Laurie Smith visits two exhibitions and finds a need for a poetry of the city.
From January to March this year, there was an exhibition of the architect Daniel Libeskind’s models and drawings at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London – a museum consisting of three Georgian houses filled with the Regency architect Soane’s magpie hoardings, from Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress and some fine Canalettos to dismembered chunks of classical statuary. Libeskind’s work – ten small models of the main buildings he has designed so far – were displayed in the Small Drawing Room. In the evening the room was otherwise in darkness and they gleamed in the spotlights like abstract gold and silver jewellery. Nearby was a modern gallery with drawings and a video. Interest, and the video, focussed on two of the buildings: the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the Victoria & Albert Extension in London.
It was an evening opening (the museum opens the first Tuesday evening of each month) and by 7pm the queue for admission stretched down the front steps and along the pavement of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I was struck by this and left slowly, eavesdropping. Everyone seemed to be London office workers, not the students and foreign visitors who make the majority of all museums’ clientele. Among the chat you would hear in bars and pubs after a day’s work, Libeskind was on everyone’s lips. There was an awareness that he was doing something new, necessary, perhaps longed for.
The Berlin Jewish Museum was completed in Spring 1999 and opened for visiting though empty. I visited it in August last year. Much has been written about it, all of it true. It is the only completely empty building that has created on me and others a powerful sense of not knowing what to do with oneself. No other building has been so thoroughly designed simultaneously to urge and to forbid weeping: the entrance from underground, the diminishing corridors, the intolerably long central staircase, the symbolic voids cutting through the building, the windows giving light unpredictably, the holocaust tower with its tiny triangle of light. Many of us felt, ludicrously, that the museum should be left empty, that exhibits would diminish the impact of the building itself. It was a building that achieved the condition of music (Libeskind trained first as a classical pianist before turning to architecture) or of poetry. How had he achieved such an effect in only his second realised building? In fact, he faced a difficult problem. The Jewish Museum was to be built in a district of Berlin that had been obliterated by WW2 bombing and rebuilt in the 50s and 60s with featureless blocks of flats. The only surviving buildings were a 1930 trade union headquarters designed by another Jewish architect, Erich Mendelsohn, and an undistinguished 18th century courthouse which had been restored as part of the Berlin Museum, next to which the Jewish Museum was to be built. How then to create the premier Jewish museum of Germany in a district, and indeed a city, where scarcely any remnant of Jewish life or culture persists?
Libeskind’s brilliant solution is to make a virtue of absence. He took a large scale map of pre-war Berlin and plotted on it the addresses of Jewish families who lived there pre-1933, both famous (Paul Celan, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Benjamin, Arnold Schoenberg) and others less so, including Erich Mendelsohn. All these families were lost to Berlin by emigration or murder. Libeskind imagines them visiting each other and connects their homes with lines on the map. And from these intersecting lines he derives the distinctive zig-zag ground plan for the museum, the irregular zig-zag windows and the six Voids – huge irregular four-storey spaces, most of them unenterable, which symbolise on every floor the gap left by the destruction of Jewish culture so that the museum is pervaded by this absence. As Libeskind says, the museum "is based on the invisible figures whose traces constitute the geometry of the building".
By contrast with the obliterations of Berlin, the Victoria & Albert Extension is to be built on Exhibition Road which connects a set of perfectly preserved Victorian cultural/educational buildings. It is partly to fill the gap in the V & A’s side facade which is currently occupied by a wall and colonnade with a drab courtyard behind it.
Libeskind’s response is not to maintain the four-square facades that run in all directions – along Exhibition Road and at right-angles to it – but to break out with a cube that tilts into Exhibition Road and spins on itself [see page 1 of this issue]. It is already called the Spiral though this doesn’t convey the dancelike quality of the design. The rationale is that knowledge is no longer certain and permanent, as the Victorians believed, but provisional, and that the display space should reflect this. Given Libeskind’s awareness of the wider context, it is relevant that the Spiral will face the Science Museum where knowledge is being recast as information processing and share the street with Imperial College where major experiments in quantum mechanics, those quasi-determinable dances of fundamental particles, are carried out.
