The poetry of the city

What we need are more poets and fewer businessmen involved in deciding how we are governed. Fewer businessmen and lawyers and economists and planners – who see the city as a series of cost-benefit analyses and balance sheets, as so many lines on a map representing problems to be managed – and more painters and philosophers and sculptors.

There’s an inherent danger in putting poets in charge of getting things done, I realize. But what’s almost always missing from the urban debate is an ability to see the city as a relationship we citizens are involved in with each other, both a physical and psychological place in which our hopes and dreams are played out, and where we work and grow prosperous, yes, but also where we screw and hurt and risk ourselves, where we experiment with ideas and identity and fall in and out of love with each other every day. To see the city as an essential part of the drama of life, as a player in the romances and comedies and epics and tragedies of its millions of citizen protagonists. To see the city through the eyes of an artist is to recognize that beauty and truth and soul are not qualities that can be conjured by planning. Rather they come from the citizenry, from the frictions – productive and destructive – caused by rubbing up against one another in the urban public sphere.

“Isn’t the city a poem in progress?” Toronto Poet Laureate Pier Giorgio Di Cicco asks in the introduction to his new book Municipal Mind: Manifestos for the Creative City, launched this week by Mansfield Press. “Aren’t the citizens the authors of the poem they will have to read to their children?”

Yes. The Poet — as my colleague Shawn Micallef simply calls Di Cicco — gets it. The author of 17 volumes of poetry, a Catholic priest and university professor who has lived in Arezzo, Montreal, Baltimore and Toronto, understands the poetry of the city.

This strange little volume — his prose is like a philosophical tract, long on logic and aphorism and shunning case studies — is more mediation than manual, laying out the principles that underlie the creative city. He believes that often the greatest thing a city can do is get out of the way of its citizenry; has insights into the trickiness of urban planning and design; and lays out the many and various ways that corporate imperatives and a culture of technological convenience have eroded the civic arena.

But perhaps his greatest and best-taken themes are that the great and metropolitan city exists to create intimacy — “The purpose of city living is to perfect and rediscover the city as a forum of unexpected intimacies” — and that the city exists not primarily in buildings and squares and traffic patterns and budgets and bylaws but in the hearts of its citizens. “Indeed: the soul of a city is antecedent to the construction of a city. The dream of civic communion precedes the construction of it. The civic dream stems from the desire for a city to be made happy by a common meditation on the good, enacted by literary grace, in a forum where the transaction of mutual delight results in prosperity.”

Yes. We may need fewer books on city planning, as Di Cicco writes in his introduction. But we’ll take more poets, please.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on June 28, 2007. 

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