From 1909 to 1912 Robinson lived on Washington Place, at least from time to time, and it was here he wrote this third book of poems, The Town Down By the River, dedicating the work to Roosevelt. He lost the government position, however, when President William Howard Taft took office. The book includes "Miniver Cheevy," a portrait of a man who fancies he belongs to the age of chivalry rather than to the modern world. As a way to cope with being "born too late," Robinson writes, he "kept on drinking. Readers may also be familiar with Robinson's earlier "Richard Cory," the poem about the wealthy man about appears successful but who goes home and commits suicide. The poem served as the point of inspiration for a 1965 song by Paul Simon.
The era from 1890 to 1920 also coincides with the rise of the literary and cultural experiments known as modernism, a time when writers and artists experimented with new forms of creative expression and pushed their chosen media into previously uncharted intellectual territory. Many poets also gravitated to radical politics, longing to cast aside traditional social conventions, or to explore non-western cultures or to delve into the psyche. The allure of Greenwich Village drew aspiring artists and writers away from more conventional homes in Maine, Ohio, Massachusetts, Missouri, and many other places and toward a rather non-American-looking city neighborhood where they could share new approaches to life, love, and art. William Carlos Williams (1883-1963), one of the most important voices of the new poetry, maintained his home and medical practice in Rutherford, New Jersey, but he frequently slipped into the Village to talk shop. Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), who lived with his wife Elsie at 441 W. 21st Street before taking a lawyer position in Hartford, had even less a distance to meet with other modernist poets.
Marianne Moore (1887-1972) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) were two of the most well known of the groundbreaking Village poets. I wrote about Marianne Moore at length in a post from July 2008, part of a series of the illustrious figures to have lived on St. Luke's Place. An excerpt: "Though Moore is most associated with Brooklyn, the borough in which she resided the longest, she launched her New York literary career from 14 St. Luke's Place in the West Village. She and her mother had moved from upstate New York to this block in 1918, and she quickly developed friends in the circles of little magazines in New York, especially the Dial, the magazine that she would later steer into literary preeminence. In 1920 Moore started working part-time at the Hudson Park Branch of the New York Public Library across the street. She was very good at poetry and building her literary career, publishing her first two volumes of poetry in the early 1920s and becoming friends with H.D. and William Carlos Williams. She began corresponding with T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. In a letter to Pound dated January 9, 1919, she wrote, "I like New York, the little quiet part of it in which my mother and I live. I like to see the tops of the masts from our door and to go to the wharf and look at the craft on the river." (The Selected Letters of Marianne Moore, edited by Bonnie Costello (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 123.)
The brilliant Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966), a Brooklyn native and a precocious poet and essayist, lived on Charles Street in the late 1940s. He frequented the White Horse Tavern, the watering hole where visiting Welsh poet Dylan Thomas drank heavily on a November night in 1963 and later died in St. Vincent's Hospital. Schwartz himself declined into alcoholic seclusion and died in a New York hotel in 1966. As a calling, writing can be a tough affliction, a mixture of highs and lows, with alternating bouts of despair and exhilaration, but neither writing nor the neighborhood should be defining reasons for these cases of individual struggle.
Several other notable poets lived in the Village, including Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), Louise Bogan (1897-1970), Marguerite Young (1908- 1995), Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), and Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996). By the late 1950s and 1960s, however, some of the poetic energy of lower Manhattan had shifted east to what became known as the East Village and to the Lower East Side. The new poetry centered around Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), Frank O’Hara (1926-1966), John Ashberry (b. 1927) and other members of the New York School. Allen Ginsburg (1926-1997) reinvigorated both the Walt Whitman and Hart Crane strains of poetic yearning.
Many of these poets would find inspiration, too, like so many others in a long poetic tradition, just by walking along the streets. Still, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the lyrics of the old Greenwich Village stayed much alive, but now sung to the sounds of strumming strings, as new poetic anthems played on old guitars.
"Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn."
Time is the fire in which we burn."
- from "Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day" by Delmore Schwartz, 1937
As with the poetry that flourished here, a walk through the meandering streets of Greenwich Village should always be experimental, with an expectation of getting lost. Begin your own poetic wanderings with this rather incomplete map of poet residences.
View A Walk with Village Poets in a larger map
Images of poet residences and the White Horse Tavern by Walking Off the Big Apple.
Related: For more on modernism as a movement, read my series on Mabel Dodge Luhan and Georgia O'Keeffe on this supplemental WOTBA site page.