Village Poet Reflects the City

| 02 Mar 2015 | 05:03

Grace Shulman, 78, has spent her life writing poems about the wild world of downtown Manhattan

"There he is, outside the subway entrance/ where sunlit figures race down steps into darkness/ their hearing, like mine, dulled by traffic whines," writes Greenwich Village poet Grace Schulman in her poem, "Street Music, Astor Place." In her upcoming poetry book, Without a Claim (Houghton Mifflin), Schulman captures everything from the lost world of the Montauk Indians to the everyday, unpolluted ambiance of Greenwich Village. She digs deep into the soil and concrete and represents them in a simple way, yet with so much history. The book has been called a "Modern book of psalms," by Pulitzer Prize winner and fellow Village author Philip Shultz.

A Brooklyn born, Polish-Jew, Schulman, 78, grew up a city kid. Her father was an executive at an advertisement agency which his wife helped him run. After college, Schulman hoped to become a journalist; however none of the newspapers would hire a woman. She worked for Harper's Bazaar, Glamour and, in 1972 was invited to be the poetry editor for the Nation. She came to Greenwich Village in 1957, meeting her husband, Jerome, now a virologist, in Washington Square Park while playing her guitar.

Now a professor at Baruch College and author of six other poetry books, Schulman came to be a poet gradually. Influenced by the word games she played with her mother and encouraged by her friend and idol, Marianne Moore. Among Schulman's muses, the village is prominent. In "Crossing the Square" she captured the beloved park, "Squinting through eye-slits in our balaclavas, /we lurch across Washington Square Park/hunched against the wind, two hooded figures/caught in the monochrome, carrying sacks." Schulman's love for her neighborhood is evident in much of her work. In "Footsteps on Lower Broadway" she shares both her Jewish lens and her villager eyes. Each stanza ends with the words, "immigrant Jew." It reads, "From here to City Hall you hiked, then on/ to Washington Square's law school, looking back/ on trees and weed-grown lots-all that you knew/ of what was or would be, an immigrant Jew."

Grace Schulman is not bashful about her Jewish heritage. When asked about whether she was afraid that people wouldn't understand when she used Hebrew words or Jewish references, Schulman replied, at first with a serious expression that then broke into a smile: "I never worry about that, everybody I write to is an honorary Jew." You wouldn't expect the six foot, slim, black garbed, Jewish poet to be so fiery, but she posseses a strength that is inspiring and beautiful to witness.

Spending half her time at 1 University Place and the other in the Hamptons, Schulman presents a book attempting to capture the one-ness of all customs. Symbolizing the city and the country, the noisy and the quiet, somehow Schulman captures both in each other. In "Charles Street Psalm" she conjures up the vision of a city scene: "Downtown, where towers redden after sunrise,/ I heard the singing, more like sobbing, harsh,/ broken measures, out of tune, choked sighs,/ pour from a brick synagogue set between townhouses."