New York

Léopold Sédar Senghor

‘New York’ by Léopold Sédar Senghor serves as a call to action for the city’s people to uplift and absorb as a means of rejuvenation its Black citizenry.


Léopold Sédar Senghor

Nationality: African

Léopold Sédar Senghor was a Senegalese poet, philosopher, and politician.

He is a celebrated Negritude poet, blending African and French influences beautifully.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Absorb the vitalizing culture and contributions of Black citizens

Speaker: A fellow New Yorker

Emotions Evoked: Depression, Pain, Resilience

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

Léopold Sédar Senghor's poem offers not just a majestic and compelling image of the city of New York being revitalized by an injection of Black culture that originates from places like Harlem.

‘New York’ is a poem by Léopold Sédar Senghor that seeks to illustrate a sprawling portrait of all that is wondrous and fallible with the city. It also serves as a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance and its writers, individuals that extended the mythology of the city to include Black voices and signaled the essential benefits of such a plurality within the metropolis.

The poem echoes those values alongside Senghor’s advocacy for the Négritude movement. The goal as expressed in the poem is to simultaneously uplift and recognize the independent achievements and value of Black communities, while also championing a melding of race and culture as a means of renewing New York to former glory.


‘New York’ by Léopold Sédar Senghor urges the personified city to accept its Black communities as a vibrant and transformative piece of itself.

‘New York’ opens with a sprawling description of the city by the speaker, one that is defined by both their adoration and vexation. In the first stanza, the cityscape is heavily personified as a shy woman, but as the poem continues, this timidness is revealed to simply hide its gloomier side. A variety of imagery and figurative language follows that accentuates New York’s cold lifelessness and lack of humanity. The second stanza offers a possible solution to such a void of the soul: Harlem.

Here Senghor offers vibrant imagery to counter the barren inhospitality of the city that’s characterized by scenes of Black music, art, and life. It’s a celebration of the night that urges the residents of Harlem to remember the awe of the Harlem Renaissance and their silently endured strife. The last stanza ends with the speaker melding together the majesty of New York and its mythic status with their advocation for Black culture to be absorbed into it.

Structure and Form

‘New York’ is composed of three stanzas of varying lengths. There is no definite rhyme scheme or meter as the poem is written in free verse. But it still wields a cadence created by Senghor’s exclamatory verse and passionate voice that ebbs and flows throughout.

Literary Devices

‘New York’ uses a sprawling variety of imagery and figurative language to convey the multitudes of emotions expressed in Senghor’s poem. There is personification: “Those huge, long-legged, golden girls. / So shy, at first, before your blue metallic eyes and icy smile,” (2-3); metaphor: “my owl eyes” (5) “Only artificial hearts paid for in cold cash” (18), “And I proclaim Night more truthful than the day” (33); and simile: “And murky streams carry away hygenic loving / Like rivers overflowing with the corpses of babies.” (23-24).

There are also examples of visual imagery: “eclipse of the sun” (5), “Your light is sulphurous against the pale towers” (6); tactile imagery: “his hand in my cool hand” (15); kinesthetic imagery: “Hips rippling like silk and spearhead breasts” (40); and auditory imagery: “Listen, New York! O listen to your bass male voice, / Your vibrant oboe voice, the muted anguish of your tears” (48-49).

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

New York! At first I was bewildered by your beauty,
Those huge, long-legged, golden girls.

In the first stanza of ‘New York,‘ the speaker personifies the city as a means of illustrating all its diversity and complexity, especially in regard to their own changing perceptions and relationship with it. The opening lines describe how the speaker was “at first bewildered” (1) by the city’s beauty, personifying its skyscrapers as “long-legged, golden girls” (2) and having “blue metallic eyes and [an] icy smile” (3).

But the speaker doesn’t stay perfectly enamored with the city, and New York’s coyness eventually reveals bleaker realities hidden with its gleaming skyline. Beyond the edge of its “skyscraper streets” (4), one finds despair, and the sun sits eclipsed behind the tall structures themselves. The speaker confesses that all it takes is “two weeks on naked sidewalks of Manhattan” (10) for the sheen to wear off and a fever to set in.

