In her renowned book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban activist and researcher Jane Jacobs wrote that safe and successful cities must have eyes upon the street. In other words, watchfulness creates refuge. As a writer and poet, her words have a special significance for me: I am nosy, and Jacobs’s research helps justify my curiosity. When I watch the city unfold, I become a witness. Witnesses notice. Witnesses pay attention.
This practice of nosiness—er, watchfulness—is essential to writing poetry. My first successful attempts at poetry started in front of a window in my former apartment. Unlike Jacobs’s dynamic West Village sidewalks in 1954, my local cityscape on 102nd Street was relatively quiet. On bright mornings, the rising sun reached the fire escapes on the building across the street, casting long, stretching shadows on the brick façade. Several water towers dotted the slice of sky above the building, and on the sidewalk below, a few passersby quietly shuffled to the subway or the corner deli. In one apartment across the street, at around 7:15am, two young children descended a small staircase and then disappeared into another room. Some people watered their plants or hung clothes to dry. Other windows remained dark and shadowed.
Every morning, I watched this same scene for about an hour. Occasionally, I heard the wail of a siren. Sometimes rainstorms sent violent claps of thunder echoing through the streets. As I sat, I sipped tea, shifted in my seat. Eventually, when I felt something that resembled readiness, I started to write.
Before I found this routine, I had been trying for years to write poetry but never found any momentum. This practice made a difference. I realized that gazing at the same, unchanging scene before writing gave me much clearer access to my interior world. The fire escapes, the water towers, the brick buildings—these were constants. They rarely varied. My thoughts and emotions, however, changed moment to moment. This swirling internal landscape became much easier to observe and navigate—and eventually translate into poetry—only once I felt firmly grounded in a familiar, unchanging space.
Any diligent practice of watchfulness, including meditation, requires routine and rhythm. During meditation, when we offer the body a familiar seat and comfortable environment, we create a refuge in which we can better discern and understand what’s going on in our constantly shifting private landscape. Revisiting this on a regular basis provides each of us with a unique and intimate rhythm of discovery.
The act of noticing the world—and ourselves—is both profound and personal, which is why watchfulness is so well-suited to poetry. In the Japanese Zen poetry tradition, the quality of sabi (“aloneness”) is common. There is benefit to writing poetry or meditating in groups, and we should—for support, or to immerse ourselves in community. The real practice, however, happens within the empty space of the individual, when nosiness about our true nature gets the better of us and the eyes turn inward, away from the streets, to gaze upon the self.