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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.

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