A cold lifelessness settles in — one that causes the birds to “fall suddenly dead under the high, sooty terraces” (14). A catalog of further images develops this motif of the city as cold and emotionless: “No laugh from a growing child, his hand in my cool hand” (15); “No tender word, and no lips, / Only artificial hearts paid for in cold cash” (17-18).

There is even a reference to the city’s polluting industrialism with the description of the city’s hazy light as “sulphurous against the pale towers” (6). As well as the stunning image conjured up by the stanza’s ending simile: “murky streams carry away hygienic loving / Like rivers overflowing with the corpses of babies” (23-24).

Stanza Two

Now is the time of signs and reckoning, New York!
Now is the time of manna and hyssop.

The second stanza of ‘New York’ seeks to contrast the unfeeling mood and spirit of the city that was established in the first stanza. The speaker presents the solution to the metropolitan woes — Harlem, or more specifically, a reaffirmation of the Harlem Renaissance. There are biblical allusions as well to “manna and hyssop” (26), the former being the miraculous sustenance provided by God to the Israelites in Exodus. The effect is to ignite action amongst Black and white New Yorkers alike.

The speaker seeks to reinvigorate the Black voices of Harlem, which they see as “teeming with sounds and ritual colors / And outrageous smells” (29-30). It is a place of activity that appears starkly antithetical to the cold skyscrapers of the city’s center. The speaker starts to advocate for blackness or darkness as more appealing than its opposite: “And I proclaim Night more truthful than the day” (33). For it is then that the “festival of Night” (32) begins, heralding an overflow of emotion and vivaciously ardent life: “Ballets of water lilies and fabulous masks / And mangoes of love” (41-42).

There’s even a bit of ethereal mysticism summoned up in the sky where “angels’ wings and sorcerers’ plumes” (47). But despite all this revelry and beauty, the speaker ends the stanza with a forewarning to listen to both its own strong voices — “your bass male voice, / Your vibrant oboe voice” (48-49) — but also its long suffered pain. This is manifested in another striking piece of imagery: “the muted anguish of your tears / Falling in great clots of blood” (49-50).

Stanza Three

And your eyes, especially your ears, to God
Who in one burst of saxophone laughter
Created heaven and earth in six days,
And on the seventh slept a deep Negro sleep.

The third stanza of ‘New York’ ends with a powerful plea to the city to accept all that its Black communities and people have to offer. “New York! I say New York, let black blood flow into your blood” (53), they shout. The fluidity of the metaphor lending itself to the way the black blood becomes an “oil of life” (54). Washing away rust from steel joints, allowing its bridges to attain “the curve of hips and supple vines” (55). As life returns so does the city’s spirit and own mythic wonder — there is “no need to invent the Sirens” (60) or any other myths. The speaker describes being able to now hear God and their “burst of saxophone laughter” (63) that created both heaven and earth before taking the seventh day to sleep a “deep Negro sleep” (65).


What is the theme of ‘New York?’

The poem’s theme lies in the speaker’s belief that reunifying New Yorkers — Black and white — is the only way to restore it and remedy what ails it. Stricken by a cold indifference that’s rooted in its complicity with racism, Senghor urges its citizens to absorb the life-giving Black blood of its people as a means of rejuvenation through reconciliation.

Why did Léopold Sédar Senghor write ‘New York?

Senghor was a part of the anti-colonial Négritude movement, which sought to create bridges among the African diaspora as a means of unification for Black communities. This poem expresses a number of the poet’s beliefs regarding the movement, including an urgent desire to foster Black independence and self-reliance but also not shying away from a melding of culture — an idea central to New York’s “melting pot” status.

What does the repeated reference to God mean in ‘New York?

Throughout the poem, the speaker invokes often God or uses biblically charged imagery and figurative language. The most striking of which is the poem’s final lines, which project elements of Black culture and personas onto the deity. The effect is similar to when the speaker starts characterizing aspects of the city (such as its bridges) as being made more lively thanks to the Black blood that oils them. Senghor does this to further blur the line between typically Eurocentric and white spaces — from skyscrapers to myths and even the tale of Genesis — and those occupied by people of color.

What does the city symbolize in ‘New York?

The city appears to symbolize a variety of things to the speaker. At first, it is a beautiful shy girl; then, a cold and emotionless cityscape; and finally, a brightly burning beacon of life and love.

