Ezra Haber Glenn is an urban planner and lecturer at MIT's Department of Urban Studies & Planning, where he teaches on community development, the use of data in public policy, and a special course in “The City in Film.”
In her poetry book released in 1969, Eve Merriam reserves some of her sharpest barbs for the city planners, politicians, government bureaucrats, and “crisis committees” who claim to help the poor but do nothing (or worse).
At the close of the 1960s, as the optimism of America’s Postwar economic growth was fading and the promise of the Civil Rights Movement was giving way to a Nixon-era “law and order” retrenchment, use of the term “inner city” was peaking as a catch-all phrase to describe a host of urban problems. The expression evoked a world of crime, drugs, blight, failing schools, and chronic unemployment, with all-but-unspoken racial connotations: “inner city neighborhoods” were almost always “black neighborhoods.” Use of the other common shorthand term, “ghetto,” traces an almost identical trajectory.
In the years following, residents and activists have pushed back on these terms, calling out their coded racism, and liberal-minded usage panels have increasingly rejected them as a shorthand for urban poverty.
But back in 1969, in the shadow of riots and rebellions in dozens of cities across America, failing or frustrated anti-poverty programs, and a growing sense of hopelessness over “the problem we all live with,” poet Eve Merriam recruited these two little words for the title for her inspired book of verse, The Inner City Mother Goose.
Unassuming at first—a slim, square volume, easily mistaken for any other collection of light children’s verse—the book quickly declares itself a force to be reckoned with. In the six short lines of the first poem, Merriam simultaneously issues an invitation for an audience and fires a warning shot across the bow of an all-too-complacent nation:
Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day.
Leave your supper and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows in the street.
Come with a whoop and come with a call:
Up, motherfuckers, against the wall.
Thus, from the outset, through that one direct, brutal profanity—incidentally, the only actual swear in the entire book—it was clear that this was a different sort of Mother Goose. From here the book proceeds relentlessly, 65 verses in all, pulling no punches as Merriam takes the reader on a street-level tour of real life in the American “inner city,” an unromantic “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” that includes the dope pusher, the mugger, the slumlord, the junkie, the uncaring and ineffective public school teacher, and the trapped latchkey kid.
Not surprisingly, the book soon became (in Merriam’s words), “just about the most banned book in the country,” inspiring outrage from both the left and the right.
While the book was not necessarily “appropriate” for the youngest readers, it was not entirely “not-for-children” either. The poems are short, and frequently silly or ironic, but together they build like kindling for an eventual bonfire. Glancing across the mounting table of evidence—Exhibits A through ZZ in a case that will never be prosecuted—we find plenty of blame to go around. As sociologists have noted, the poor find themselves trapped between the criminal and the cop, and Merriam condemns both.
Here Merriam describes the legitimate fear of the mugger with a switchblade:
Jack be nimble
Jack be quick
Snap the blade
And give it a flick
But where are we to turn for protection?
Wino Will who’s drunk his fill
Gets chased by law and order.
Knock him down and kick him around,
That’s the way of law and order.
Don’t complain or they’ll do it again,
Just a law-and-order caper;
Bloody his head and leave him for dead
And keep it out of the paper.
Often, it seems, the criminal and cop are indistinguishable:
I love the local pusher
Who’s part of my beat,
Whenever I see him
I cross the street…
I don’t see a thing,
And I wish him good day;
Who else can make ends meet
On just a cop’s pay?
Neither the courts (“Why change the way it’s always been?/Convict the man of darker skin”) nor the home (“Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the double lock will keep”) seem to offer much security or solace, either.
Beyond the Scylla of crime and drugs and the Charybdis of law-gone-bad, the book’s inner-city poor must also contend with the absentee slumlord and the over-charging shopkeeper (his “cheese is moldy” and “eggs are sold with cracks,” but he keeps his customers by pushing easy credit). The landscape itself—failing infrastructure, rats, trash—further threatens and demeans residents. Throughout, the poems paint a portrait of man’s exploitation of fellow man as the root of the problem:
There was a crooked man,
And he did very well.
Merriam reserves some of her sharpest barbs for the city planners, politicians, government bureaucrats, and “crisis committees” who claim to help the poor but do nothing (or worse). In a brilliant send-up of the sham public participation processes common in urban renewal schemes, she tells the tale of the pussy cat denied entry to the City Hall hearing, because:
It was all about cats
And their habitats,
But they only admitted
Dogs and rats.
Elsewhere we learn of the congressman who whisks through a quick ghetto tour and then is declared “an expert on Poverty,” and note that when “rat control is on the way” and “the sweeper trucks are starting to spray,” it must be that “the Mayor’s coming to look today.”
Even liberal affirmative action programs are faulted with failing to have their intended effect: despite his qualifications, Hector Protector is unable to get a job because, “though tan/And a proud man of race” he “isn’t sufficiently/Black in the face.”
Yet in addition to blame, there is also great pain: the overarching tone of the book is of pathetic sadness, the spent frustration of a dream deferred that maybe just sags like a heavy load. The last poem telegraphs this resignation:
There was a man of our town
And he was wondrous wise—
He moved away.
In other words: to save yourself, get out.
Even more sobering is the thought that millions of children today might still read these poems and recognize the settings and characters, on the laps of parents or grandparents who feel the same. Yet rather than depress and demoralize, there is something liberating in the frankness of Merriam’s words. Recognizing the injustice and the absurdity of life in the inner city can be cathartic. Her book gives voice to suffering that mustn’t be ignored.
Of course, some may charge that since Merriam was neither black nor trapped in poverty, this voice lacks standing: further grounds to ban or ignore her book. And yet it would seem that just as we have together created and maintained the inner city (in reality and in myth), it is incumbent upon all of us to struggle openly—and together—with what it means to us.
Over the past five decades, Merriam’s book has been reprinted twice, and the poems have been adapted as the basis of two different musicals (“Inner City” and “Street Dreams”), which fit nicely somewhere along with “West Side Story,” “In the Heights,” and perhaps “Avenue Q.”
The book’s original illustrations, composed by the photographer Lawrence Ratzkin, add depth and humor to the poems. Like the themes of the book, all were presented in stark black and white, as beautifully balanced, childlike square layouts combining photographs, newspaper collage, and occasional large type. When the book was reissued in 1982 and 1996, these images were replaced with warmer, colorful, more multi-cultural paintings by David Diaz—still honest, but less brutal, depictions of life in the poor inner city.
Poetry has always been a valuable tool to generate a mutual understanding. Merriam’s special poetic blend of humor, personality, pathos, and honesty may still be the prescription we need.
An extended version of this article can be found on MIT's School of Architecture and Planning's Medium blog.