Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘New York’

09 JULY, 2014

What Makes a Great City: E.B. White on the Poetics of New York

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“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.”

A great city is like a great love — it makes you feel closer to your own center, envelops you in its immutable and caring magic, and no matter how far from it you may travel, it always beckons you with steadfast, unshakable mesmerism.

But what makes a great city? Scholars, social scientists, and urban planners have pondered the question for centuries, pointing to everything from walkability to the social life of small urban spaces. And yet the most timeless answer is a poetic rather than a pragmatic one. From the 1949 gem Here Is New York (public library) — one of the best books about New York ever written, and undoubtedly one of the best books about anything — comes an exquisite articulation by E.B. White, who captures the singular mesmerism of Gotham and all the “enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute.”

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

In one of the most spectacular passages, he writes:

New York blends the gift of privacy with the excitement of participation; and better than most dense communities it succeeds in insulating the individual (if he wants it, and almost everybody wants or needs it) against all enormous and violent and wonderful events that are taking place every minute. … New York is peculiarly constructed to absorb almost anything that comes along (whether a thousand-foot liner out of the East or a twenty-thousand-man convention out of the West) without inflicting the event on its inhabitants; so that every event is, in a sense, optional, and the inhabitant is in the happy position of being able to choose his spectacle and so conserve his soul.

But White’s words also emanate the universal exhilaration of any large city that cajoles humanity into a state of constant interaction:

A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.

Stone and William Street, Manhattan. Photograph by Berenice Abbott, 1930s. Click image for more

Here Is New York is a sublime read in its entirety, as “miraculously beautiful” itself as the city it serenades. Complement it with White’s moving obituary for his beloved dog Daisy and his beautiful letter to a man who had lost faith in humanity.

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01 JULY, 2014

Walt Whitman’s Raunchy Ode to New York City

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“Give me the streets of Manhattan!”

New York City is not want for homages and celebrations — the deeply personal, the illustrated, the photographic, the cartographic, even the canine and the feline. But the most beautiful are invariably the poetic.

From the wonderful 1987 collection New York Observed: Artists and Writers Look at the City (public library) — a compendium of lore and perspectives on Gotham dating back to 1650 and featuring such luminaries as Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and dozens more, edited by Barbara Cohen, Seymour Chwast and Steven Heller — comes a succulent love letter to the city from 48-year-old Walt Whitman. Penned in 1867, more than a decade after his iconic Leaves of Grass was published, the short poem compresses in a few lines Whitman’s boundless capacity for exaltation and embodies the “expression of primal joy” that defines his writing.

Allen Crawford from 'Whitman Illuminated.' Click image for more.

GIVE ME THE SPLENDID SILENT SUN

Keep your splendid silent sun,

Keep your woods, O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods,

Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-fields and orchards

Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum;

Give me faces and streets — give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs!

Give me interminable eyes — give me women — give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!

Let me see new ones every day — let me hold new ones by the hand every day!

Give me such shows — give me the streets of Manhattan!

Complement New York Observed, which is delightful in its entirety, with the best books on Gotham and famous writers’ diary entries about the city, then revisit the wonderful Whitman Illuminated.

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04 APRIL, 2014

An Illustrated Taxonomy of City Bikes and Cyclist Archetypes

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From hipster habits to midlife crises, a morphology of urban life on two wheels.

“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning,” E.B. White wrote in his timeless love letter to New York. “The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” And sometimes, I may add as someone who takes daily joy in roaming Gotham on two wheels, to the accompaniment of spokes. From designer, illustrator, and School of Visual Arts alum Kurt McRobert comes this impossibly delightful illustrated taxonomy of Gotham’s bike-riding archetypes, which applies in varying degrees to any city and comes as a fine addition to similar visual taxonomies of Gotham’s four types of jaywalkers and its three classes of cats.

McRobert missed the doggie-daddy, who is a regular delight, but that’s okay.

Complement with this entertaining Victorian list of don’ts for women cyclists, then see the tables turned as the bicycle helped emancipate women, then treat yourself to this lovely bicycle-inspired illustrated exploration of relationship cliches by legendary French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé.

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