Editors Blog

Writing the Urban Sketch

Earlier this month, Daniel Roessler shared a three-part series on nature and poetry. I’m hoping to continue sharing both guest posts on various topics on Thursdays (missed last week because of illness and deadlines). If you have an idea, send it my way at robert.brewer@fwmedia.com, and we’ll work to flesh it out.

This guest post comes from Ian Chandler, who was a Top 25 Poet in the 2013 April PAD Challenge (click here to read an interview).

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Greetings, poets! Robert has been kind enough to give me a guest post on this wonderful blog, so I’ll do my best not to mess it up. I’m writing on one of my favorite aspects of poetry (and all writing, for that matter): the urban sketch.

I first learned about the concept while studying Arthur Morrison’s book A Child of the Jago, which tells the tale of a London slum in the 1890s. I didn’t care so much for the book, but I came across a unique connection between the text and Japanese art. Morrison had a special fondness for a woodcutting technique called ukiyo-e. It depicted mostly city life, which eventually gave way to the modern urban sketch. At its core, the urban sketch is taking a vignette of or situation in daily urban life and using it as the basis for a written work.

While it may seem like a widely used (and even obvious) concept, deliberate urban sketching provides some unique perspectives to all poets. For those who already focus on modern life, you’ll get a defined sense of place using the technique. For those who don’t, you’ll discover a litany of marvelous things about everyday life.

Urbanity as Action
A great example is Anthony Hecht’s masterful “Third Avenue in Sunlight,” where he ends with the cutting quatrain:

Daily the prowling sunlight whets its knife
Along the sidewalk. We almost never meet.
In the Rembrandt dark he lifts his amber life.
My bar is somewhat further down the street.

Throughout the poem, Hecht weaves a narrative in between descriptions of the city and places the action in urbanity itself. The closer is an intense picture of the affected view of the titular avenue that truly clinches.

Nature of the City
For another example, take the appropriately titled “City Elegies” by Robert Pinsky:

All day all over the city every person
Wanders a different city, sealed intact
And haunted as the abandoned subway stations
Under the city. Where is my alley doorway?

This part in particular centers on the nature of the city itself rather than what is within it, and it does so tastefully.

Culture of the City
Lastly, a small self-plug for good measure. I used urban sketching in “tuesday,” which highlights millennial culture and focuses on small things some people might not see:

wet chainlink benchbacks
that are wooden and resolute
and my soy latte
a sketch of the counter with a found pen

The next time you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard/screen), try using the urban sketch. Besides being a whole lot of fun, it’s a good way to train your mind. Who knows––that parked motorcycle next to a campus bookstore and an ant-line of cars on Main Street might be the stars of your next poem.

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Ian Chandler

Ian Chandler

Ian Chandler is a poet and freelance writer based in Kent, Ohio. He is currently attending Kent State University studying English. He has been awarded the 2014 Malone Writers Prize in Poetry, and he has been published three times in A Celebration of Young Poets.

He also reviews albums for Surviving the Golden Age. Other hobbies of his include coffeemaking, cardistry, and music.

Read more at his blog: http://ianchandler.wordpress.com.

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5 thoughts on “Writing the Urban Sketch

  1. BDP

    Thanks so much, Ian! I love this idea of the urban sketch as you relate it to a Japanese woodcutting technique. I enjoyed reading your essay, and will continue to think on it.

  2. grcran

    Ian, thank you for the educational prose, also for the selected lines. and Robert, thanks for arranging this for us. Having spent most of the last 35 years technically in a rural residence, and now most of the past 5 years in an urban one (albeit Austin, which is neither, since it’s predominantly weird), I am sometimes at a loss when it comes to urban themes. So thanks, you have helped me.

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