The 'Air-Bridged Harbor' And Other Songs of NYC

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I Speak of the City, edited by Stephen Wolf, Columbia University Press, trade paper $24.95.

Describing the personal, intimate nature of enjoying reading poetry, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky recently wrote in The Threepenny Review that “In poetry, the emphasis is on the specific, not the aggregate. A poem happens in time; it happens every time someone reads it.”

That's why a trip through the pages of “I Speak of the City” feels like time-travel, into so many corners of New York City and minds that have broken it into verse, over practically every moment from 1659 – the date of the first selection, “The Complaint of New Amsterdam To Its Mother,” by Dutch-born Jacob Steendam – until now. It's a journey from the dappled hour when a sensitive observer might extol the natural beauty of a verdant Bronx, as Joseph Rodman Drake did in 1818, to the latter-day autumn when Marvin Bell would praise the yellow-turning gingko tree, a hardy Asian species imported to populate the urban forest.

While times change and sensibilities vary, an astonishing number of themes are constant, right from the beginning: growth – and associated lament over what is lost, poverty, dirt, the excitement of art and commerce – especially when combined, crowds – and solitariness, temptation, violence, awe, opportunity and betrayal. As editor Stephen Wolf (a writer who teaches literature and the humanities at Berkeley College) says in his preface, the city functions “not merely as setting, but as the collection's primary character.” Part of the awe this collection itself inspires is in the recognition of that character's essence, with a similar allure and frustration even through the distillations of 140 different writers.

It sounds, from the introduction by poet John Hollander, that this volume strives to become the new definitive anthology, “since Howard Moss's elegantly chosen New York Poems of twenty-five years ago.” It probably will, and should, though it suffers from some of anthologies' weaker tendencies. There are paragraphs introducing each poet that, though they provide helpful context, also distract and break the flow – and yet the publication date of each poem is missing. There's a disappointing inattention to the book as a physical object – not just a college textbook – with its stock image of the Empire State Building on the cover, somewhat awkward long-and-narrow size (though its portability may encourage the schoolboy to savor it in off hours), and insistence on cramming a new poet's beginning onto the same page as another's ending, rather then spacing them out in the more graceful manner of, say, the fat anthology of “Good Poems” assembled a few years ago by Garrison Keillor.

But lovers of New York will not waste time quibbling when they can admire: Galway Kinnell’s incredible epic of Avenue C, “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of Christ Into the New World,” Jayne Cortez' opulently vulgar credo, “I Am New York City,” the sinister night of Claude McKay in “Harlem Shadows,” Edna St. Vincent Millay reveling in the dawn seen from her window in “English Sparrows (Washington Square).”

Certainly, there are poems the reader wishes were included, at all, or instead of what's there. But what's there is moving, nothing more so than the writings by immigrants, or about them, during the waves of immigration at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th. The feelings of freedom, newness, possibility and amazement – even amid tragedy and disappointment – of these writers is heartbreaking compared with today's more cramped visions. “Hey, you messenger boy of the universe! / Hand me a pen of bright lighting!” writes Melech Ravitch, an emigre from Warsaw. “Accompaniment / to the poem / Twenty million hands play / In keys of black and white granite.”

“The New Colossus” of Emma Lazarus – which adorns the Statue of Liberty – becomes new again when we remember it describes a female figure presiding over a welcoming harbor, to replace the ancient male Colossus of Rhodes who guarded a harbor from strangers. Between the New York of Lazarus (where “twin cities” were Manhattan and Brooklyn) and that of contemporary poet Martin Espada, in whose housing projects even an owl is arrested, lies the question of whether New York can cry the true yawp of freedom again:

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lighting, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

– Karen Loew

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