Libeskind’s extraordinary response to the context of his buildings, his awareness of their need for a wider emotional resonance, seems to have evoked a strong reaction. Suddenly we realise that the city need not be merely a meaningless backdrop to our daily lives, parcels of land normally filled with bland commercial structures. Rather, with imagination at least parts of the city can have emotional meaning, can be responded to, can be seen. This led me to wonder how poetry can contribute to reclaiming the city and to notice the general absence of writing about cities, the experience of living in cities, in poetry of all ages but particularly in the present.
It also answered a question posed insistently by the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain last November to February: why had Blake seen London so differently from everyone else? Before answering it and giving other examples, I want to outline what I believe to be lacking.
Poets seem reluctant to write about the fabric of cities or the experience of living in them. They seem happy enough to write about the countryside, mountains, the seashore, places visited at leisure where the spirit feels free. They may write about foreign cities as visitors. But they seem to baulk at writing about the experience of living in their own city. Many poets seek a sense of transcendence through their work – to render moments when the spirit (whether or not they believe in an actual soul) lives and responds more vibrantly. Perhaps this vibrancy is hardest to register amid the swarming commerce of the city. Perhaps modern city life is too deadening. The commute to work, the undifferentiated office blocks, are an emotional desert which one needs to escape, it seems, not celebrate.
This is regrettable for two reasons. First, as most people now live in cities and large towns, it leaves the daily experience of the majority of mankind unmentioned in poetry. So poetry is further marginalised and so, too, is our daily experience without a poetry to bring out its significance. Second, it leads to a weightlessness in writing about experience, a deracinated free-floating quality that suggests that what happens to us can happen anywhere. To try to express feeling without its physical or cultural context is the equivalent of Libeskind trying to establish a Jewish museum in a featureless district of Berlin without reference to the city’s Jewish past.
Put another way, it leads to two-dimensional poetry. All lasting poems can be seen as a tension of three elements: personal experience, place (the physical and social context of the poem) and form (its language and cultural context). To disregard the demands of place and its inevitable social context leads to an overdependence on form or cultural reference, an airy Ashberyesque skating over experience which, at any point, connects only tangentially with the reader’s. This is poetry lite which declares that no experience is more significant than another except in terms of verbal felicity.
To be clear: no major poet has disregarded the claims of place. To make the point from an unexpected direction, the work of an apparently hermetic poet like Emily Dickinson is full of the social experiences of a 19th century American woman. When she compares birdsong to badly played pianos (‘I dreaded that first Robin so’)*, regrets that she is underdressed for her journey to Eternity (‘Because I could not stop for Death’), reports that a ghost wears expensive Belgian lace (‘The only Ghost I ever saw’) or that God, like a good domestic employer, allows his angels free time in the afternoon (‘God permits industrious Angels / Afternoons to play’), we are made sharply aware of the daily concerns of an Amherst lady. Like an earlier Stanley Spencer in his beloved Cookham, she saw transcendence in terms of the reality around her.
The same is true of Blake’s view of London, though he had the opportunity and burden of responding to the world’s first industrial metropolis. A strength of the Tate Britain exhibition was in showing how some of Blake’s poems arose from his daily life in a particular district of London at a particular time. For centuries London had been written about either with general praise, from Dunbar’s "London, thou art the flower of cities all" to Wordsworth’s "Earth hath not anything to show more fair", or as general satire from The Cries of London and Swift’s Description of the Morning to the darker tones of Shelley’s Peter Bell ("Hell is a city much like London").
For a few years, however, there was a voice of unprecedented directness. During the 1790s Blake lived in a comfortable house at Hercules Buildings, Lambeth. Three streets away, past the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Palace guarded by troops during the French Revolutionary scare ("And the hapless soldier’s sigh / Runs in blood down palace walls’), were some of the worst slums in London, manufacturies no longer permitted in the Cities of London or Westminster with their workers’ families crowded into single rooms in damp unlit lanes and alleys running down to the river. It was here that Blake saw the "marks of weakness, marks of woe"; the gonorrheic prostitutes who "blight with plagues the marriage hearse"; the lapwings and other birds trapped on Kennington Common, caged and hanging in windows ("A robin redbreast in a cage / Puts all Heaven in a rage") which he came to see as a metaphor for the people themselves.
