City Limits: Modern Poetry and the Urban Transformation of American Wilderness

Julia Elizabeth Daniel, Loyola University Chicago


"[O]n my Sunday morning walk . . . I tried to pretend that everything in nature is artificial and everything artificial is natural, as, for example, that the roses in Elizabeth Park are placed there daily by some lover of mankind and that Paris is an eruption of nature." So wrote Wallace Stevens to his friend Barbara Church, describing his state of mind while walking through Elizabeth Park in Hartford, only a few blocks from his home. Parkscapes recur throughout Stevens' oeuvre, such as in "Tea" and "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," and while his parks are organic environments evocative of nature, Stevens foregrounds the fact that these locations are nonetheless also spatial works of art, planned by "some lover of mankind" for inclusion in an urban habitat. Stevens's presentation of the nature-city, organic-crafted composite represents a wider reimagining of American urbanism for both modern poets and city planners. As the age of the pioneer closed and the century of the city began, these planners and poets began to reconceptualize both the city and nature at once, presenting the city as an organic zone ("an eruption of nature") and nature as an urban construction designed by a human artificer ("placed there daily"). In this project, I argue that modern American poets, such as Carl Sandburg, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore, participate in this new sense of American spatiality by challenging the traditional oppositions between nature and the city. I investigate the resulting amalgam of the organic and the constructed in the poetic depiction of "artificial" landscapes, such as city parks and skyscrapers, and of "natural" ones, such as national parks. By doing so, I present these spaces as dynamic material texts informed by design principles arising from the new disciplines of city planning and parks management. The project draws from several other disciplines, including urban studies, historical geography, and landscape architecture, to uncover the social, historical, and physical specifics of how artifice and nature are enmeshed in modern cityscapes.