Similar Poems

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New York

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Léopold Sédar Senghor (poems)

Léopold Sédar Senghor

This poem by Léopold Sédar Senghor highlights a number of the beliefs he helped outline in creating the concept of "Négritude" that he is attributed with. Mainly, the poem points out the vacancy of love and warmth that exists in white society without the presence of Black (African) culture and people. It is a beautiful poem that stands as an ode to not just New York but to its melting pot of culture as well.
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20th Century

Senghor's poem stands as an important piece of literature written in the 20th century, especially one that offers such a visceral perspective of the state of Black communities in New York at the time. The poem paints a bleak picture of the city that is cold and indifferent to all but it's most privileged of denizens. What's powerful about this poem, though, is its placement of Black voices and bodies as the means of salvation for the city's rejuvenation.
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Senghor was an important African poet, one that contributed greatly to ideas of Black empowerment and African culture. His concept of Négritude was foundational in this effort, and although some aspects became controversial in later decades, poems like this one underscore his efforts to unify through a celebration of individuals cross-culturally, as they advocate for both cultural pride but also cultural exchange.
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One of the poem's themes revolves around its celebration of what Senghor perceives as Black (African) culture. The vivid imagery provided and enchanting use of figurative language makes the speaker's descriptions of Harlem otherworldly and magical. The result is a poem that offers impactful images of the beauty Black communities have to offer the larger city of New York.
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Love is another important theme within the poem. The opening stanza's imagery of the city is anything but lovely, however. Instead, Senghor's purpose with the poem is to create two contrasting scenes: one of a cold and loveless New York and another that spotlights Harlem's vivacious vibrancy. In doing so, the poet reveals exactly what has been missing from the city.
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Recovery is another theme found in Senghor's poem. There are a variety of recoveries alluded to throughout: from the one that the city of New York will experience to the renewal of Black communities like Harlem. What is crucially conveyed by the poem, though is that these recoveries are not mutually exclusive and rely on each other quite a bit.
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Depression is one of the first emotions inspired by the poem and heavily inundated the first stanza. Much of that is because of the city's towering skyscrapers, which block out the sun and make the city appear coldly unfeeling. Senghor's use of imagery is incredibly effective at eliciting these feelings from the reader as well.
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Pain is another emotion that appears within the poem, mostly in relation to the pain endured by Black citizens because of racism. Senghor only mentions that pain briefly, but the few lines that deal with it are quite visceral and evoke the violence they were inflicted with. The poet chooses not to dwell on it because this is a poem about celebration.
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Resilience is one of the more powerfully articulated emotions expressed in the poem. There is the resilience of the city, which endures in majesty even as it grows more cold and indifferent. But there is also the resilience of Harlem, which has continued to thrive in culture and art even as the rest of the city slips into this twilight depression.
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African Americans

Senghor's poem is ingrained in the tensions of race that existed (and still exist) in New York. His work in creating the Négritude movement makes him an important figure in the 20th century. This poem emphasizes his desire to unite not just the African diaspora but also communities across racial boundaries.
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Many a poem has been written in ode to great cities, and plenty has been written about New York itself. But Senghor's is a deeply personal celebration that hones in on his valorization of Blackness and views it through that radiant lens. As a result, it is not just a superficial ode to the city but also to its people.
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Loneliness is presented as one of the side effects of the city's growing spiritual deterioration. Senghor's powerful descriptions paint a portrait of a city majestic but cold, evoking the same feeling one might have to view the revitalized ruins of an ancient civilization. This results in this permeating atmosphere of loneliness that spreads throughout the poem.
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Racism is obviously another major topic addressed in Senghor's poem. He attacks it subtly, though, only briefly mentioning the pain endured by Black communities. The reason is that the poet wishes to present a different perspective of the African diaspora, one that doesn't use images of suffering to create a portrait of them. But rather ones of celebration and revelry that highlight all that such a cultural tapestry can offer.
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Free Verse

Senghor's poem is written in free verse, not abiding by any meter or rhyme scheme. The result is a poem that is as monumental as the skyscraper towers of New York and as breathlessly sprawling as the celebrations in the streets of Harlem. The speaker's voice and tone is of one unbound, and so to communicate their words through free verse only emphasizes those sentiments.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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