Skip to main content

Free Verse, Love and Greenwich Village - Where Poetry Burns At Both Ends

April is National Poetry Month, and before the month is over, I thought I would write a few words about some of the well-known poets who have lived or consumed alcohol or engaged in sexual encounters in Greenwich Village. I realize now that the entry would be too vast for one blog post. A tradition of poetry in the neighborhood extends back to the nineteenth century, with Edgar Allan Poe thinking dark thoughts on Amity St. (now W. 3rd.), but the poets really started the migration to these charming streets around 1910, the time when the bohemian self-awareness and identity associated with the neighborhood begins to blossom. It proved to be a large flower.

One of the poets who resided in the Village in the early twentieth century was Edwin Arlington Robinson, the son of a wealthy lumber merchant in Maine. He moved to New York in 1896, having decided on a life of poetry, taking jobs just to get him by. At one point he worked on the IRT subway line. Often in the doldrums, he took to drink. His fortunes began to look up when President Theodore Roosevelt learned of his poems and helped him secure a job in the New York Custom House.

From 1909 to 1912 Robinson lived on Washington Place, at least from time to time, and it was here he wrote this third book of poems, The Town Down By the River, dedicating the work to Roosevelt. He lost the government position, however, when President William Howard Taft took office. The book includes "Miniver Cheevy," a portrait of a man who fancies he belongs to the age of chivalry rather than to the modern world. As a way to cope with being "born too late," Robinson writes, he "kept on drinking. Readers may also be familiar with Robinson's earlier "Richard Cory," the poem about the wealthy man about appears successful but who goes home and commits suicide. The poem served as the point of inspiration for a 1965 song by Paul Simon.

The era from 1890 to 1920 also coincides with the rise of the literary and cultural experiments known as modernism, a time when writers and artists experimented with new forms of creative expression and pushed their chosen media into previously uncharted intellectual territory. Many poets also gravitated to radical politics, longing to cast aside traditional social conventions, or to explore non-western cultures or to delve into the psyche. The allure of Greenwich Village drew aspiring artists and writers away from more conventional homes in Maine, Ohio, Massachusetts, Missouri, and many other places and toward a rather non-American-looking city neighborhood where they could share new approaches to life, love, and art. William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), one of the most important voices of the new poetry, maintained his home and medical practice in Rutherford, New Jersey, but he frequently slipped into the Village to talk shop. Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who lived with his wife Elsie at 441 W. 21st Street before taking a lawyer position in Hartford, had even less a distance to meet with other modernist poets.


Marianne Moore (1887-1972) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) were two of the most well known of the groundbreaking Village poets. I wrote about Marianne Moore at length in a post from July 2008, part of a series of the illustrious figures to have lived on St. Luke's Place. An excerpt: "Though Moore is most associated with Brooklyn, the borough in which she resided the longest, she launched her New York literary career from 14 St. Luke's Place in the West Village. She and her mother had moved from upstate New York to this block in 1918, and she quickly developed friends in the circles of little magazines in New York, especially the Dial, the magazine that she would later steer into literary preeminence. In 1920 Moore started working part-time at the Hudson Park Branch of the New York Public Library across the street. She was very good at poetry and building her literary career, publishing her first two volumes of poetry in the early 1920s and becoming friends with H.D. and William Carlos Williams. She began corresponding with T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In a letter to Pound dated January 9, 1919, she wrote, "I like New York, the little quiet part of it in which my mother and I live. I like to see the tops of the masts from our door and to go to the wharf and look at the craft on the river." (The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, edited by Bonnie Costello (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 123.)

Millay moved to the city in 1917 after graduation from Vassar. Her first collection, Renascence and Other Poems (1917), draws upon traditional images of nature, but the city serves as the setting for Sonnet V ("If I should learn, in some quite casual way") where she imagines a lover's absence from glancing at a newspaper held by a fellow subway passenger.  One of her poems, "MacDougal Street," from A Few Figs From Thistles, published in 1920 by Frank Shay, describes a walk down the famous Village street "to take in the evening air." From 1923 to 1924, the poet and her husband lived at 75 1/2 Bedford St, a skinny little house only nine and a half feet wide, famously known as the narrowest house in New York (and the most dangerous place to burn your candles at both ends, to borrow a phrase from her most famous poem).

