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Writing around Paterson: Critical urban poetics in Williams, Olson and Ginsberg

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William Carlos Williams, Charles Olson and Allen Ginsberg wrote ambitious city poems in the 1940s and 1950s. They were in close contact at the time, reviewing each other’s work in small-circulation journals and exchanging ideas in person and by letter. This article traces the circulation of influence among the three poets and interprets their poems – Paterson (Williams 1992), The Maximus Poems (Olson 1993), and Ginsberg’s ‘Shrouded Stranger’ poems, including ‘Howl’ (Ginsberg 1984; 1994; 2006) – in relation to other forms of critical urban discourse. Specifically, the article suggests that Williams, Olson and Ginsberg recognized the abstract rationality of Paterson Books I–IV as a limitation of the poem and sought to develop alternative approaches. Their responses anticipate critiques of rational-comprehensive city planning and urban renewal by Guy Debord, Herbert Gans and Jane Jacobs. Comparing Debord, Gans and Jacobs’s arguments to representations of the city in Paterson, The Maximus Poems, and Ginsberg’s ‘Shrouded Stranger’ shows the centrality of the city to innovative twentieth-century poetics and suggests that city poetry can be read as a mode of critical urban analysis.
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Keywords: American poetry; city planning; innovative poetics; long poems; progressive planning; urban crisis; urban theory

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: City University of New York

Publication date: 01 March 2018

More about this publication?
  • Cities have been increasingly at the forefront of debate in both humanities and social-science disciplines, but there has been relatively little dialogue across these disciplinary boundaries. Journals in social-science fields that use urban-studies methods to look at life in cities rarely explore the cultural aspects of urban life in any depth or delve into close readings of the representation of cities in individual cultural products. As a platform for interdisciplinary scholarship from any and all linguistic, cultural and geographical traditions, the Journal of Urban Cultural Studies prioritizes the urban phenomenon in order to better understand the culture(s) of cities.
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