Poetry’s Political Possibilities
If poetry and urban planning sound like strange bedfellows, Guttman Community College Professor Nate Mickelson instead sees their intrinsic possibilities.
Mickelson’s new book City Poems and American Urban Crisis analyzes how certain poets have responded to crises in major American cities in their writing. More than depict plights in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, however, city poetry highlights the artform’s political potential. “City poems function as a mode of critical urban analysis,” he writes, arguing that “city poets and progressive planners can—and should—work alongside one another to enact urban change.”
As Mickelson details, each decade in the U.S. begat specific troubles that were disseminated to the public via “the language of crisis,” including “blighted central business districts and deteriorating neighborhoods” in the 1940s and 1950s, and “cycles of disinvestment, bankruptcy, and narrow interventions to promote economic growth” in the 1970s and 1980s.
With each shift, poets like William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Wanda Coleman, Gwendolyn Brooks, and more grappled with their changing urban spaces. For these poets, cities operated “as ciphers for ideas and anxieties about the state of society as a particular moment in time.”
But they also signified an imaginative form “through which new arrangements of power and resources can be elaborated, critiqued, and put into practice.” Citing progressive planner Peter Marcuse — who constructed a three-fold plan to give residents greater agency over their communities — Mickelson draws connections to the ways in which city poetry also championed the same course of action.
Blending urban planning with literary studies, Mickelson’s book shows the power bound up in the arts. “These city poems and others lay groundwork for political change,” he writes. “Further, they bring communities together across geographic and cultural distances into shared understanding of previously submerged visions of urban possibility.”