“I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.”
By Maria Popova
“The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us,” James Baldwin wrote in his sublime 1962 meditation on the artist’s struggle, just as John F. Kennedy was preparing to address poetry, power, and the artist’s role in society in what would become one of the most poetic and powerful speeches ever delivered.
Two years earlier, the great poet Denise Levertov (October 24, 1923–December 20, 1997) was asked to contribute a statement on the power and responsibility of poetry for The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 — an influential anthology by Donald Allen, which shone the beam of mainstream attention upon such beloved writers as Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac, Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, and Levertov herself. Of the fifteen poets who contributed statements on poetics for the volume — including Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti — Levertov was the only woman.
Her piece, posthumously cited and discussed in Dana Greene’s excellent biography, Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life (public library), is part personal credo, part cultural manifesto, sophisticated yet precise, speaking at once to poetry, to all art, and to society itself.
Two years before James Baldwin asserted that poets are “the only people who know the truth about us,” Levertov writes:
I believe poets are instruments on which the power of poetry plays.
But they are also makers, craftsmen: It is given to the seer to see, but it is then his responsibility to communicate what he sees, that they who cannot see may see, since we are “members one of another.”
I believe every space and every comma is a living part of the poem and has its function. And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem’s life.
I believe content determines form, and yet that content is discovered only in form. Like everything living, it is a mystery. The revelation of form itself can be a deep joy; yet I think form as means should never obtrude, whether from intention or carelessness, between the reader and the essential force of the poem, it must be so focused with that force.
In a passage of timeless sagacity, and one which transcends poetry to apply to art in the largest possible sense and its function in human life, Levertov speaks to the particularly challenging though not uncommon predicament of making art in violent and disorienting times. Echoing William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech assertion that it is the poet’s and the artist’s duty “to help man endure by lifting his heart,” she writes:
I do not believe that a violent imitation of the horrors of our times is the concern of poetry. Horrors are taken for granted. Disorder is ordinary. People in general take more and more “in their stride” — the hides grow thicker. I long for poems of an inner harmony in utter contrast to the chaos in which they exist. Insofar as poetry has a social function it is to awaken sleepers by other means than shock.
“Diversity fills the city with cartographic potential… New York belongs to everyone, and maps prove it.”
By Maria Popova
“Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world,” wrote Rebecca Solnit in her imaginative remapping of New York’s untold stories, “containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory.” But as fascinating as it is to imagine the world’s greatest metropolis remapped according to its unheralded dimensions, New York’s multitude of parallel realities is itself bountiful fodder for the artistic imagination and has inspired centuries of fanciful cartographic interpretations.
Exploring this lacuna between physical reality and the interpretive imagination is a very different kind of atlas — You Are Here: NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City (public library), envisioned and edited by Katharine Harmon. This localized follow-up to Harmon’s wonderful 2004 atlas of “personal geographies and other maps of the imagination” presents two hundred wildly diverse maps of the city, alongside original essays exploring the most iconic of them. There are historical treasures like the first geological maps of Manhattan, masterworks of art like Paula Scher’s obsessively detailed typographic maps, and conceptually daring pieces like artist Liz Scranton’s honeycomb shaped after the landforms of the NYC subway map. What emerges is a layered inquiry into the relationship between self and space, the plurality of perspectives aimed at the same place, and the myriad ways in which we orient ourselves to the landscape against which we live out our lives.
Harmon writes in the introduction:
What is it about the city that invites mapping? First, perhaps, is a need to find one’s place here. An endlessly morphing population of contemporary lives humming along, side by side and mutually oblivious, feeds a need to locate oneself. Another New Yorker writer, A.J. Liebling, wrote in 1938 of the city’s multiplicity of lives: “the worlds of weight lifters, yodelers, tugboat captains, and sideshow barkers, of the book ditchers, sparring partners, song pluggers, sporting girls and religious painters, of the dealers in rhesus monkeys and the bishops of churches.” Diversity fills the city with cartographic potential. Density, ethnicity, race, heritage, languages, income differentials, locals versus commuters versus tourists — all can be, and have been, mapped. New York belongs to everyone, and maps prove it.
With an eye to the two hundred dazzling cartographic curiosities included in the book, culled from an initial database of one thousand maps she had compiled, Harmon writes:
New York has no shortage of inventive thinkers who make excellent cartographers. Each act of creative cartography reflects both the state of mind of the mapper and the state of the city. And each contributes another page to a giant, ever-accumulating atlas of New York — an atlas as big as the city’s self-regard. Perhaps, in the end, what makes the city the most mapped metropolis in the world is that it offers complete cartographic liberty.
