9 Essential Poems About NYC

by Charlotte Ahlin
The sun rises behind lower Manhattan and One World Trade Center in midtown Manhattan in New York Cit...
Gary Hershorn/Corbis News/Getty Images

I'll be honest: I'm complete New York trash. I grew up in New York City, and as soon as I graduated college I boomeranged right back to Manhattan. One wall of my room is wallpapered with New Yorker covers. I got upset that Jessica Jones tried to pass the PATH train off as the MTA. I get emotional when anyone starts singing New York, New York. Slow walkers annoy me. And I enjoy good poems about New York.

I'm lucky, because I can turn on any movie, or open any novel, and there's a pretty decent chance that I'll find the characters stumbling around my hometown. Yes, half the time it's actually Toronto pretending to be New York, but still. It's a city that has inspired countless works of arts (and inflated countless egos). New York City is simply too big to be captured by one book, or musical, or Netflix series. The New York that a tourist sees isn't the same New York that I grew up in. New York is a wildly different city if you're an Upper East Side trophy wife, or a Williamsburg barista, or an Astoria actor, or that family of pigeons who used to live on my balcony. Perhaps that's why NYC has inspired generations of poetry: there's so much to write about. There are so many different worlds within one city, and so much of it is too abstract for fiction.

So, if you ever find yourself waxing poetic about New York, here are some beautiful poems written about the Big Apple:

1. Awaking in New York

by Maya Angelou

Curtains forcing their will

against the wind,

children sleep,

exchanging dreams with

seraphim. The city

drags itself awake on

subway straps; and

I, an alarm, awake as a

rumor of war,

lie stretching into dawn,

unasked and unheeded.

2. Autumn Dusk in Central Park

by Evelyn Scott

Featureless people glide with dim motion through a quivering blue silver;Boats merge with the bronze-gold welters about their keels.The trees float upward in gray and green flames.Clouds, swans, boats, trees, all gliding up a hillsideAfter some gray old women who lift their gaunt formsFrom falling shrouds of leaves.

Thin fingered twigs clutch darkly at nothing.Crackling skeletons shine.Along the smutted horizon of Fifth AvenueThe hooded houses watch heavilyWith oily gold eyes.

3. Harlem

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

4. Broadway

by Walt Whitman

What hurrying human tides, or day or night!What passions, winnings, losses, ardors, swim thy waters!What whirls of evil, bliss and sorrow stem, thee!What curious questioning glances—glints of love!Leer, envy, scorn, contempt, hope, aspiration!Thou portal—thou arena—thou of the myriad long-drawn lines and groups!(Could but thy flagstones, curbs, facades tell their inimitable tales);Thy windows, rich and huge hotels—thy side-walks wide;Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling feet!Thou, like the parti-colored world itself—like infinite, teeming, mocking life!Thou visor'd, vast, unspeakable show and lesson!

5. The Subway

by Joyce Kilmer

Tired clerks, pale girls, street cleaners, business men,Boys, priests and harlots, drunkards, students, thieves,Each one the pleasant outer sunshine leaves;They mingle in this stifling, loud-wheeled pen.The gate clangs to—we stir—we sway—and thenWe thunder through the dark. The long train weavesIts gloomy way. At last above the eavesWe see awhile God's day, then night again.Hurled through the dark—day at Manhattan Street,The rest all night. That is my life, it seems.Through sunless ways go my reluctant feet.The sunlight comes in transitory gleams.And yet the darkness makes the light more sweet,The perfect light about me—in my dreams.

6. Dawn in New York

by Claude McKay

The Dawn! The Dawn! The crimson-tinted, comes Out of the low still skies, over the hills, Manhattan's roofs and spires and cheerless domes! The Dawn! My spirit to its spirit thrills. Almost the mighty city is asleep, No pushing crowd, no tramping, tramping feet. But here and there a few cars groaning creep Along, above, and underneath the street, Bearing their strangely-ghostly burdens by, The women and the men of garish nights, Their eyes wine-weakened and their clothes awry, Grotesques beneath the strong electric lights. The shadows wane. The Dawn comes to New York. And I go darkly-rebel to my work.

7. East River

by Lola Ridge

Dour riverJaded with monotony of lightsDiving off mast heads …Lights mad with creating in a river ... turning its sullen back …Heave up, river …Vomit back into the darkness your spawn of light …The night will gut what you give her.

8. City Trees

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

The trees along this city street, Save for the traffic and the trains, Would make a sound as thin and sweet As trees in country lanes.

And people standing in their shade Out of a shower, undoubtedly Would hear such music as is made Upon a country tree.

Oh, little leaves that are so dumb Against the shrieking city air, I watch you when the wind has come,— I know what sound is there.

9. New York

by Theodore Sedgwick Fay

But see! the broadening river deeper flows,Its tribute floods intent to reach the sea,While, from the west, the fading sunlight throwsIts softening hues on stream, and field, and tree;All silent nature bathing, wondrously,In charms that soothe the heart with sweet desires,And thoughts of friends we ne'er again may see,Till lo! ahead, Manhattan's bristling spires,Above her thousand roofs red with day's dying fires,May greet the wanderer of Columbia's shore,Proud Venice of the west! no lovelier scene.Of thy vast throngs now faintly comes the roar,Though late like beating ocean surf I ween—And everywhere thy various varks are seen,Cleaving the limpid floods that round thee flow,Encircled by the banks of sunny green—The panting steamer plying to and fro,Or the tall sea-bound ship abroad on wings of snow.

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