How Poetry Feeds On Urban Life

The feeling created by these words, from American poet Erika Meitner’s 2010 poetry collection Ideal Cities, will ring familiar to nearly all who live the urban experience. But the relief of seeing a pair of headlights peek through the tunnel, or the sensation of the hot air of a passing train, are so mundane they can often go uncelebrated save for a fleeting moment.

Poetry like Meitner’s can give us a space to sing the praises and frustrations of the cities we live in. But can it actually help us make those cities better? Can poetry be a way to experience and understand our environment more richly?

Many people’s first formal interaction with poetry – beyond nursery rhymes, at least – tends to be centred on the Romantic-era poets such as Blake, Keats, Wordsworth or Shelley. This particular tradition is known for being rooted in a celebration of the beauty of the natural world, typified in classics such as Keats’ Ode to Autumn (“While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day / And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue”), and Shelley’s Ode to the West Wind:

Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
The blue Mediterranean, where he lay
Lull’d by the coil of his crystalline streams”

So perhaps it’s not surprising that over time, poetry has been less associated with train tracks, smog, and bridges and more with brooks, brambles, and fields.

However, east London-based poet Tom Chivers, whose work focuses heavily on the urban experience and who has made a series of poetic audio walks down London’s lost rivers, says that emphasis is misplaced.

“The city resists nostalgic forms of poetry that have been handed down to us in various traditions,” Chivers says. “There is this energy and aggression and speed in a city that lends itself to poetry. We are surrounded by language, whether it’s place names, digital signs, advertising hoardings or the voices of market traders – it’s everywhere. Cities are built with language.”

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