Sing, oh muse, of Times Square
What rhymes with “Times”?
Does it matter? Not to poets evoking the flair of Times Square, who stood behind a microphone on a gusty evening to read the winning entries in the Bright Lights Big Verse: Poems of Times Square contest.
About 500 people competed in the recent effort to improve the image of the chaotic stretch of concrete once synonymous with petty crime, peep shows and sleazy shops.
If the judges and winners -- whose work can be seen online at www.timessquarenyc.org -- are any indication, this competition is not for amateurs. It’s also not just for New Yorkers.
Only one of this year’s four winners, Ben Miller, actually lives here. “This is a national place -- actually an international place. Everyone feels they own a piece of Times Square,” Miller said, explaining why nonlocals would be driven to write poetry about the expanse between 42nd and 47th streets.
One winner, Henk Rossouw, is from South Africa and now lives in Amherst, Mass. Another, Jehanne Dubrow, a writer and military wife living in Maryland, admitted she has rarely visited New York.
But none of that matters when you’re dealing with a place that is more than just an intersection, said Mary Jo Bang, a Missouri native whose last collection of poems, “Elegy,” won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award.
“Times Square epitomizes the hyper-stimulation that makes people feel alive,” said Bang, who lived in New York in the 1990s and now heads the creative writing program at Washington University in St. Louis.
Bang, one of this year’s winners, started off the reading with an observation that resonated with anyone who remembers what Times Square used to be. “It’s very thrilling to stand in the middle of the street and read a poem and not be crazy!” she said as the mountainous golden arches of McDonalds competed with thousands of neon signs, digital ads, headlights and the setting sun to light the intersection of 47th and Broadway.
Her poem, “In a Square of Time’s Square,” celebrates this place’s ever-changing, turbulent nature -- “like the square of the Times she’d put in a bottle and sent out to sea the summer she was six and visiting an aunt in Redondo Beach. Or was it Boca Raton?”
Behind Bang, a bride in a white, flouncy, off-the-shoulder gown and fluttering shawl posed for photographs with her groom. Passing buses belched fumes. Sirens blared. Taxi drivers blasted their horns, oblivious to the literary event outside their grubby windows. This being New York, passersby barely took notice of the preening newlyweds or the poets, who stolidly read their works from a lectern amid the noise and whipping wind.
“When they said Times Square, they really meant Times Square,” Dubrow said before reciting her work, which was influenced by Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in the square during the 1945 celebration of victory over Japan.
Dubrow’s poem was tinged with melancholy, something she said was a reflection of the difficulty she faces being married to a sailor who spends much of his time deployed overseas.
Titled “VJ Day in Times Square,” it reads in part:
“Two pedestrians touch,
embracing in a photograph with such
quick ease it’s hard to know why when we meet
we’re cold as strangers passing on the street.”
“I don’t think every story that happens in Times Square ends happily,” Dubrow said afterward, explaining her verse. As if on cue, an emaciated woman wandered into the roped-off poetry reading and asked someone for spare change.
It was an example of the confluence of activity that makes Times Square a haven for creativity, said Tim Tompkins, head of the Times Square Alliance, which with the Poetry Society of America sponsors the contest, which was in its second year. Winners received $750 each and a trip to New York.
Alice Quinn, the executive director of the Poetry Society of America and one of the judges, said the number of entrants and their caliber was a sign that American interest in poetry is on the upswing.
The life of poet John Keats is the subject of a new film winning rave reviews; poet and songwriter Leonard Cohen played sold-out shows across the country this year in his first U.S. tour in 15 years.
The dominance of non-New Yorkers among the winners, Quinn said, reflected the differing attitudes toward Times Square: Those who live in the city might take the famed locale for granted, grateful for its resurgence but not inclined to linger or soak up its atmosphere.
“But for travelers,” Quinn said, “this is one of the major heartbeats of the city, if not the heartbeat of the city.”