To Write the City

Leslie Kaplan, a French poet who at one time worked in a factory, wrote a book-length poem of her experience, L'exces-l'usine, which took her more than ten years to finish. In an interview, she comments that she did not want as much to write about the factory as to actually write the factory. It is not uncommon for writers to write about cities and the lives of people in them. Dickens comes to mind, Joyce, and, close by, Sherwood Anderson's account of people in Clyde in Winesburg, Ohio. But how many writers write the city, as Kaplan does the factory, and not just write about it? How, we might ask, would one write Lakewood?

We might look to some examples in American writing: Charles Olson's The Maximus Poems, about Gloucester, Massachusetts; William Carlos Williams' poem about his hometown, Paterson (an imaginary town in New Jersey, the Times Literary Supplement noted in its review of Williams' book); Ruth McKenney's Industrial Valley, a report of the 1934 rubber workers strike in Akron, Ohio; Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip, a small town in Wisconsin at the beginning of the twentieth century seen through the photographs of its town photographer and articles in the local paper.

In all of these, information and data are crucial. Mckenney, Lesy and Williams cite news accounts and historic material, but Williams also includes a fashionable grocery list and depth measurements for an artesian well while McKenney reports that of Akron's population of 255,000 in 1934, 152,000 residents were Southern-born whites. People are significant, although, to some extent, many are memento mori. Olson speaks of fishermen long gone, fishermen whose work gave them the dignity of their labor; Williams of Sam Patch, who "jumped from a rocky ledge at Goat Island into the Niagara River"; McKenney of Stanley Mikolajsck, an unemployed rubber worker, who jumped to his death from the North Hill Viaduct. That The Maximus Poems and Paterson were the works of a lifetime that stretched into six books each suggests how incomplete such a project is, no matter how necessary.

The poet, Allen Ginsberg, who lived in Paterson at the time the first volume of Paterson appears, writes Williams: "I have been walking the streets and discovering the bars - especially around the great Mill and River Streets. Do you know this part of Paterson? I have seen so many things - negroes, gypsies, an incoherent bartender." It was a Paterson Williams did not know, but it did not diminish what Williams accomplished. "Limits are what any of us are inside of," Olson notes, and the question of writing the city (as opposed to writing about it) is one of recognition, not imagination. To see what we see wherever it can be seen. We have eyes.

I would begin with Bird Town, the Madison branch of the Lakewood Public Library, with its large collection of works in Slavic, German, Polish, Russian and Hungarian, the junior high school teacher who told me to ignore my test scores, since they were obviously in error - no one from my neighborhood ever scored that high. I would include the fault lines Clifton Park and Lake Road established that extended even to football at high school, where those from Clifton Park and Lake were favored over those from other parts of town. On my first trip to the Clifton Park Beach Club, I saw children pull used rubbers out of Lake Erie that had been discarded by those partying on yachts. I was thirty before I was 18.

The names of those who stay, even though they may be gone: Richard Kiefer, who left high school to play trumpet in big bands; Mario Moraitis, who was given no chance to play because he was a transfer from St. Edward's, even though he was a better running back than I was; Miss Warner, who asked why I would do a stupid thing like play football when I told her I could not join history club because it interfered with practice; Alicia Metcalf, who showed me there was more in books than I ever thought possible; Tom Gannon, who understood that the playing field was not level, but that was no reason for excuses; Joan Franklin, who showed me what love was, although neither of us knew what that meant then.

Recently I met a Lakewood graduate who had just moved to my small town in Vermont. Where was he from? Where was I from? You that football guy? he asked me.
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Volume 1, Issue 6, Posted 10.15 AM / 27th September 2005.