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.
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.
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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”
“The wind is blowing; adore the wind”
“The nature of yesterday/ Is not nature./ What has been, is nothing”
“I have eyes/ that are made to see”
—William Carlos Williams
“Like a dog/ Cézanne says/ that’s how a painter/ must see”
“Under the trees/ under the clouds/ by the river”
“One stone is not like another”
“What meadow yields/ so fragrant a leaf/ as your bright leaf?”
“It isn’t true that Nature is mute”
“Robins, starlings, wrens, warblers/ they pay no rent”
“Walking, walking, walking,/ I shall spend my life”
“Turning seasons turning wildly/ away”
“O grace of wild, wild things”
“To be spellbound—nothing’s easier”
“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