Don’t Forget the Flâneur

Poetry’s rich tradition of urban wandering.

“The day turned into the city / and the city turned into the mind.” So Jessica Greenbaum begins her breathless, single-sentence poem “I Love You More Than All the Windows in New York City.” Often when we think of the kinds of landscapes that poets physically traverse and turn their minds to, we think not of the city but of the countryside. The conception of walking as a pastoral pastime to stimulate one’s creativity comes in large part from the legendary rural rambling of the Romantic poets: William Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s week-long solo walking tour of the Cumbrian mountains. But Greenbaum’s poem participates in, and perhaps even helps define, an equally rich tradition of the poetry of urban wandering.

An aimless urban walk—no map, no GPS—can resemble the experience of flipping through a poetry collection: the turn you take on a given street or to a given page, the forms or structures you’re drawn to, the storefront or poem you pass in favor of another. Or as Michel de Certeau puts it in a chapter called “Walking in the City” in his landmark 1984 book, The Practice of Everyday Life, “There is a rhetoric of walking. The art of ‘turning’ phrases or ‘stylistic figures’ finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path.”

Frank O’Hara is well-known for his pleasurable depictions of such directionless literary and pedestrian detours. His “Meditations in an Emergency” offers as solid an explanation as any as to why some people and poets prefer urban walking to rural and prefer to do their browsing through culture, not nature. “I have never,” he writes: 

    clogged myself with the praises of pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of perverted acts in pastures. No. One need never leave the confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.

George Oppen was roughly contemporary with O’Hara but more overtly philosophical. His “Of Being Numerous,” the title poem of his Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, consists of 40 numbered sections, each of which deals with the city and its atmosphere. In it, he explores the idea that perhaps a city can be the most insightful achievement of humankind. 

Oppen completed the poem in the mid-1960s, yet its tone and concerns remain eerily relevant, prophetic even, and cohere into a masterpiece of the 20th century that proves instructive for the 21st. He writes in Section 6: 

We are pressed, pressed on each other,
We will be told at once
Of anything that happens 

Read from the vantage of 2016, this passage puts one in mind of the overcrowding the planet’s cities face and the immediacy of the Internet and social media. The first section begins: “There are things / We live among ‘and to see them / Is to know ourselves.’” As Paul Zweig wrote in the Partisan Review in 1973, Oppen’s “poem proceeds by side leaps and deft associations,” a fitting description that shares characteristics with a satisfying, aimless walk.

Oppen begins Section 12 with a slight variation on a quotation from the philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead: “In these explanations it is presumed that an experiencing subject is one occasion of a sensitive reaction to an actual world.” Of course, one can reach that kind of sensitive reaction by many paths, but poetry and flânerie can be two of the most fruitful.

To be an inquisitive walker in the city is not always to feel delighted, like O’Hara, or transcendent, like Oppen, and such poems can also reveal the city and its dwellers’ darker sides. Although he’s often thought of as a country poet, Robert Frost deals literally and figuratively with the darkness of urban life in his poem “Acquainted with the Night”: 

I have been one acquainted with the night. 
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.  
I have outwalked the furthest city light.   
I have looked down the saddest city lane.

Frost’s terza rima evokes the rhythm of his speaker’s depressed yet compulsive insomniac perambulation. The lines “I have passed by the watchman on his beat / And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain” capture the unavoidable and not always pleasant intimacy with strangers that city life creates as well as the paradox familiar to many city walkers: one can feel radically alone even in a massive population center. 

In “45 Mercy Street,” Anne Sexton also explores the anxious side of walking in the city, drawing a correlation between drifting as a walker and dreaming. “In my dream,” she writes, 

I'm walking up and down Beacon Hill 
searching for a street sign - 
Not there. 

I try the Back Bay. 
Not there. 
Not there. 

The signs in a city are supposed to be instructive—one shouldn’t be lost—but as the speaker searches “for a street sign,” she is searching as well for a deeper clarity. Walking often provides it, yet here she is, lost again. Reminders of loss and change surround her. Sexton writes, “Where did you go? / 45 Mercy Street, / with great-grandmother / kneeling in her whale-bone corset,” depicting how the passage of time is not always kind to cities or their inhabitants.

Poems on walking in the city can evoke not only internal anxieties and anguishes but also external injustices. In “London,” William Blake takes readers on a grim tour of the urban blight. “I wander thro’ each charter’d street,” he begins, “Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. / And mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe.” He focuses his walker’s attention on the most oppressed city-dwellers: the exploited chimney sweepers, the soldiers forced to die for their nation’s greed, and the young women driven into sex work by economic circumstance. Even though “London” was published in 1794, the critique of urban injustice remains pointed and pertinent today.