Within minutes of Blake’s home was the Surrey Asylum for Orphan Girls with its strict rules ("Babes reduced to misery / Fed with a cold and usurous hand"). During his time at Lambeth a chapel was built on the green for the exclusive use of those who could pay 50 guineas for a pew (see The Garden of Love). Walking towards Blackfriars to visit print dealers in the City, he would pass the Lambeth slaughterhouse ("the ox in the slaughterhouse moan’). Examples could be multipled. The point is that, for all the vividness and originality of his imagination, much of Blake’s poetry is dense with references to the life that he saw about him daily.
There is a case for saying that Blake responded to the moral and imaginative life of his time with such intensity because he was also able to respond to, to see, the physical city in which he lived. The two things are not alternatives. The same is true of Eliot, over a hundred years later, during a period of acute distress. He registers the misery of daily commuting a mile or so downstream of Lambeth ("A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many"), but also the relief, the simple pleasure, of a lunchtime walk:
I can sometimes hear
Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,
The pleasant whining of a mandoline
And a clatter and a chatter from within
Where fishmen lounge at noon: where the walls
Of Magnus Martyr hold
Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white an gold.
I find this touching because the bank clerk can never enter the warmth of the fish-porters’ bars, which he would prefer, and has to make do with the cold beauty of City churches. Eliot’s compulsive mythmaking in The Waste Land succeeds because it is rooted the reality of the city – the bell of St Mary Woolnoth, the typist, the "drifting logs / Down Greenwich reach / Past the Isle of Dogs". By contrast, the other great attempt to render the city as myth, Hart Crane’s The Bridge, fails for lack of focus on the reality of city life. Only in the proem, To Brooklyn Bridge, can Crane bring himself to describe what he sees, rather than what he felt would impress, and the result is one of the great poems of the city:
Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn…
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.
One might say that these descriptions are now nostalgic, that with the onward march of capitalism there are now no derricks within miles of Brooklyn Bridge nor any fishmen’s bars in Lower Thames Street which has become a traffic run between office blocks. But it is in the nature of cities to change, a point made in the poems celebrating lunchtime walks, again in New York, by Frank O’Hara in the 50s and 60s. The best known is perhaps A Step Away from Them which moves from apparently inconsequent detail to plangent recollection and back again with great ease and delicacy:
There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse
which they’ll soon tear down.
O’Hara shows us one possible response to the everchanging city – a moment of the city’s life caught for ever in the apparently casual stream of consciousness of the flâneur. There is something simultaneously artful and artless about this, a highwire act taking great risks in its apparent rejection of poetic technique. But O’Hara demands our attention as a rare poet to whom the city, in all its beauty, variety and triviality, was central.
I have tried to show that there is a thirst to make the experience of the city meaningful, in poetry as well as architecture, and that this is something that poets should not shrink from. Cities and large towns are where most of us live and if they are to become places worth living, rather than grids of commercial buildings clogged with traffic, poets will need express the experience of city life now as the first step towards an alternative. Poets are, after all, the last true independents. Even if published widely, they earn little monetarily from their work and this gives them the freedom to be truly original – to write what they feel about what they see, not what is expected by editors or publishers.
There is an urgent need for original emotional responses to the city, as the queue at the Libeskind exhibition clearly felt. In London in 2000, the most significant new structures were a plastic dome, a ferris wheel, a converted power station and a footbridge too dangerous to use. The Libeskind Spiral received planning permission but its funding is now held up. There has been a failure of collective imagination here, the dull helplessness of citizens faced with forces apparently too complex to challenge, but there are signs of hope: the election of Mayor Livingstone, perhaps, and the image, a few days before that election, of the bronze Churchill in Parliament Square adorned with a green turf mohican hairpiece by the May Day protesters. It is an image that would have filled Blake ("Then old Nobodaddy aloft / Farted & belch’d & cough’d") with joy.
