Lab Notes I

Poem Forest: An Audiovisual Tour

"Urban planners, artists, and citizens around the world must open poetic space within increasingly cramped, increasingly bottom-line-driven cities. We require the commons to encounter each other and the physical landscape."

Poem Forest took place November 2011 at the New York Botanical Garden, which was celebrating the renovation of its 50-acre old-growth forest. The Garden, in conjunction with the Poetry Society of America, asked me to do something poetry-related on site. This commission excited me because I wanted to pull poetry from libraries, magazines, books, etc., and put it in the world.

I’ve always felt that poetry is not an art object to be idly studied. Rather, it’s a way of life, a mode of knowing—a call to become more attentive and active. Koreans have an important proverb: “Knows his way, stops seeing.” Spanish poet Antonio Machado responds to this existential blur by advising us to “wake up as much as possible.” And before him, near the very beginnings of Greek philosophy (that moment when philosophy and poetry were still linked), Heraclitus said: “We share a world when we are awake; each sleeper is in a world of his own.”

Machado and Heraclitus get to the heart of poetry’s power. Poetry can wake us, and in the process we create a shared world or “the commons.” But what characterizes this common world? How can we describe it? With such questions in mind, I shaped Poem Forest. A typical literary event wouldn’t work; it’s too easy to drift while others read their own prewritten material. Poem Forest needed to be more engaging. Otherwise it wouldn’t be poetic.

So I “installed” 15 lines pulled from 2,500 years of poetry along a trail through the old-growth forest. Visitors spoke each line (printed on a handout) at specific locations (marked by small orange signs) to which the lines corresponded conceptually or physically. For example, near the start of the self-guided walk, people would recite Pythagoras’s maxim “The wind is blowing; adore the wind” to clear their heads. Or just as the Bronx River came into view, people would recite Gary Snyder’s verse “Under the trees/ under the clouds/ by the river” to grow closer to the landscape. At the final spot, above a waterfall, people said Ch’u Ch’uang’s “Waterfalls, with a sound/ Like rain” to sharpen the auditory sensation.

Walking Poem Forest took about 20 minutes. Several participants had long histories with the Garden. They felt surprised by how intimately they encountered a landscape that had seemed “familiar” or “known.” A bench near the waterfall became an informal classroom, where we discussed their experience. The overwhelming message was that the poetic lines encouraged everyone to slow down, to see and sense more clearly, to inhabit the present more deeply, and to fill with enchantment.

One participant named Hugh recalled another line from Heraclitus—“You can’t step twice in the same river, for the water into which you first stepped has flowed on.” Hugh added: “Heraclitus gives us the sense we’re not experiencing reality. But we can if we live or think a little differently.” There were lots of memorable dialogues, too many to recount here. “The shared meal, the communion of poetry has been a source of nourishment for its countless readers and listeners for generations on end,” as PSA’s programs director Darrel Holnes put it. He evoked griots, troubadours, orators, bards.

Urban planners, artists, and citizens around the world must open poetic space within increasingly cramped, increasingly bottom-line-driven cities. Our political animalness gets claustrophobic. We require the commons to encounter each other and the physical landscape. Exhibits such as This Progress, stillspotting, and the Lab’s New York program provide key aesthetic/design cues for participatory urbanism. Now it’s up to us to build on these visions, overturning the art/life divide. Our intellect depends on it. So does our sanity.

Audiovisual components

Here’s a 72-second audio piece that features Poem Forest participants reading their favorite lines. Together the voices make a single poem inviting us to enter a path with no foreseeable end. Poem Forest is one possible beginning, a reminder to keep going.

* * *

And here’s a slideshow that depicts the Poem Forest trail. It runs through the forest’s center, cuts to the Bronx River, then culminates at a waterfall. Captions are the corresponding lines, many of which appear in Birds, Beasts, and Seas (New Directions), edited by Jeffrey Yang. New Directions has extraordinary breadth. Yang’s book is beautiful and vast. Poem Forest mixes poets from around the globe—America, Chile, China, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Sweden.

“People have talked about the world without paying attention/ to the world”
Heraclitus

 

“The wind is blowing; adore the wind”
Pythagoras

 

“The nature of yesterday/ Is not nature./ What has been, is nothing”
Fernando Pessoa

 

“I have eyes/ that are made to see”
William Carlos Williams

 

“Like a dog/ Cézanne says/ that’s how a painter/ must see”
W.G. Sebald

 

“Under the trees/ under the clouds/ by the river”
Gary Snyder

 

“One stone is not like another”
Denise Levertov

 

“What meadow yields/ so fragrant a leaf/ as your bright leaf?”
H.D.

 

“It isn’t true that Nature is mute”
Eugenio Montale

 

“Robins, starlings, wrens, warblers/ they pay no rent”
Bernadette Mayer

 

“Walking, walking, walking,/ I shall spend my life”
Pablo Neruda

 

“Turning seasons turning wildly/ away”
T’ao Ch’ien

 

“O grace of wild, wild things”
Euripides

 

“To be spellbound—nothing’s easier”
Tomas Tranströmer

 

“Waterfalls, with a sound/ Like rain”
—Ch’u Ch’uang I

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The series will focus on four successive trends; the first is the Rise of Open-Source Urbanism

  • NYC

    Love this! The audio is really fantastic.

  • http://twitter.com/emilyherzlin Emily Herzlin

    I am so glad I got to take a walk through Jon Cotner’s Poem Forest in November. A truly beautiful experience. The audio component to this slideshow brought this to life again. Love this!

  • http://www.nancygailring.com/ Nancy Ring

    This quote “I’ve always felt that poetry is not an art object to be idly studied. Rather, it’s a way of life, a mode of knowing—a call to become more attentive and active” expresses for me how I feel about my life and why I love poetry so much. This piece sounds beautiful.

    • ericjhenderson

      :) unkonwingly (not having read the comments here), I just posted essentially the same thing. it is powerful. much peace :: e

  • ericjhenderson

    Jon: Thank you for this: “I’ve always felt that poetry is not an art object to be idly studied. Rather, it’s a way of life, a mode of knowing—a call to become more attentive and active.” I could not attend the walk, but just following from the comment and the photos, you can still get that sense of living with poetry not as words on a page.  Much obliged :: ericjhenderson

  • http://speeduppc4free.com/ Bhecca

    I wish to take a chance to walk to that beautiful forest. Very lovely, i am fond with nature.

  • http://speeduppc4free.com/ Bhecca

    I wish to  have a chance to walk to that beautiful forest. Very lovely, i am fond with nature.
    great pic!

  • Anilthakuria

    Anil Thakuria MD
    This forest is so much like the “High Bank Park” in Columbus , Ohio. Out of 26,000 acres of natural Metro parks and forests of Columbus , Ohio , High Bank Park with  11 miles of jogging,  walking , and running trails in a 1,159  acres of wooded land with miles and miles of creek, riveret and streams is one of the most beautiful one. Every season brings an unique beauty to this park. I have been walking and jogging on these trails for 23  years. If have any inclination of writing poetry I would have been writing poems for 23 years;  but enjoy reading occasional ones. My brother was a poet. 

  • http://twitter.com/ThomasLGoss Thomas L Goss

    I agree that poetry is a way of life, and this Poem Forest is a beautiful way to explore those deeper wells of meaning and self-reflection that come with a poetic way of life!  Awesome idea and implementation, so happy to have found this post!

  • http://twitter.com/moonbridgebooks Linda Austin

    Beautiful! Now I have ideas for our botanical garden.

  • arjun kale