I contributed one of the essays for the book, “A Panorama of Power,” exploring the monumental Panorama of the City of New York currently housed at the Queens Museum. This is what I write:
“A poem,” E.B. White wrote in his 1949 masterpiece Here Is New York, “compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” Nothing compresses the city in order to heighten its meaning more palpably than the Panorama of the City of New York — an astonishing feat of architecture, urban planning, and craftsmanship, strangely poetic in its deliberate contrast of scale and significance. To look at it is to see, perhaps for the first time, the city’s elegant enormity.
Constructed by a team of more than one hundred architectural model builders from Raymond Lester & Associates over the course of three years, this elaborate and elegant microcosm reduces every hundred feet of cityscape to one inch of Formica panels and Urethane foam. This conceptual compression cost $672,662.69 to construct in 1964 — the equivalent of approximately five million dollars today. But what makes the Panorama most striking is its affront to our sense of scale — at 9,335 square feet, it is both a miniature and an expanse, containing every street, every park, and every single one of the 895,000 buildings constructed prior to 1992, when Raymond Lester & Associates updated the model.
The Panorama, which now resides at the Queens Museum, was created for the 1964 World’s Fair as a celebration of master-builder Robert Moses and his indelible imprint on the cityscape. A brilliant architect and a fierce politician who publicly defied politicians—including, in one famous incident, President Roosevelt himself—Moses envisioned and brought to life 658 playgrounds, 416 miles of parkways, 288 tennis courts, 678 baseball diamonds, and numerous major roads and bridges. He was a man animated by “an imagination that leaped unhesitatingly at problems insoluble to other people,” as Robert E. Caro wrote in The Power Broker — his Pulitzer-winning 1,200-page biography of Moses.
But Moses, like the city itself, was also a man of duality. Although he began his career as an earnest idealist and an irrepressibly optimistic reformer, the power machine hardened him into a man of “iron will and determination,” in Caro’s words. Intent on bending the world’s greatest city to his will, he imprinted Gotham with his fiery fusion of idealism and egotism. That his legacy should be celebrated by a miniature model of the city, Moses’s favorite toy, is only fitting.
Perhaps most emblematic of all is how the Panorama was pitched at the 1964 World’s Fair, where it became a favorite attraction — as an indoor helicopter tour of the city, promising to provide a “god’s-eye view” of the urban ecosystem. In a sense, visitors were invited to try on the view of Moses — a self-anointed god who had drawn the master-map not only of the city’s infrastructure but also of its very character and destiny; the craftsman of the grand stage onto which, in the immortal words of White, “enormous and violent and wonderful events … are taking place every minute.”
In another essay from the book, New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff considers Saul Steinberg’s most famous cover, both timeless and rendered timely by the recent shock of sobering political perspectives:
I saw the New Yorker cover when it came out in 1976, and it wasn’t long before the magazine, in response to popular demand, made it into a poster. And not long after that you could find it on the walls of apartments and college dorms. Soon it was pretty much everywhere, even if only as a local imitation — who knows, maybe even out there on the far right horizon of the drawing, in Russia, perhaps there’s a yellowing poster of “The View of the World from Novosibirsk.”
The vast popularity of “View of the World” was that it appeared eminently “gettable,” especially when the image was topped by the New Yorker logo. With that affixed to the image, to put it in New Yorkeese, “what’s not to get?” It seemed to be an unambiguous visualization of that old quote, “If you’re leaving New York, you ain’t going nowhere.”
Yes, it was gettable, and more than that, easily adaptable and therefore adoptable, which is why so many other cities knocked off the cover, to proclaim, however dubiously, under their own local rubric, that they were the epicenter of existence. As a born-and-bred New Yawker, my own take was similar, with the very implausibility implicit in the derivative covers’ claims, actually making my own native chauvinism seem reasonable in comparison. I mean Novosibirsk may be a nice little city, but gimme a break.
“Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory.”
