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‘Street Sauntering’ by Suzannah V. Evans — a blog on Flâneur-ing About: The Poetry of Streets

Suzannah V. Evans explains how her new course: ‘Flâneur-ing About: The Poetry of Streets‘ will help you write poetry as you meander through cities.

I have an urge to begin this blog mid-sentence, perhaps with the word ‘So’ or ‘Alors’, its French equivalent, because then I could imagine the sentence appearing suddenly out from behind a corner, like an unexpected apparition of a person or a half-grasped snatch of conversation. This sentence might lend itself briefly to my comprehension and then disappear, in the way that you might glimpse an interesting person in the street, look away, look back – and then they’re gone, in one shake of a coat tail. As it is, I’ve begun this dispatch with the word ‘I’, a term which is not un-useful for thinking about the role of the flâneur in relation to crowds and city streets.

The Idling Wanderer

Mais d’abord, but first of all – what exactly is a flâneur – and how is this word even pronounced? Originating from the French verb flâner, meaning ‘to stroll’, the FLAN-ERR springs from nineteenth-century Paris, at home sauntering the wide Hausmannian boulevards and peering into shop windows. With time and spare cash at his fingertips, he – and the flâneur is very much a masculine figure – is the observer of city life, the idling wanderer, the charter of street corners. Charles Baudelaire identified the figure in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) and wrote him into poems such as ‘À une passante’ (‘To a passer-by’), where a street-dazed idler watches a woman pass by and regrets the missed opportunity to know her. For the cultural critic and essayist Walter Benjamin, the flâneur is utterly at ease in his urban surroundings:

The street becomes a dwelling for the flâneur; he is as much at home among the façades of houses as a citizen is in his four walls. To him the shiny, enamelled signs of business are at least as good a wall ornament as an oil painting is to a bourgeois in his salon. The walls are the desk against which he presses his notebooks; news-stands are his libraries and the terraces of cafés are the balconies from which he looks down on his household after his work is done.

(‘Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn)

Here's an image of streets for the 'Flâneur-ing About: The Poetry of Streets.'

Hello, Frank?!

When I read this passage, the figure who leaps into my mind alongside Baudelaire and his nineteenth-century companions is Frank O’Hara. A century later in a different capital city, O’Hara penned his collection Lunch Poems during breaks from his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. O’Hara’s blurb claims the book was written on the hoof: ‘Often this poet, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon, has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up thirty or forty lines of ruminations . . .’ Whether or not this is entirely true, his words conjure a spontaneity and delight that is just as evident in the poems themselves.

And Other Idlers…

And what about those other idlers wandering the city environs? The term flâneur has recently been challenged and reclaimed, notably in Lauren Elkin’s account of walking the city streets in her book Flâneuse (pronounced something like FLAN-ERRS or FLAN-UZZ). ‘In my ignorance, I think I thought I invented flânerie’, Elkin notes. ‘Coming from suburban America, where people drive from one place to another, walking for no particular reason was a bit of an eccentric thing to do.’ She charts her experiences of walking in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, making space for other kinds of interactions with the city, and not shying away from the ways in which gender inflects on these experiences.

All the Ways of Existing

I am also interested in ways of exploring a city that do not relate to easy sauntering. What if your experience of strolling is closer to stumbling? What if your city navigation requires copious resting? What if your urban exploration takes place through Google Maps? It’s at these moments of reflection that I turn to writers including Polly Atkin with her marvellous poem ‘Unwalking’: ‘people have not walked, veining the earth with unpaths, unlines / of desire, so you have called them invisible.’ I hold close all the ways of existing with and alongside the city, recalling the poet Rosemary Tonks’s tribute to Paris via a memory of a guitarist playing in the rue St Louis: ‘It was a compliment to the island that he was prepared to give himself to the street in this way.’

Suzannah V. Evans is teaching the course: Flâneur-ing About: The Poetry of Streets. 1 full-day session, running 10.30am – 4.30pm (BST), on 29 June 2024. This course will take place at Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA. During the day we will step out into the city to spend some time as actual flâneurs and take direct inspiration from the city. 

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