- Building Natures: Modern American Poetry, Landscape Architecture, and City Planning by Julia E. Daniel
Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2017. 214 pp. $55.00 (cloth).
The landscape architect Anne Whiston Spirn once remarked that “nature pervades the city, forging bonds between the city and the air, earth, water, and living organisms within and around it” (xi). This commonplace idea of nature in the city (“pervades”) enacting its natural process (“forging”) defines the natural world in contrast to the artificial or man-made. This definition of nature, and the sentimental or nostalgic associations with the natural world that reinforce a contrast between natural and built environments, informed the parks movement in the United States. For instance, New York’s Central Park, in the words of the critic Adam Sweeting, tells “a sentimental tale wherein the concerns of city life were temporarily put aside while one walked through an idyl of greenery” (94). In Building Natures, Julia E. Daniel investigates a cultural moment in the early twentieth century when the physical spaces created by city planners, landscape architects, and park managers influenced the idea of nature among modern American poets whose work, she contends, reflect complex interdependencies of materialist and social constructionist concerns.
Daniel demonstrates how the poetry and poetics of Carl Sandburg, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore interact with, represent, and explore the social afterlives of the architectural design and aesthetics of these constructed spaces. The work of these poets in turn reveals the situated interplay of ideas in the professional discourses [End Page 76] of parks management, public health, social reform and the City Beautiful movements, land use legislation and regulation, and travel and tourism (8). Landscape architecture, Daniel writes, as “prior material reality, the space the poets enter, is a cultural construct in the most literal sense of the phrase: a zone constructed and maintained according to culturally shaped notions of what nature should be”—whether the space is the urban center of Chicago, a city park in Hartford or Paterson, or the nature preserve in Washington State, Mount Rainier National Park.
Building Natures elaborates the dual expression of these public spaces. “Parks express a longing for a democratic, green utopia where citizens might attain health, civility, and refreshing contact with nature during a Sunday stroll,” Daniel writes. “At the same time, parks embody long and fraught histories of displacement and disenfranchisement, the imperfect attempt to regulate behavior that deviates from middle-class mores, as well as the cognitive dissonance involved in consuming heavily designed, managed, and regulated spaces as either innocent pastoral rambles, sublime wilderness, or wholesome frontier” (2). Her project is to understand how principles of landscape architecture and city planning “are translated into formal qualities in their spaces and how those formal qualities are, in turn, depicted in verse” (15). And Daniel aligns her descriptive study of poetry and public space with study of ecosystems. “The readings of these landscape texts, whether literary or spatial,” she writes, “unearths what kinds of natures they construct, critique, or eschew, without valorizing any given one as the right state of material affairs” (159).
The four chapters of Building Natures detail the differing ways Sandburg, Stevens, Williams, and Moore “treat the organic and the social as necessarily entwined elements of an architecture that many writers and readers regard as unadulterated nature” (6). Sandburg’s poems represent urban life in Chicago as a process of nature and culture using Daniel Burnham’s Plan of Chicago (1909) to make visible the shift in urban planning that articulates an organic vision of nature and culture. Stevens, preoccupied with Frederick Law Olmstead’s parkscapes, critiques the failures of Olmstead’s democratic ideals in his reimagining of Prospect Park in his five-poem sequence, “Owl’s Clover.” Williams, in his book-length poem Paterson, focuses on “the lasting inheritance of extractive mill-town planning first imposed on the landscape by the Society of Useful Manufacturers” and “both criticizes the social malaise arising from the poorly planned industrial city and looks toward the hope of a right relationship among urban habitat, local environment, and American...