By Maria Popova
“A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry.” So wrote E.B. White in his timeless 1949 love letter to New York. But meaning never exists in the singular in this city of infinite multiplicity, this mecca of idealism, iconoclasm, and codified idiosyncrasy, which means many different things to its eight million inhabitants and seven billion onlookers — a densely populated capital of loneliness, a canine kingdom, an ever-changing castle, a city that makes and breaks the American dream, a city that impelled Walt Whitman to demand: “Keep your splendid silent sun… Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum… give me the streets of Manhattan!”
The poetics of that multiplicity is what Rebecca Solnit, in collaboration with Joshua Jelly-Shapiro, explores in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas (public library) — the culmination of Solnit’s cartographically scrumptious trilogy, after Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas and Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas, exploring “what maps can do to describe the ingredients and systems that make up a city and what stories remain to be told after we think we know where we are.” The trilogy, Solnit notes, arose from “the belief that any significant place is in some sense infinite, because its stories are inexhaustible and the few that are well known overshadow the many worth knowing.” Any place can therefore be mapped in innumerable ways, each casting before the viewer a particular point of view and thus contributing to cartography’s long history as power and propaganda.
The twenty-six maps, each accompanied by an original essay, explore facets of the city as varied as its songscape, its linguistic wilderness, its notable women, its brownstones and basketball courts, its riots, and its various human and physical energy systems.
Beyond the revelations of this particular city, the maps reveal the nature of all cities as functions of human intention with its always dual and often dueling capacities for good and evil, for revolution and repression, for power and prejudice, for creation and destruction. To map any city is to present a polished mosaic of selective memory built atop the rubble of selective forgetting. In reimagining the social and cultural landscape of New York, Solnit and Shapiro reclaim the unmapped territories of being and the untold stories of beings marginalized by the dominant psychogeographies of their time — from women to Native Americans to wildlife species.
Solnit writes in the introduction:
A city is a machine with innumerable parts made by the accumulation of human gestures, a colossal organism forever dying and being born, an ongoing conflict between memory and erasure, a center for capital and for attacks on capital, a rapture, a misery, a mystery, a conspiracy, a destination and point of origin, a labyrinth in which some are lost and some find what they’re looking for, an argument about how to live, and evidence that differences don’t always have to be resolved, though they may grace and grind against each other for centuries.
Each of us is an atlas of sorts, already knowing how to navigate some portion of the world, containing innumerable versions of place as experience and desire and fear, as route and landmark and memory. So a city and its citizens constitute a living library.
With an eye to the inherent incompleteness of any cartographic representation of a place as rife with infinite possibility as a city, Solnit adds:
Each of us grasps and inhabits only part of the pattern. The complexity beyond comprehension is one of the marvels of great cities, their inexhaustible, ever-renewing mystery… Every city is many places; the old woman and the young child do not live in the same city, and the rich and the poor, the pedestrian and the wheelchair-bound, black and white inhabit different but not completely separate realms.
A city is not one or the other of these things but all of them, contradictions and collaborations and conflicts together, forever churning and spitting out new possibilities.
Among the peculiarities of New York, a city that is at once a template and a glorious oddity, is the mismatch between its location and its significance — perched on the periphery of the country and hanging off the very edge of the continent, it is nonetheless an epicenter of creative culture and intellectual life. In a passage that calls to mind Susan Sontag’s memorable words on the crucial difference between being in the middle and being at the center, Solnit captures the centripetal force of this peripheral city:
The opera diva from the rustic West at the center of Willa Cather’s novel The Song of the Lark leaves small-town Colorado for Chicago for her first round of education as a musician, but she triumphed by becoming a successful artist in New York, as Cather did herself for the last forty-one years of her life. There she wrote vividly about the West, while living with her partner, editor Edith Lewis, in the East, where a publishing job had brought her and where privacy, tolerance, sophistication, maybe access to Europe and editors, seem to have kept her.
It’s a reverse of the old mythic westward migration for freedom — though it’s worth remembering that other New Yorkers left the city in search of liberation, whether it was the patrician Edith Wharton checking out of the closed upper-class society she continued to write about or James Baldwin escaping American racism for a while. Then there’s Djuna Barnes, who had a lively early career with the New York newspapers, including the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Walt Whitman once edited, moved on to a legendary era in lesbian Paris, and then spent the reclusive last half of her life on Patchin Place in Greenwich Village. You could come to New York to appear or to disappear; the city accommodated all kinds of wishes.
New York is a center that pulls people in and a centrifuge that spins them out into the world.
