Midday and Afternoon by Amy Lowell
Swirl of crowded streets.
Shock and recoil of traffic.
The stock-still brick facade of an old church,
against which the waves of people lurch and withdraw.
Flare of sunshine down side-streets.
Eddies of light in the windows of chemists’ shops,
with their blue, gold, purple jars,
darting colours far into the crowd.
Loud bangs and tremors,
murmurings out of high windows,
whirring of machine belts,
blurring of horses and motors.
A quick spin and shudder of brakes on an electric car,
and the jar of a church-bell
knocking against the metal blue of the sky.
I am a piece of the town, a bit of blown dust, thrust along with the crowd.
Proud to feel the pavement under me, reeling with feet.
Feet tripping, skipping, lagging, dragging, plodding doggedly,
or springing up and advancing on firm elastic insteps.
A boy is selling papers, I smell them clean and new from the press
They are fresh like the air, and pungent as tulips and narcissus.
The blue sky pales to lemon,
and great tongues of gold blind the shop-windows,
putting out their contents in a flood of flame.
Poet, author Amy Lowell, with words savory and sweet, mastered the art and craft of selecting language to show us, not tell us. The passage above, reformatted by me to emphasize Lowell’s syntactical choices, describes late evening in a city. The description, steeped in sensory language, sets the scene of an earlier era with details that an unknown narrator sees and hears. Then narrator reveals that she is one among the crowd, inconsequential as dust, caught up in the energy, the pulse of the city. Finally, the narrator reveals what she smells as the day ends in a brilliant burst of blinding light.
Lowell’s ode exalts an evening in a busy city. (Ode: a lyric poem typically of elaborate or irregular metrical form and expressive of exalted or enthusiastic emotion.) Take your time as you read her ode again several times. Begin by reading quickly, scanning the lines for content, to just make sense of the passage. Next, read the poem aloud, paying close attention to clustered descriptors like the sequence of participles: tripping, skipping, lagging, dragging, plodding doggedly, or springing up and advancing. . . . Also, emphasize the action words as you read aloud, hitting whirring, blurring, spin, shudder, jar, and knocking a bit louder and firmer than surrounding words. Finally, read silently or aloud to savor the passage, conscious of how one words speaks to another, of the alliterative effects Lowell includes, of the accumulation of sensory detail.
Observe or recall a city scene with which you are familiar. Follow Lowell’s excellent example line by line to create your own description, one that shows us the mood and tone of the place, the time of day, and the narrator’s exultation in the moment.