As we say in each issue, Magma has always had a particular interest in urban poetry. In Magma 19, Mick Delap focussed on Mario Petrucci’s work on recovering London’s past in his poetry. In Magma 20, Paul Muldoon explained how his response to Ozymandias was inspired by specific places – the Gateway Arch at St Louis and the Delaware-Raritan Canal – and the importance of London in the work of the upcoming poet John Stammers was noted. This issue has a section of new poems of the city. Back in Magma 1, Urban Fox praised the early work of Matthew Caley, a frequent subsequent contributor. The poetry-of-the-city (see below) begins with some of his stripped-down sonnets from The Brixton Soundtrack which show what can be done when someone looks steadily at the city around them. They capture elegantly the detail, the unease, the scarcely submerged violence of the inner city. By nice concidence, Brixton is the centre of Blake’s old borough of Lambeth.
* The first line of each poem is given for ease of reference.
from The Brixton Soundtrack
It’s a hot
midsummer eve on Coldharbour Lane
as Community Police go arm in arm down ‘the frontline’.
The Tooth-fairy is singing arias outside Pizza Hut.
The new architecture glistens with Government aid.
Business girls parade
in cocktail bars where each sip costs £3.
An exactly brick-sized exit-wound
air conditions The Body Shop.
In an attempt to hook
Tube beggars slit the eyes of their spaniel pup-
-pies to give them that Bambi-like
Their wailing wafts over The Barrier Block’s
purple gulag where
all ears are plugged with Sony Walkmans
adrift on oceans of lager.
and leopardskin coats, strong-tarred Balkans
in alleyways breathily exclaim
-ing "Jesus, sweet Jesus, Jesus" through chapped
lips. A condom
punctured on a edict of The Pope
is sailing down the gutter.
I am strapped
to a bollard on a traffic-island of litter
and reluctantly straining my ropes.
Meeting the dealer
who is Blind Pugh exhumed in a baseball hat
the yellow blip a little
stigmata of jaundice pressed into your palm.
He appeals for £50. Your mind appeals for calm.
with an undercoat of watches and a slight cold,
he appears to vanish through an unmarked exit.
Soon you are rushing the underground high as kites.
beat on silver trays and varnished gongs
or flap their Daily Mails like dragon’s wings.
Above your head a poster quotes John Keats –
much have I traveled through the realms of gold.
Where the dead pigeons that alight on window-sills
peeping-Tom on squatters sat in circles,
playing pass-the-parcel, pass the pipe
scrawling ZEN IS WISDOM, FUCK THE POPE
or fumbling until a be-denimed groin grows moist.
Here the sharpest needle blunts the most.
tourniquets a forearm. Fear becomes an entity.
Damp ascends the staircase
replete with guttering candle and see-through nightdress.
All the lightbulbs shine without electricity.
Wind makes its music through the door-jamb:
I no longer am the person I pretend to be,
now I just pretend to be the person that I am.
The umpteenth aspiring Orpheus
clicks his demo-cassette into a Sony Walkman
urgently gripping your wrist.
‘Listen, man, listen, man, listen’.
So listen you must amidst ashtray-detergent
to this man who once knew the man
who once played on the obscure B-side of
the dead bluesman’s
long-since deleted EP. He drills your eyes
desperate for an ‘alright!’
‘Not bad’ is the first
of many blandly-acceptable lies.
Limp synths. Dead protest. Ominous
The howls of the dispossessed. You exit
as three Thracian women
move in to ask for a light.
Slowly, the Vermeer-like light
through Brixton market
‘s glass-covered arcades lending
the fish shop and the pizza parlour –
the svelte waiters,
Rastas, hake, drug dealers, door-stop congers –
its spectrum of dayglo colours,
which are aswirl
also inside the scaly slab-marble
shelf where the light falls, lightly, landing
like a sliver of rainbow oil
along the sides of the rainbow trout
as if they were back in the melt waters
and rapidly swimming upriver.
Matthew Caley’s debut collection Thirst was published by Slow Dancer in 1999 and nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. These poems were first published by Dog magazine in 1994 and subsequently in a pamphlet.