Known mostly for his ambitious attempt to best Eliot with his lyrical work, The Bridge (1930), and for a hard, short life ending in a suicide at sea, Hart Crane (1899-1932) exulted in the soaring promise of New York City. The Ohio native moved several times while living in the city, Manhattan and Brooklyn alike, with several stops early in his career in the Village. Dealing with an emotionally smothering mother and a demanding father often kept Crane from finding a sense of peace. He found some outlet in sexual encounters, several with sailors. A few of Hart's poems explore the experience of wandering city streets with a sense of desire, longing and heartache. Paul L. Mariani, author of The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane, describes Crane's poem, "Possessions" as enacting "the deep, troubling, only partly understood drives that urged him out onto the city's streets by night on the prowl for something as lonely and desperate as himself." (p. 138) On one occasion, Crane went on a two-day bender, only to be rescued and sent home in a taxi by a fellow poet, E. E. Cummings (1894-1962), the resident of 4 Patchin Place.

Like Crane, other lives in Greenwich Village poetry circles ended in tragedy. Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), a lyrical poet who adhered to traditional forms, wrote poems inspired by places in the city, including “Gramercy Park,” “Broadway,” “Coney Island,” and “42nd St.” With the city serving as backdrop, many of these poems express loneliness in love. Teasdale was involved with poet Vachel Lindsay before marrying someone else. She killed herself on an overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 48, two years after Lindsay took his life.

The brilliant Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), a Brooklyn native and a precocious poet and essayist, lived on Charles Street in the late 1940s. He frequented the White Horse Tavern, the watering hole where visiting Welsh poet Dylan Thomas drank heavily on a November night in 1963 and later died in St. Vincent's Hospital. Schwartz himself declined into alcoholic seclusion and died in a New York hotel in 1966. As a calling, writing can be a tough affliction, a mixture of highs and lows, with alternating bouts of despair and exhilaration, but neither writing nor the neighborhood should be defining reasons for these cases of individual struggle.

Several other notable poets lived in the Village, including Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), Louise Bogan (1897-1970), Marguerite Young (1908- 1995), Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), and Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996). By the late 1950s and 1960s, however, some of the poetic energy of lower Manhattan had shifted east to what became known as the East Village and to the Lower East Side. The new poetry centered around Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), John Ashberry (b. 1927) and other members of the New York School. Allen Ginsburg (1926-1997) reinvigorated both the Walt Whitman and Hart Crane strains of poetic yearning.

Many of these poets would find inspiration, too, like so many others in a long poetic tradition, just by walking along the streets. Still, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the lyrics of the old Greenwich Village stayed much alive, but now sung to the sounds of strumming strings, as new poetic anthems played on old guitars.

   "Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn."

-  from "Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day" by Delmore Schwartz, 1937

As with the poetry that flourished here, a walk through the meandering streets of Greenwich Village should always be experimental, with an expectation of getting lost. Begin your own poetic wanderings with this rather incomplete map of poet residences.


View A Walk with Village Poets in a larger map

Images of poet residences and the White Horse Tavern by Walking Off the Big Apple.

Related: For more on modernism as a movement, read my series on Mabel Dodge Luhan and Georgia O'Keeffe on this supplemental WOTBA site page.





Popular posts from this blog

The Company of Nature: Walking With Butterflies in Fort Tryon Park

If wandering the empty urban canyons feels a little lonely and depressing, a better idea would be to head to the nearest park. This past Saturday, a day that was sunny but not too hot, Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan turned out to be the perfect place to not only satisfy wanderlust but to rediscover the company of nature. Butterflies were there. Hundreds of butterflies - Tiger Swallowtails, Monarch Butterflies, Black Swallowtails, Cabbage White Butterflies, and Silver Spotted Skippers, among them. Moths, too, although I have not yet learned their names.  The Heather Garden is situated just beyond the entrance to Fort Tryon Park. With seasonal plantings, the garden is always a serene spot.  Observing butterflies involves watching their interaction with blooming flowers and shrubs. The Tiger Swallowtails are easy to find and found here in significant numbers. Just look for the Butterfly Bushes. The Cabbage White Butterflies are here in abundance, too, though not as showy as the swallow…

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Update: As of March 12, 2020, many New York arts institutions have temporarily closed due to the COVID-19 public health crisis. Please see this post for announcements of reopenings.

Several museums in New York City are open on Mondays, including MoMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Whitney.

This list has been expanded to include free or pay-what-you-wish hours.


American Museum of Natural History Central Park West and 79th Street
See the post, Big Things to See at the American Museum of Natural History.
Cooper Hewitt
2 East 91st St.

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum 1071 Fifth Ave

Jewish Museum 1109 Fifth Ave

Metropolitan Museum of Art 100 Fifth Avenue
See the post 25 Things To Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Met Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park is also open 7 days a week from March - October.

Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue

MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art), 11 West 53 Street: * Also, consult the post 25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern…

The Lonesome Metropolis: A Walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center

As New York City reopens, why do the attractions of the great metropolis still look mostly deserted on a summer morning? A morning walk from Grand Central Terminal to Rockefeller Center sought to address this question. As it turns out, there are several adequate explanations. But for what happens next, there are no right answers.

