messolonghi Street. That is also the title of the poem. In her poetry can be traced various urban experiences, including her wondering about all those cars leaving in the morning, if only to return in the evening to the same places they started out from and her still not knowing where they had gone to during the day! That wonder entails a gift for her, but she reflects it not only as something absurd, but rather it leads her on to pose the question, why city life tends towards some restlessness, some kind of senselessness, if only to land in the end in some dust bin?

A similar going and coming is described by Pedro Mateo when he observes on the street he lives on in Athens as to how noisy school children leave in the morning to go to school and they return home in the afternoon. That is a sign of life with children growing up in midst of changing times. It cuts out the work for the poet if he wishes to express that ongoing life. It is accompanied by a wish that cities create ‘patterns of life’ without people in need to take recourse to some artificial zeal or to romantic illusions, for after all in the background there is still nature and therefore the aesthetical criterion that everything needs to appear to be natural even if not self-understood. That implies the poet needs to strike a bargain with life itself whether he or she likes it or not!

In following these poetic speeches about cities, it is possible to detect a reason to uphold certain values. Far from being a kind of moral preaching, the poems seem to underline a practical urge of a wish to find out what it takes to live in such a place. That is a special kind of curiosity.

Urban poetry is the strongest when it succeeds to demonstrate without moralizing that living in cities requires the adaptation of key attitudes towards life. It may be a hate-love relationship to the city, but one which does acknowledge the existence of the city as such. For instance, Anne Born admits to prefer living in the countryside due to her wish to enjoy the open view of a coastline but still she acknowledges her dependency of the city as there are the libraries, bookstores and venues for poetry reading.

That then can go one step further by detecting the existence of nature (or beast) within the city (Paula Meehan) or be taken still further by portraying the city as going beyond nature, in order to make possible a life independent from nature, in particular the cave like existence of original man and settlements of kind (Bruno Kartheuser).

However, Bruno Kartheuser warns a city ever expanding while the total tower shall never be completed, risks of fall back to its anti-pole, namely the cave. His warnings are based on testimonies of those who have survived imprisonment and torture in Concentration Camps when Fascism prevailed especially in Germany. Speeches may end up then in silence as a sign that the basic trust in the world is gone forever. For there are some things which can never heal or be restored once gone.

Clarification is, therefore, a matter of touching the time line, one which does realize life is finite, while able to appreciate life even if just passing by like the many people do daily in their existence in the city. Most of the times they seem to be oblivious of the existence of the others as they all follow their own, but still similar patterns: bringing up children and taking them to school, or else just out there in the world to pursue their careers but then entangled in endless jostling and hustling about every day. It starts in morning when catching the train to go to work and does not end when returning late in the day dead tired, hungry and still not confident to be on the right path of recovering some human sanity.

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