Cather, Wharton, and Barnes are among the women depicted in one of the most fetching maps in the atlas, City of Women, which reimagines the iconic New York City subway map — a feat of graphic design but a failure of social justice, with its complacent abundance of stops named after white men. In this alternative version, each stop on the city’s twenty-two subway lines is renamed after a notable woman who was born, lived, or made her name nearby.
Solnit writes in the essay accompanying this “map of recovery and possibility”:
Names perpetuate the gendering of New York City. Almost every city is full of men’s names, names that are markers of who wielded power, who made history, who held fortunes, who was remembered… A horde of dead men with live identities haunt New York City and almost every city int he western world. Their names are on the streets, the buildings, the parks, squares, colleges, businesses, and banks, and they are the figures on the monuments.
We tried on what it would look like to live in such power by paying homage to some of the great and significant women of New York City in the places where they lived, worked, competed, went to school, danced, painted, wrote, rebelled, organized, philosophized, taught, and made names for themselves… Many women were never allowed to be someone; many heroes of any gender live quiet lives. But some rose up; some became visible; and here they are by the hundreds. This map is their memorial and their celebration.
Another map, The Singing City, plots New York’s musical creativity onto a typographic songscape celebrating “the ways that what starts as a particular place can end up as the tune that you hum, a song line with no guidance other than to the human heart.”
What Is a Jew? captures the astonishing diversity of the subpopulation associated with New York’s intellectual elite but, in reality, spanning a vast spectrum of inclinations, interests, and legacies. (One can grasp that staggering range in reading Alfred Kazin’s poignant reflections on the loneliness of being in a culture but not of it, penned amid Brooklyn’s densely Jewish Brownsville neighborhood as Robert Moses, another Jew, was masterminding Manhattan across the river.)
Solnit, herself the daughter of a Jewish New Yorker mother, introduces the map:
Stereotypes and generalizations generally precede discrimination. Often they depend on the belief that all members of the hated group have common characteristics, so much so that you can punish any member for the sins all members share. Except that they don’t. Categories are leaky, anomalies often occur, and differences within groups can matter as much or more than similarities. You could make this map, pointing up diversity, of any ethnic group, but we made it of Jews because New York has the greatest concentration of Jews on earth outside Israel, and because the word Jew contains a host of internal contradictions, from positions on Israel and capitalism and religion to race and class. What can you say of a group that, even within New York, ranges from Busy Siegel to Sammy Davis Jr. to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Beastie Boys? Whether Judaism is a culture, an ethnicity, or a religion is an unresolved question for people who are good at questions, and even Judaism the religion runs from the progressive inclusiveness of Chelsea’s queer-friendly Congregation Beit Simchat Torah to the mysticism and strictures of the Hasidic ranks of Williamsburg. What is a Jew? This is an exploration without an answer, or with as many answers as there are Jews.
Riot! depicts the eruptions of unrest and revolution in “a city at a simmer that boils over readily.”
In the accompanying essay, Luc Sante makes clear that most of these uprisings sprang up when the systemic abuse and oppression of minorities reached a breaking point, from the Stonewall riots to the aftermath of Eric Garner’s murder in the hands of the NYPD. (I’m reminded here of Chinua Achebe’s astute observation that those who condemn something as too political are simply those who see it as discordant with their politics and who prefer the status quo undisturbed, so the very act of labeling a civic event a “riot” can itself be a function of the oppressive status quo.)
Indeed, dissent, difference, and divergent viewpoints are core to the genome of the city’s spirit — this city, as any great city. These, after all, were the conditions that catalyzed the emergence of the revolutionary Vienna Circle in the early twentieth century, which forever changed the course of art, science, and philosophy. I recall a poignant passage of May Sarton’s journals, in which she describes Dallas — “just plain inhuman, too rich, too new” — as a city of artificial beauty empty of poetry, where people are “starved for a kind of reality that does not exist in Neiman Marcus fur coats, in changes of fashion, in redecorating,” where “under the polite small talk, one sensed nostalgia, the nostalgia of the bored child who does not know what he lacks, but knows he is being deprived of something essential to his well-being.” Such homogeneity of privileged politeness threatens to sap any city of its essential energy. With an eye to these forces “driving diversity and complexity” out of the city, Solnit asks:
What are cities when the qualities that have defined them are drowned in rising tides of what we call wealth — that increase in holdings for some that increases scarcity, desperation, and exclusion for others?