Many neighborhoods outside of tourist New York are still buzzing along. While some residents of wealthier neighborhoods have largely decamped to mountain cabins, beach houses, and other second homes, the less wealthy have nowhere to go and may still be working. Just visit Washington Heights or Corona or Flatbush, and you’ll see sidewalks full of shoppers and summer evening street partiers. Those who fled the city remain only a fraction of the total population.  

Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been frequently occupied, as in Occupied, with crowds protesting police violence. This week, NYPD officers in riot gear remove…

The City Turned Inside Out: A Walk from Battery Park to Fulton Street

While the cast of HAMILTON sings “The World Turned Upside Down,” New Yorkers could easily hum along to “The City Turned Inside Out” this summer. (not a real song) Where once a city’s important work took place indoors - within the soaring office buildings, famous restaurants, legendary museums, and storied performance halls, the COVID-19 epidemic has literally turned the residents outdoors. 

At least it’s summer in the city, when spending time outdoors is common and pleasant enough. Still, the city remains strange this summer of 2020. 

With the absence of tourists, and with office workers connecting virtually from home, many of the city’s main attractions aren’t attracting many visitors. A walk from the Battery to Fulton Street on a pleasant Thursday afternoon bore this out. 

It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and happy. Thanks to the city’s gardeners and landscapers, the city parks are looking particularly lush and splendid this summer. The grounds of Battery Park feel…

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City.


The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington.


First, catch a Metro-North Hudson line train to Dobbs Ferry, a village in southern Westchester C…

Starstruck at MoMA

(Update July 31, 2020. Please note: After reopening in 2019, MoMA is currently closed as a result of the pandemic. MoMA has not announced its reopening.) 
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Midtown Manhattan is undergoing a significant renovation and expansion that will increase gallery space by thirty percent upon completion in 2019. In the midst of renovation and following a long hot summer, the museum may currently look a little rough around the edges and even disorienting for longtime patrons. For starters, you’ll need to enter the museum on W. 54th Street instead of W. 53rd Street while the work is taking place, and the museum store is now currently on the second floor next to the coffee bar which has also moved.


This state of affairs didn’t stop visitors on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend from making a pilgrimage to the museum to gaze at treasures of modern art. In an age of quickly disposable digital imagery, the original and cherished works still exude their aura. Ironically,…

The Most Beautiful Bridge in the World

Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier (1887 - 1965), the leading proponent of the International Style of modern architecture, visited NYC on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s, and he made much to say about the skyscraper city. He didn’t think much of the faux tops of the tall buildings nor did he care about the haphazard city planning, but he did fall madly in love with one particular bridge: 
"The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson is the most beautiful bridge in the world. Made of cables and steel beams, it gleams in the sky like a reversed arch. It is blessed. It is the only seat of grace in the disordered city. It is painted an aluminum color and, between water and sky, you see nothing but the bent cord supported by two steel towers. When your car moves up the ramp the two towers rise so high that it brings you happiness; their structure is so pure, so resolute, so regular that here, finally, steel architecture seems to laugh. The car reaches an unexpectedly wide apro…

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters.

As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk.



One such essay, "Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer, Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the advantag…

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

As the pandemic crisis improves in New York State, several NYC attractions are scheduling their re-openings. What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements.
UPDATED August 7, 2020. With the state of New York currently ahead of the class in the pandemic outbreak across the US, many favorite local destinations have started to reopen. The rollout is designed to be gradual, with geographic regions advancing according to a fixed set of metrics. 
New York City, the hardest hit area in the first months of the crisis, entered Phase 4 on Monday, July 20. The local exception: indoors of malls, restaurants, and cultural institutions.

Openings     
Phase 4 began in NYC on July 20. Stay outside! (Forward.ny.gov) NO indoor dining!
• Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. 
• Outdoor dining has been extended through October 31. 
• On July 1, city beaches opened for swimming.
•…

Delacroix’s Cats

Following its record-breaking debut at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the blockbuster Delacroix exhibit has opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While not all of the works could travel, as some are intrinsic to the Louvre, the big cats made the trip to the city. For the Delacroix exhibit poster, the Met has selected Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother, the artist’s great and surprising painting from 1830, as the signature and defining work of the exhibition.


Eugène Delacroix (French, 1798–1863), known as the leading Romantic painter of his era, loved cats. His many notebooks show preparatory sketches of lions, tigers, and several charming domestic cats. The big cats, for the most part, made it into big paintings. At 52 x 76.6 in. (130 x 195 cm), Young Tiger Playing with Its Mother, 1830, is astonishingly large for an animal painting of his time, a size normally devoted to a history painting. His most famous work, La Liberté guidant le peuple, dates from the same year.�…