The Poets of Greenwich Village

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, October 2011 | Go to article overview

The Poets of Greenwich Village


Stern, Fred, The World and I


There are two Greenwich Villages--the actual and the imagined.

The actual Greenwich Village is an enclave in downtown Manhattan stretching from Houston Street to 14th Street and from 4th to 6th Avenues. That is by the purist's geography. New Yorkers extend the Village perimeters somewhat further. They sometimes include the Bowery (an area to the east of the Village) and Soho (literally, an area south of Houston Street).

The imagined Village is the realm of bohemian lifestyles characterized by a disregard for the rules of society especially in matters concerning taboos and behavior. It's a mystique that has existed for about 100 years. The area is vividly described in his 1951 memoirs by Fred McDarrah, a staff photographer at the Village Voice, the dominant publication of the area. "Everybody knew everybody, and it was like a family get-together. Painting, poetry, music, dance, and off-Broadway theater were all in full swing ... Everybody was 'creating' something."

McDarrah's contemporary and poet of that bohemian time, Edna Saint Vincent Millay put it most succinctly in her poem "First Fig."

   My candle burns at both ends
   It will not last the night
   But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends
   It gives a lovely light

A bit of history

Back in the 16th Century the area we call Greenwich Village was a marshland which the natives knew by the name Sapokanican. The Indians fished the estuary for trout. The stream was later called Minetta Brook. The Dutch coming to the area in the 1630's started to plant crops and found another name for the region: "Noortwyck". More than a century later, during the Federal Period (1790-1820) the spelling of the name changed again to "Grin'wich."

In no time at all, the area turned into a thriving community as it is now, with eateries, taverns and a variety of stores. Late in the 1900's the area was home to many immigrants, notably Italians as well as Germans and Poles. At the beginning of WWI and thereafter Greenwich Village became the home of ardent poets and artists of various extractions, just the way it is today.

With its many intellectual denizens it was only natural that a vast number of bookstores made their home in the Village, catering to the diverse taste of its readers. Theaters of all sizes mushroomed along the boulevards. Newspapers found a natural audience. To this day a number of publications cater to the interests of the inhabitants.

If there is a timeline attached to the various groupings, then we could arbitrarily say that the bohemian orbit extended from the 1920's to the 1940's. The Beats dominated the poetry scene of the Village (and much of the country) from the mid-1950's to the end of the Vietnam War, or about 1972. The poets of the New York School briefly overlap the Beats and are still more or less active today.

The Beat poets lived for the day. Their philosophy was one of limitless pleasure without any obligations. Needless to say, their way of thinking did not sit well with greater society. The Beats created "Happenings," unrehearsed theatrical performances in the streets or in special venues, for Villagers and as well as for the rest of New York's population. The activities of the New York school of poets (commonly called The New York School) centered around Saint Mark's Church, on the near East Side. The church's poetry center fostered two generations of talented poets.

The Vietnam Antiwar Movement had important followers among the poets, writers and artists of Greenwich Village who were typically strong pacifists and firmly advocated peaceful discourse between nations.

Famous names associated with the village

They were not always permanent residents of the quaint streets and narrow alleys, but their association with The Village was never in dispute.

Edward Franklin Albee, the noted playwright lived on 10th Street. Kahil Gibran, the prophetic poet lived on 10th Street as well. …

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