The odd notion of the central city as a place where bohemia and dissent thrive has been withering away as cities become enclaves of the affluent and the corporate — or empty zones. Many of the condominiums and luxury apartments are often unoccupied, either because they’re not primary residences, or because they’re places to park money for the transnational super-wealthy or their corporations.
The poor are pushed to the periphery, to the old suburbs, which fall into their own kind of decay. In the inner city the poor had access to shared resources like public pools and parks, to public transit, and to the possibility of a collective power and civil society engagement that the suburbs do not offer. There they become literally marginal.
Cities are not over. But it’s hard not to fear that the great cities of the North are never going to be what they were. Just as most have cased to be centers of industrial production, so they may cease to be centers of cultural production, at last with the intensity they once possessed. Now they’re menaced by climate change, too. New York CIty’s coastline will be pummeled with hurricanes and blizzards; hotter, wetter weather will bring the kind of heat waves that tend to kill seniors; food prices will likely rise, and climate refugees will become a new subpopulation. It’s impossible to say exactly what this city, like other great cities ceasing to be what they were, will become.
Brooklyn Villages, laid out in the style of the first modern world map, plots former Native American settlements, original Dutch and English villages, and Freedmen’s towns alongside contemporary housing complexes and real estate developments. My own home nestles uncomfortably between a onetime Ihretonga settlement and the aptly named “Rapacious Developers Village” of today.
And yet the stories told in this atlas — for every map is a story — are decidedly redemptive. They offer considered counterpoints which, in exposing the fragments of our sociocultural brokenness, compose us closer to wholeness.
Noting the “special incandescent joy” with which we humans respond to maps, Solnit examines her criteria for these cartographic redemptions:
Maps demand work, and this kind of cerebral work can be exhilarating.
By a good map I mean an aesthetic one, a map that is an invitation to the imagination, a map that offers a fresh view of the familiar or an introduction to the unfamiliar or finds the latter in the former. If every map is a story, most of them are mysteries that invite you to solve them while remaining forever unsolved, in that they indicate more — more past, more future, more adventures, more travels. They have an openness, indicating more than they depict.
Maps, Solnit reminds us, are above all exercises in editing, both conscious and unconscious:
A map can trace one story, though it often portrays the coexistences of many stories in relation to each other. It can show how the physical, economic, visual, and social landscape can shape those stories, letting some bloom, grinding out others. Multiple stories in spatial relation become the geosocial constellations of our lives…
A map is a proposition: here is what this place is, or was, or will be. Most contemporary maps are predictable propositions: here are streets and freeways and also parking and maybe shopping or subway lines. But imagination can always go beyond what even the most quotidian map shows. You know that when you exit the Columbus Circle subway stop, Central Park will be there, and that may evoke majestic trees or strolls or memories of crimes or performances; or the Mets-Willets Point subway stop in Queens on the 7 may make you think about the Unisphere or Venus and Serena Williams at the U.S. Open or when the ash heaps described in The Great Gatsby were nearby.
We furnish maps with imagination; they offer us rooms to furnish thus. Even the most straightforward map is an invitation…
In orienting oneself in this atlas — and orient is a fitting word in speaking of New York, for it comes from the Latin oriens, meaning to find east by looking for the rising sun — one is invited to fathom the many New Yorks hidden from history’s eye. But, more than that, the atlas stands as a reminder that maps make cities as much as cities make maps, and that humans make meaning through how we build and map and live our cities and our stories.
Digital devices tend to offload knowledge from brains to machines, promise us that our ignorance will be adequate because machines will augment us. All recording technologies do this, but paper maps have a way of transferring their data to your mind, so that you become the map. You don’t become the phone. Expertise about place never becomes yours with the digital devices, but it often does with paper, which, paradoxically enough, makes paper a more fluid interactive technology.
A simple, assuring invitation into releasing the resistance to one of the most life-expanding practices possible.
By Maria Popova
In his poem about how to meditate, penned decades before neuroscience as we know it, Jack Kerouac described meditation as the way to pump the brain’s “good glad fluid.” Half a century later, neuroscientist Sam Harris made an eloquent case for how meditation stretches our capacity for everyday self-transcendence. But meditation is somewhat like poetry — a lamentable number of many people hold a stubborn resistance to it, a resistance that “has the qualities of fear,” borne out of a certain impatience with learning a new mode of being that doesn’t come easily but, when it comes, brings tremendous and transcendent satisfaction.
Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps supportBrain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated