You can take the poet out of the city certainly. But can you take the city out of the poet? I suppose I will soon find out. This week I left New York City after living there for five years. First I was a college student, and then I was on my own, trying to find work in the very bowels of a recession. Needless to say I was not successful and have had to flee the metropolis of Manhattan for the much greener environs of Arlington, Virginia, my old home town, or more appropriately, county.
I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that I am not moving to any place horrible or in the middle of nowhere. Arlington, if any of you know the area, is across the river from Washington, DC and is the home of the Pentagon, the Corazon of the Military-Industrial complex. That’s right, we were attacked on 9/11 for real. So, I have not come back to a hamlet, or a town with no Vietnamese, Indian, Thai, or Italian restaurants, or a place where there are no bookstores, libraries, bars, or stoplights.
Yet it always feels odd to call Arlington “urban.” At one point we were part of DC, but were given back to Virginia. They did not want us. We sort of went through the opposite process as Brooklyn. I suppose as a consequence we never had the need to develop any sense of pride to prevent from being devoured whole. I have never heard anyone utter “Arlington in the house!” at an event.
So maybe I am still an urban poet, a troubadour without music but with city streets. And perhaps if one begins with poems about subways and grime, one never loses their edge even if they are surrounded by lawns and streets empty as a ghost town in the middle of the day. Then again, can one who never lives in a city ever develop an edge on their own? Without ever feeling that strange combination of joy and fear when walking home drunk at 4 in the morning, unsure of what saints or sinners one will meet or if you are heading the right way down the street? Maybe. If so there is hope for me.
Manhattan made me into a poet, she was the ultimate unrequited love of my life. And we all know that it is at the touch of such feeling one becomes a poet. An urban poet can be surrounded by such reminders of failed romance, and so they can really develop a voice, since they have to stand out against a crowd of potentially millions of admirers. If I had stayed in Arlington I would have been pastoral if I wrote verse at all. I do not think being a writer of prose is so dependent on location, except as source material. But I do not think a city tempts and then rejects a novelist like it does to a poet. A poet can be crushed to death by a city. That is why I am somewhat happy to leave.
A question that needs to be asked is if being urban is good? Certainly in the city it is a defense mechanism. It is also sensible, one writes about what they know. There are few cities where poems about hunting on rolling hills full of deer might connect with an audience. Yet is there something about being an urban poet with an urban vision that makes one important to poetry wherever one might go? I think so. Oddly enough, it is a “tradition” that the poets of the cities are the ones who reinvent the language through experimentation and taking the chances that being in a large mass of people allows to occur safely. A poet who faces the city is looking towards keeping poetry and by extension, literature, fresh, and also keeping poetry a community, not just a series of cells of lonely men and women writing verses for themselves and no one else.
So how does one keep an edge? How does a poet keep their urban flavor? I could travel into DC by subway and roam the streets at night. I could walk the bridges over the river during winter and send clouds of breath over the Potomac like little rafts of myself. A few drinks and rolling in a few gutters could do the trick to. Yet maybe that would just be posturing. Can I bring the urban into Arlington? Can I make my county truly wake up and realize that it is a city in its own right and should begin to love living life on the edge, however dull it might be and low off the ground?