The best New York poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
New York City is known by several quasi-poetical names: ‘the Big Apple’, ‘the city that never sleeps’. But has it been the inspiration for poets, in the way that, say, London has? He following ten classic poems about New York all suggest that the city has provided inspiration for poets of various ages and from very different backgrounds, each of whom has described New York in their own way.
Walt Whitman, ‘Mannahatta’. ‘I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city, / Whereupon, lo! upsprang the aboriginal name!’ So Whitman begins this paean to Manhattan, in one of the greatest poems in praise of New York City, written in Whitman’s distinctive free-verse style.
Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus’. This sonnet was written for the arrival of the Statue of Liberty in New York in the 1880s, and describes the statue as a modern-day ‘colossus’ to rival the one from ancient Greece. But unlike that classical male symbol of power and empire, this ‘new colossus’ standing in New York’s harbour is a welcoming ‘mother of exiles’, inviting immigrants and the dispossessed to come and forge a new life for themselves in the United States.
Lola Ridge, ‘Manhattan’. Ridge (1873-1941) wrote a long free-verse poem, The Ghetto (1918), describing life among the Jewish population of New York in the early twentieth century. But for this list of brief introductory poems about New York, we’ve opted for her shorter free-verse poem ‘Manhattan’.
Sara Teasdale, ‘The Lights of New York’. This poem is an example of a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet, and was one of four New York sonnets Teasdale (1884-1933) wrote in the summer of 1911. They all reflect Teasdale’s love of the city; we think ‘The Lights of New York’ is the finest of the four.
Claude McKay, ‘Dawn in New York’. McKay (1889-1948) was a leading African-American poet of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s, and wrote numerous poems about New York City. ‘Dawn in New York’ may have been influenced by Wordsworth’s famous poem about dawn in London: at one point, McKay describes ‘the mighty city’ as almost ‘asleep’, perhaps echoing Wordsworth’s description of ‘the very houses seem[ing] asleep’. But McKay’s poem offers a distinctive and original take on dawn in a very different city from London, with the cars carrying ‘their strangely-ghostly burdens’.
Langston Hughes, ‘Second Generation: New York’. Probably the best-known poet of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes (1901-67) knew New York like few other poets at the time and wrote several classic poems about it. ‘Second Generation: New York’ is spoken by an invented New Yorker whose mother was Irish and father Polish, although Hughes – who was African-American – may have been drawing on his own complex heritage.
W. H. Auden, ‘Refugee Blues’. Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-63) was born in Yorkshire, England but later moved to the United States. He wrote ‘Refugee Blues’ about the many Jewish immigrants who had fled to the US, and especially New York, from persecution in Europe. Not a particularly upbeat poem, but one that carries Auden’s trademark political bite and which highlights the plight of many New Yorkers who had fled death and exchanged it for poverty, and feel displaced and unwelcome in the city.
Denise Levertov, ‘February Evening in New York’. Levertov (1923-97) was an English poet, but she became an American citizen in the 1950s and wrote this wonderful poem about New York City. As the night darkens, the lights of New York brighten in the city that never sleeps.
Allen Ginsberg, ‘My Sad Self’. Ginsberg (1926-97) was one of the leading Beat Poets of the 1950s. ‘My Sad Self’ is not a celebration of New York City – Ginsberg despairingly refers to the city as a ‘graveyard’ – but the poem does capture the alienation and isolation that many people feel when confronted with the city.
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘Selling Manhattan’. ‘I wonder if the ground has anything to say’, the Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy wonders in this moving poem about the native American population. This poem is available online by following the above link, but you’ll need to scroll down to find the poem.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (bottom): New York sunset by Anthony Quintano, via Flickr.