A City's Literary Reputation
Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
It’s hard for a city to escape its reputation. If one writes about a city enough, the literary and musical reputation of that city may end up being inseparable from the reality, as if an artist had taken a photograph of a city skyline and then decided to augment it with a layer of paint. When people look at the image of a city, it seems to be somehow truer than that which they would see in a photograph or if they were to stand at a distance and look at the real thing. New York, for instance, cannot be separated from Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979) any more than Paris will be able to escape the imagery of his Midnight in Paris (2012). Dublin, too, will never be considered separately from James Joyce’s work. And to me, a Jersey-born fan (read: disturbingly dedicated fanatic), Bruce Springsteen’s nearly 10-minute “New York City Serenade” will always drape the titular city with the sound of violins and the echoes of his lyrics. Cities are a compilation of artistic layers. Boston is no exception to this rule. The only problem, however, is that one of the most recent, and certainly one of the most popular artistic representations of Boston, comes in the form of a song, the lyrics of which would be repeatedly tweeted (and retweeted, and retweeted) by soon-to-be college students heading to the city of Boston. Augustana’s 2006 “Boston” is actually not a terrible song, and I am not saying that it paints an inaccurate or undesirable vision of Boston…but its view is extremely limited. I get it, Augustana— you can see the sunrise in Boston and you think you will go there. I cannot allow, however, for a momentarily popular song by an average-at-best band to be the reigning impression of the city that I now call my home. Franz Wright, a poet who has taught at Emerson College and now lives in Waltham, Mass., is one artist who does Boston greater justice. Take, for example, Wright’s “East Boston, 1996” from his 2008 anthology God’s Silence. The name of Boston is presented only in the title of the poem, but the lines describe the feeling of Boston in a manner that rivals the Boss’s work on “New York City Serenade.” The language employed by Wright in “East Boston, 1996” embodies a quintessentially Bostonian feel: “It is freezing, but it is a good thing / to step outside again: / you can feel less alone in the night, / with lights on here and there.” These lines speak of togetherness, a unity against the cold of Boston’s environment, as if the city itself had risen, defiant against nature itself. Wright goes on to write of people who would welcome the speaker into their homes to tell him “what has happened to their lives,” suggesting that Boston is the home to many stories. Wright seems to emphasize, however, that those stories are not necessarily ideal, as if suggesting the age and the experience of the city. Boston is the cold city in the North, literally aged by history, but it still stands strong. This is what Boston is to me. I know that Wright’s poem may seem like a somewhat depressing vision of life in this city, but this is not so. The realism of the poem speaks to Boston’s inherent optimism. This idea is expressed when Wright’s lengthy poem describes “the night smells like snow. / walking home, for a moment / you almost believe you could start again.” To me, those lines have become Boston. No, Boston is not always literally waiting for a snowfall, but, in my vision, the sky is always preparing to layer the city in hopeful white. As this is my first column for The Heights, I hope that I can offer you some information, some laughter, and some insight as I try to paint Boston as best I can.