Nikki Giovanni offers a contemporary version of this style of urban critique in “Walking Down Park.” In the first stanza, she addresses the urban walker directly: 

walking down park   
or columbus do you ever stop 
to think what it looked like 
before it was an avenue 
did you ever stop to think 
what you walked   
before you rode   
subways to the stock   
exchange (we can’t be on 
the stock exchange   
we are the stock   

With the enjambment of these last lines, she evokes both the New York Stock Exchange, where buyers and sellers trade shares of stock in companies registered for public trading, and the purchase and sale of human stock in the institution of American slavery. 

Through the anaphoric repetition of “did you ever” and “ever,” her speaker’s eye roves over the city before arriving at her concluding questions:

ever think what Harlem would be 
like if our herbs and roots and elephant ears   
grew sending 
a cacophony of sound to us 
the parrot parroting black is beautiful black is beautiful   

and “ever think its possible / for us to be / happy.” Giovanni interrogates the erasure of history that takes place in so many metropolitan areas, not just New York, and invites readers to remember that the deplorable circumstances many African Americans face in our nation’s cities stem inextricably from the dehumanizing and exploitative practices of the past. 

Her flâneuse’s close observation allows her to suggest an imaginative reassembly of the city. We are encouraged to think about how the place where we live succeeds or fails to express an ideal, how invisible forces came to make it what it is, and how it might be able to take shape differently.

Many poets have recognized the connection between urban walking and poetry, but perhaps the first to do so in any kind of systematic way was Charles Baudelaire. He posited in both his nonfiction and his poems, particularly those in Paris Spleen (posthumously published in 1869), that such close observation and curiosity ought to be among the governing emotions of the urban walker and artist. In his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire lays out much of his theory of flânerie, or aimless walking through a city; he writes of the titular painter and archetypal flâneur Constantin Guys that “to begin to understand M. G., the first thing to note is this: that curiosity may be considered the starting point of his genius.”

To be curious can mean to be eager to learn or know something, or it can mean strange or unusual, and Baudelaire’s literary output offers examples of both definitions. Etymologically, the word derives from the Latin curiosus, meaning “careful, diligent; inquiring eagerly”; it is also related to cura or “care.” In other words, paying attention to the city outside you and what it evokes within you can be a form of care. 

Paul Valéry suggests “a poem is a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.” A walk through a city can kick-start that machine. In essence, to walk is to cultivate a certain state of mind; so too is to compose a poem—or to read one, for that matter, in the sense that you're re-composing for yourself what the author composed for you. 

Both walking through a city and reading a poem are ways to thoughtfully and pleasingly disrupt the flow of time and possibly to intensify or concentrate your experience.  Both constitute occasions to ignore or even disrupt the prevailing fantasies—predicated on speed—of global capitalism: efficiency, profit maximization, and productivity. A poem is by design inefficient; it’s not a set of instructions or a memo or a text. A walk is almost never the fastest way to get somewhere. But both walks and poems can afford a more textured and deep experience of space and time.
The poem “Among Many Poems,” by Jacques Roubaud, distills this relationship to its essence. In the translation by Mary Ann Caws, the speaker recounts “a poem written with my feet / As I always make up my poems / In silence and in my head while walking.” Roubaud calls to mind the interconnected imaginative power of urban walking, writing, and reading, prompting us to consider the kinds of cities we have yet to build and the types of poems we have yet to read and write. 

Originally Published: September 27th, 2016

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

  1. October 6, 2016

    Kathleen Rooney wonderfully recounts English language poet perambulations.

    But it's a bit disturbing that in doing so she slights the world poetry greats who had so much more to offer -- Mandelstam, Cavafy, Basho, Pasternak, Radnoti, Montale, and several of Japan's great women poets from the Heian era.

    Maybe it just comes with the turf now that Americans acquainted with poetry have only smallest niche imagination for it. Most U.S. poets and critics of the craft live in academe -- and in particular in the MFA ghetto of that corporate gulag. They're taught by all the surrounding zeitgeist never to wander outside their corporate givens.

    I've seen a few poems -- Kathleen Rooney doesn't mention any of them here -- where today's American poets actually wander about their academic terrains, actually make serendipitous discoveries, actually name many heterodox images they wander into -- even as the good poems that result also in lovely ways cohere.

    Please: can we have an anthology of American poets scornful of their designated places in the "teach freshman comp" industry -- poets who defy the "me, me, me" status quo and bump around quite a bit in unpredictable night walking, night discoveries?