When New York City was merely a trading port, outspoken political verse was already churning out of revolutionary minds. With neat stanzas and a sharp wit, Philip Freneau serves as proof that poetic formality does not restrict feeling. Typically written in iambic tetrameter, his poems are rich with contemplative lyrics, imagery, and the weighty sentiments of a man holding back tears. From ‘On The Death of Benjamin Franklin’ to ‘An Indian Burying Ground,’ Freneau is able to express his sentiments regarding the young nation, its leading intellectuals, and its need to break free from of British oppression. He is regarded as the ‘poet of the American Revolution,’ and by some the ‘Father of American Literature.’
William Cullen Bryant
Best known for his position at the New York Evening Post, Bryant’s poetry is just as commendable. In the satirical verses of Descriptio Guilelmopolis—an early poem ridiculing the poet’s dissatisfaction with Williams College—or the reverent address to nature in ‘The Prairies,’ he composes verses about the blossoming America he inhabits. Every celebratory line has a tinge of uncertainty, making his voice highly relatable to readers today. One of his well-known poems, ‘Thanatopsis,’ is a rather positive meditation on death, a subject Bryant was both inspired and haunted by in his young adulthood. It represents a pivotal moment in his career—as he decided law provided no solace compared to writing—and his worldview. By the time he was editing and writing for several journals in New York City, Bryant was contributing his voice to the city’s cultural and geographical boom.
Julia Ward Howe
Though her most memorable work may be ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ Julia Ward Howe is also regarded for her activism in the Women’s Suffrage and Abolitionist movements, as well as for her social commentary. A native New Yorker, Howe was a budding socialite. She also took frequent trips around the world, raised her children in Boston, and wrote under her husband’s nose. In her five poetry collections, she critiques women’s role in society and marriage, yet her tone is highly personal, as her troubled marriage was a major influence.
Raised in Brooklyn and Long Island, Walt Whitman remained a citizen of the city, working as a freelance journalist and poet, abstaining from the Civil War but visiting the wounded, and participating in the daily rush as an observer and friend. His two volumes of poetry—Leaves of Grass (1855, 1882) and Goodbye, My Fancy (1891)—present a reader with speakers isolated in awe of the lives of those around them. His preferred form is anaphoric free verse, characterized by a lack of structure which had not yet been explored by major poets. His ambitious mission is to encompass nineteenth century America itself in his words, hence why free verse is necessary. Through his accessible, often colloquial speech, he appeals to the audience he writes about, proving that ‘a vast similitude interlocks all’ (‘On the Beach At Night Alone’, 1856). Author of epic, memorable poems such as ‘Song of Myself’ and ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’ Whitman remains one of America’s most inspirational poets.
A modern writer with a flair, it is only fit that Djuna Barnes found her way to Greenwich Village in the early 20th century, where the literary scene thrived in its new, inventive stage. Barnes worked as a reporter for Vanity Fair, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and New York World Magazine, while writing novels inspired by her family life and lesbian affairs. Like William Blake, Barnes also contributed her illustrating skills, providing drawings and woodcuts for each book. A remarkable writer in any medium, Barnes’s poetry was the last creative work she published before her death in 1982. While her journalistic feats and novels betray her fearlessness and intensity in a wider setting, her poetry is reflective and stern. Many of the poems—’Lines to a Lady,’ ‘Suicide,’ ‘From Third Avenue On’—mention death, but the macabre subject matter should not deter a reader from being swept away by Barnes’s images.
United States Poet Laureate and New York City native, Richard Wilbur had been composing metrical poems long before his reign. After serving in WWII in the 36th Infantry Division in France, Italy, and Germany, Wilbur published his first collection,The Beautiful Changes (1947). His war poetry is tragic and sincere, reflecting upon the home front, the war’s infiltration of normalcy. As he plays with rhyme schemes, he never loses his accessibility. Even in the intricate lines of ‘Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,’ he conveys the conflict between desire and duty. Other notable accomplishments include translations of French plays and several children’s books.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Ginsberg presided over Manhattan’s East Village. His earlier poems are quiet, containing abrupt lines laden with emotion—’be mad or chill/obsessed with angels/or machines,/ the final wish/is love’ (‘Song,’ 1954). In his magnum opus, ‘Howl,’ he provides an impassioned voice for every confused and misunderstood youth that does not belong. Yet it is not only in this epic, but also in all his poetry that Ginsberg exposes the counterculture’s rough, honest spirit. Every line gives rise to a look inside the way these destructively creative minds perceived their America.
In her own words, Hettie Jones is ‘at the same time/woman enough to be moved to tears/and man enough/to drive my car in any direction’ (‘Hard Drive’, 1998). Born in Brooklyn in the 1930s, Jones established herself as an accomplished writer through many mediums, demonstrating her versatility and strength. In the 1950s and early 1960s she founded a magazine,Yugen, which published the works of beat writers, while in the 1990s she published a memoir, How I Became Hettie Jones, and three poetry collections. Using wordplay, current events, and New York City scenery, Jones is able to cement a powerful image in her readers’ minds with every line.
Katha Pollitt has risen to widespread renown for her wit and rationality. In her 2009 poetry collection, The Mind-Body Problem, Pollitt assembles a threefold force of deeply resonant poetry. While some lay bare the challenges many artists face—’Abandoned Poems,’ ‘From a Notebook’—others provide alternate scenes from the Bible to Atlantis. Her free verse is highly expressive and dreamlike, yet critical. This voice also arises in her articles for The Nation and her sociopolitical essay collections (Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism; Subjects to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture).
With a wistful but serious tone, Marie Howe’s poetry takes the emotion of confessional free verse and settles it down somewhat. Through exploration of mundane phenomena, she captures what others may disregard, magnifies them, and refines them into something truly extraordinary. In her three poetry collections she delivers poignant lines, leaving a reader craving more of a story. Her second collection, What the Living Do, is an especially moving and personal exploration of the grief experienced after losing a loved one, inspired by her own mother’s and brother’s deaths. Presently a faculty member of several NYC-area colleges, Howe was also the New York State Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014.
By Michaela Brady