Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 11th, 2017

The poet in the city

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In “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” which was first published in 1903, the German sociologist Georg Simmel described the profound effects that living in a city has on the inner lives of its inhabitants. He was particularly struck by the precision with which urban existence has to reckon time, a phenomenon that he linked to “the universal diffusion of pocket watches.” Simmel wrote:

The relationships and affairs of the typical metropolitan usually are so varied and complex that without the strictest punctuality in promises and services the whole structure would break down into an inextricable chaos. Above all, this necessity is brought about by the aggregation of so many people with such differentiated interests, who must integrate their relations and activities into a highly complex organism. If all clocks and watches in Berlin would suddenly go wrong in different ways, even if only by one hour, all economic life and communication of the city would be disrupted for a long time. In addition, an apparently mere external factor, long distances, would make all waiting and broken appointments result in an ill-afforded waste of time. Thus, the technique of metropolitan life is unimaginable without the most punctual integration of all activities and mutual relations into a stable and impersonal time schedule.

These days, the universal diffusion of smartphones has led to much the same result, except that our clocks are now all perfectly synced, and we take such precision for granted, not just in the present, but in the near future. Thanks to Google Maps and Uber, we expect to know the exact number of minutes between ourselves and our destination, or precisely how long we have to wait before our driver arrives, and we plan our lives accordingly. Like Nicolas Cage in Next—which is a reference I never thought I’d make—we can all see about two minutes into the future, and the effects are similar to the ones that Simmel described over a century ago:

Punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan existence and are not only most intimately connected with its money economy and intellectualist character. These traits must also color the contents of life and favor the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign traits and impulses which aim at determining the mode of life from within, instead of receiving the general and precisely schematized form of life from without. Even though sovereign types of personality, characterized by irrational impulses, are by no means impossible in the city, they are nevertheless, opposed to typical city life. The passionate hatred of men like Ruskin and Nietzsche for the metropolis is understandable in these terms. Their natures discovered the value of life alone in the unschematized existence which cannot be defined with precision for all alike.

Thanks to the profusion of smartphones, these qualities have spread outward from the city to all walks of life, but they’re most evident in places like Manhattan. For all their apparent confusion, cities have a low tolerance for true irrationality, which is a social vice comparable to poverty, both of which offend the core values of capitalism. To put it another way, the city isn’t conducive to poetic thought, which is based to a certain extent on intuition, a nonlinear conception of time, and, usually, a lack of money. Poetry written in the city may even have a subtly different flavor than the kind produced in calmer surroundings. Two decades after Simmel, the poets Robert Graves and Laura Riding wrote:

A new type of poem has been evolved and popularized by the demands of the anthology-reading public. It is called “the perfect modern lyric.” Like the bestseller novel, it is usually achieved in the dark; but certain critical regulations can be made for it. It must be fairly regular in form and easily memorized, it must be a new combination of absolutely worn-out material, it must have a certain unhealthy vigor or languor, and it must start off engagingly with a simple sentimental statement. Somewhere a daring pseudo-poetical image must be included.

Graves and Riding don’t explicitly mention the city, but the incentives they describe are particularly evident there. Just as even literary novelists in New York feel pressured to produce a bestseller, simply as a matter of survival, poems written under such conditions tend to be mindful of their potential markets. Writers in the city are constantly fixated on the near future, because they’re surrounded by rivals who are outshining them in the present, and they end up living slightly ahead of themselves, as if they were tracking their careers on the Lyft app.

The punchline, of course, is that writers and poets flock to the city. They’re drawn to its cultural opportunities, to its promise of careers in media or publishing, and to the fact that a sufficient population density generates the necessary critical mass of outcasts and oddballs that a writer needs to feel like part of a community. It also provides exposure to the serendipity that Nassim Nicholas Taleb advises us to maximize in The Black Swan:

Collect as many free nonlottery tickets…as you can, and, once they start paying off, do not discard them. Work hard, not in grunt work, but in chasing such opportunities and maximizing exposure to them. This makes living in big cities invaluable because you increase the odds of serendipitous encounters—you gain exposure to the envelope of serendipity.

If you’re a poet, then, you have plenty of good reasons to go to the city—but also you have to guard your citadel of integrity against all the temptations that whisper to you to abandon it. And perhaps it’s only in the reaction against such forces that your true self comes into being, as Simmel himself recognized. Life in the city, he notes, is both full of stimulation and fundamentally impersonal, which means that the individual has to reach deeper inside to find his or her “genuine personal colorations and incomparabilities.” As Simmel concludes: “This results in the individual’s summoning the utmost in uniqueness and particularization, in order to preserve his most personal core. He has to exaggerate this personal element in order to remain audible even to himself.”

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2017 at 8:53 am

Quote of the Day

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Walking is the natural recreation for a man who desires not absolutely to suppress his intellect but to turn it out to play for a season. All great men of letters have, therefore, been enthusiastic walkers.

Leslie Stephen, “In Praise of Walking”

Written by nevalalee

April 11, 2017 at 7:30 am

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