Tucked away from the clamor of downtown San Francisco, The Poetry Garden opened at 199 Fremont Street with little fanfare in the summer of 2001. A product of the municipal ordinance that requires commercial development to include public space -- lest the city become a lifeless concrete maze -- the garden is one of many privately owned, public open spaces (POPOS) scattered throughout downtown. This quiet collaboration by conceptual artist Paul Kos and Pulitzer Prize-winning, former U. S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass is a site-specific meditation on the poetics of time and space.
A poem by Hass, "Daisy Laps," the title a play on the words 'days elapse,' is featured on a long wall leading off of the street. The twenty foot high text is variously carved and set in relief. Its visibility is seasonal: set behind young birch trees, the poetry is easier to read in the winter when the leaves have fallen and harder to read in the summer when the trees are full. One section reads:
"An echo wandered through here what? an echo wandered through hear it? there was morning and later/there was evening days elapse what? a reck oh! wan where are we going this city of stone and/hills and sudden vistas and people rushing to their various appointments what points the way?"
The Poetry Garden in 2001
Time passes, the poem reminds us, and the days begin to run together in their momentum. Each year, the trees provide a living example of the life cycle. In the ten years since the garden opened, their branches have inched up the wall offering unexpected emphasis through the inverse effect of obscuring Hass's message. Like the sage riddles of an elder, lessons are embedded in the metaphors of the garden. Sight, sound and touch provide the clues.
The Poetry Garden in 2001
The text continues around the corner with the word "NOW" standing sentinel over Kos' installation of an 84-ton boulder from the Sierras and a slow-dripping spigot. ("People call it a 'fountain,' but its not a fountain -- it's a leaky faucet," he emphasized recently.) "rock and water/light and air/the sound is a quiet thing" further reads Hass' text. Smaller boulders are arranged to one side of the garden. To the casual observer, they look like seats. But Kos envisioned them functioning sculpturally like daubs of paint in Impressionist waterscapes, casting the reflection of the large boulder in a "pool" of smaller rocks below. "An echo is to sound as a reflection is to visuals," he explained while discussing the nature of his collaboration with Hass. Their objective was to create a quiet space for reflection amidst the rush of the city. The poem and the installation are integrated, each resonates with the other's intentions. In the larger scheme of things, such as a glacial boulder from the Sierras, the days and years are but fleeting moments. Yet in the emotions of the present, an eternity can seem to pass between the drips of a leaky faucet.
Photo courtesy of the artist and Gallery Paule Anglim
As leaves begin to fall, Hass' poem is slowly revealed once again, urging us to contemplate the future with an eye towards history. Though the garden reflects on the past, the message is forward thinking. Where are we going and what points the way? the poem asks. Almost imperceptibly, water slowly drips into a nearby copper bowl, echoing drip-drop/tick-tock, indeed while days elapse, and years turn into decades.
The Poetry Garden is located in downtown San Francisco at 199 Fremont Street and is publicly accessible 24/7.
All images courtesy: GLL BIT Fremont Street Partners, L.P., except where noted.