Saturday, September 08, 2007

Vox Urbana

Two years ago, I ran a poetry workshop for a bunch of teenagers. By accident, I opened a folder and... here it all is. Or whatever remains of it. I present to you...

A Wilderness of Stone and Steel


“In the vacant places / We will build with new bricks.” T S Eliot, The Rock (1934)


The urban landscape has features which no other landscape has in abundance – throngs of people, the roar of commerce, the tall houses and great towers of the mighty all jostling side by side with the raggedness of the poor and indifferent, vehicular transport and, everywhere, the condition of humanity (both good and evil) concentrated and distilled into gleaming diamonds. Just as settings highlight diamonds, so too the urban landscape highlights the human spirit.


Hard, rough-edged words dominate: ‘concrete’, ‘slum’, ‘dirt’. Where the city is lyrical, it is like the flow of traffic along a major artery – and where it is evocative, it is full of smoke, rain, darkness, and hot metal. Urban life is gritty; it is full of lumps, bumps, contractions and contradictions. Stress, shortness of time and breath and space, all cry out beneath the broad sweep of the steel sky. It is here that ‘one’ is the loneliest number; it is also here that all languages become one.


She looked at me, an old woman; her face was a map of all her days. If you traced the veins back to her heart, you would know all her descendants and their lives. The young man with her was her grandson; his language of choice was not hers and his calling was one she admired, but did not understand. To him, life was stainless steel and antiseptic and translucent plastic which one threw away after use; to her, life was old wood and incense and bright oranges on a cold day.


They passed each other by, they passed by each other every day. He was a man of the briefcase, she was a lady of the towers. They rode in parallel elevators to the 57th floor. They lunched in adjacent restaurants. They were equally kind, equally ignorant of genuine suffering, equally devoted to the urban sprawl. They would have loved, their love would have resounded throughout all generations. But they never met, and love, hovering and waiting, was disappointed.


What is the vocabulary of urban poetry?

Urban poetry is the combined voice of buildings, industry, and people. Traffic roars and the people move in tides across the city and back again, from sunrise to sunset and beyond.

How does a building speak? If it did, what would it say? What are the songs of machines, roads, and streetlights? What rough music does the daily grind of the workplace produce?

Urban poetry, the vox urbana, attempts to see into the spirit of the city. It evokes every passion of stone and the grittiness of tar, all ruthlessly exposed by the white glare of old lamps and the blue flash of MRT safety lights.

And most of all, it is the voice of faceless humanity, brought together by the forces of economic necessity and historical destiny to perform roles which nobody fully understands.

The vocabulary of urban poetry is therefore the language of city people, the sounds of traffic and machinery, dirt, steel, and windows. It creates lines like:

In restless dreams I walked alone
On narrow streets of cobbled stone
'Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence…”

Paul Simon, The Sound of Silence

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