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

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

Early Voting in Washington Heights, and A Walk

Early voting for the 2020 federal election in New York began on Saturday, October 24 and continues through Sunday, November 1. The weekend was overcast and autumnal, with the bright yellows of fall on display. In New York City, thousands of New Yorkers turned out at the 88 early voting locations and waited in long lines, many stretching around the block.  A line to vote in Washington Heights. The line stretched around the block multiple times. Madison Square Garden in Manhattan and the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn were two of the well-known sites, but most voting places were typical neighborhood places such as schools, churches, and hospitals.   The scene outside the entrance to the Russ Berrie Medical Science Pavilion, one of the early voting locations in Washington Heights. In Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, two early voting locations were within a short walk of one another, causing some confusion for voters emerging from the 168th Street subway station. The Columbia Universit

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. Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. 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.   Grand Central Terminal, 9:40 am. Wednesday, July 22, 2020. Other renowned parts of the city such as City Hall and Brooklyn Bridge have been fr

Walking It Off: Coping with Holiday Stress During the Pandemic

When I began this series, “Pandemic Posts from the Pause: New York City in the Age of Coronavirus” in March of 2020, I could see the first young greens of spring from my window. New Yorkers were told to stay home then and away from others. As someone who enjoys walking in the city, I knew that I would need to sacrifice many things this year. I was not going to give up walking. I quickly figured out that I could safely go to Inwood Hill Park near my house and wander the trails in the old forest. In March, I could breathe in the spring air away from others. There was little else to do during those early days of the “pause.” New Yorkers suffered greatly at the beginning. In a few months we were able to get the numbers down and to manage some semblance of human interaction, at a distance and masked.  Now, with the beginning of the holidays, the city and nation faces the existential threat of the virus’s return, the political assault on democratic norms, and the ongoing threat of the clima

An Early Autumn Walk in Central Park: 2020 Edition

This week, the singer Diana Krall released a cover of “Autumn in New York,” the standard by Vernon Duke. An accompanying video , filmed in New York by Davis McCutcheon and directed by Mark Seliger, portrays the city in moody yet beautiful black and white tones. Beyond the lack of autumn colors, the film shows the empty streets of the pandemic city. The mood riffs on the underlying melancholy of the song’s lyrics, that the fall season “is often mingled with pain.” Approaching The Mall in Central Park  When I think of autumn in New York, I automatically imagine walking in Central Park in the vivid colors of the season. The images here, from a meandering one-mile stroll this past Saturday, show only a hint of autumnal glory but reflect more conventional representations of both the season and the song. Yet, walking in Central Park at the beginning of autumn is tinged for me with a hint of sadness, or truthfully, with some anxiety about the coming months. The Mall in Central Park I hadn’t v

MoMA in Masks

Update. Beginning September 28, MoMA will require all members to reserve tickets in advance.* Walking into the gallery devoted to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies (c 1920) at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Saturday afternoon, I saw a woman seated on a bench. She was looking at the artist’s dreamy depiction of his garden at Giverny, and I thought for a moment she might be dreaming as well. As she was the only person occupying what is usually a packed room for fans of Impressionism, I was hesitant to invade her private garden reveries. At MoMA I would enjoy my own such private moments with my favorite MoMA works that afternoon, including Marc Chagall’s I and the Village (1911). The painting depicts a colorful and geometric fairy tale of peasants and animals, memories of the artist’s childhood home outside Vitebsk. And I had a long time to feel the scorching sun of photographer Dorothea Lange’s Woman of the High Plains, Texas Panhandle (1938), a setting closer to my hometown. Later I wou

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.  New landscaping in Battery Park 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.  Shade plants like hosta thrive in Battery Park. The Statue of Liberty is in the distance. 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.  Statue Cruises is still sailing. It’s uplifting to at least find plants that are alive and

The Season of Owls

 A walk in Inwood Hill Park. The days following the holidays and the first of the year make a good time to check in on life in the winter forest. I have a forest just down the street from me in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. There, a vast old growth forest still stands. A Barred Owl faces the setting sun in Inwood Hill Park in Northern Manhattan. A few weeks ago, someone on a local Facebook page posted a snapshot of a Barred Owl, and I was keen to go looking for it in the park. I didn't find the owl on the first day, but the next day I saw it. A handful of birder enthusiasts were already on the scene and kindly pointed it out high up in the pines. What a beautiful creature!  A stand of White Pines provides the habitat for the Barred Owl. The owl is in this picture. I know, hard to see.  Since my first owl visit, everyday life during the otherwise dreary post-holiday doldrums has taken on a finer aura. I have returned several times, each taking a different path up to the o

NYC Re-openings and Travel Advice

What will open, and how will you get there? This list will be updated following official announcements. UPDATED October 10, 2020.  Many favorite local destinations have now reopened.  Hand sanitizer dispenser at the Marble Hill station of Metro-North's Hudson line Openings  - General Information and Popular Destinations    • Restaurants: Consult this NYC Department of Transportation map  (updated link) for restaurants currently open in NYC. Starting September 30, NYC allowed indoor dining at 25% capacity. • As of September 25, outdoor dining in NYC has been extended FOREVER. • The  9/11 Memorial  reopened on Saturday, July 4. Visitors must wear masks and keep social distancing practices. • (update) Libraries: NYPL. T he library will allow a grab-and-go service at 50 locations.   • Governors Island reopened July 15 with advance reserved tickets.  • The High Line  reopened on July 16, with several rules and limitations in place, including timed entry passes - available July 9. Entra

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 apr