Ferlinghetti and the Good of Poetry

Poetry Celebration: Ferlinghetti, part 2

The news has a crazy addictive attraction. I'm not talking so much about the storm and flood news about Harvey or Irma. I'm mostly talking about the news from D.C. about our elected leaders, and from wherever there are demonstrations about which said leaders may be commenting. I get fixated on knowing details of each fresh craziness. Much of the news this year has been both funny and deeply concerning at the same time. And many days I am scanning several times a day for the latest take on what’s happening -- torn between the impulse to giggle and the impulse to rage.

I have a jones on to know what’s going on, to make it all make sense, even if the sense it makes is that our species is incapable of making sense. I amass the bits of articles and videos hoping they will help me get a handle on what I’m supposed to do, hoping they will provide a clue about where all this is headed.

Are we as a people going to learn something, swing back the other way? Are we seeing the reactive death throes of white supremacy, patriarchy, etc. -- one last gasp before we as a people finally settle into the reality that black lives do matter, immigrant lives matter, women’s experience and wisdom matter, science and facts and telling the truth matter, ecosystems and species diversity and climate change matter? Or is this instead the beginning of the descent, the first steps down the road to a barren and vicious Mad Max dystopia?

Where is human civilization headed? The question keeps me fascinated by the news feed. But whatever the answer is, my job is the same: to love and be present to each moment as it presents. Lawrence Ferlinghetti said, “All I ever wanted to do is paint light on the walls of life.” That’s my job – maybe yours, too. Paint light on the walls of life. And consuming column-inches about what some elected official or other has gone and said now really doesn’t help me do that.

But poetry does help. And by "poetry," I mean engaging in each of four activities:
  • Read poetry to yourself. Find favorite poets. Take looks at unfamiliar ones. Read one or several poems every day.
  • Speak poems. Reading or recite them aloud to others, giving yourself the chance to savor the oral qualities, notice the interpretation that your own voice gives them, and notice the reactions of your listeners.
  • Listen to poetry read aloud. Attend poetry readings, or, if that's really un-fun for you, then have a partner or friend occasionally read a poem to you at home -- or, heck, just listen to a recording (youtube has lots). Poems are meant to be heard -- at least every once in a while -- as well as seen.
  • Write poetry. Yes, write poems -- yes, you. They don't have to be publishable; they don't have to be "good;" they just have to be your sincere effort at getting at something real or vital with words on paper. Most of them can be purely private, without another human ever laying eyes on them, although it's a good idea every once in a while to share one with another human being.
William Carlos Williams wrote 60 years ago:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
Poetry, said Ferlinghetti, should be dissident, subversive, an agent for change. He wrote:
Every great poem fulfills a longing and puts life back together.
Every bird a word, and every word a bird, and birdsong is not made by machines.
Poetry breaks the brass wall between races.
Poetry is the distillation of articulate animals calling to each other across a great gulf.
It is worth nothing and therefore invaluable.
The idea of poetry as an arm of class war
Disturbs the sleep of those who do not wish to be disturbed in their pursuit of happiness.
The natural-born nonviolent enemy of the state
It is the ultimate resistance.
It is the voice within the voice of the turtle
It is the face behind the face of the race.
It is the voice of the Fourth-person singular
Poetry: the last lighthouse in rising seas.
In another work, Ferlinghetti calls on us to take up arms by taking up pens:
The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.
If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.
You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain,
you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay,
you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini,
you are an American or a non-American,
you can conquer the conquerors with words.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti -- poet, painter, publisher, activist – was born here in Westchester – in Yonkers. His father died six months before he was born. His mother was committed to an asylum shortly after he was born. He was taken in by an aunt – actually his mother’s uncle’s former wife – who took him to France for his first five years. Returning to the US, this aunt surrendered the boy to an orphanage in Chappaqua, where he stayed for two years until taken in by a wealthy family in Bronxville. He went to Bronxville public schools. Became an Eagle Boy Scout.

During World War II, he served in the Navy. He later explained: “It’s what everyone did. I’d never heard of conscientious objection.”

He saw the devastation of the nuclear bomb in Nagasaki. Six weeks or so after that bomb, Ferlinghetti was part a detail that walked through the destruction where he saw the bones amidst the rubble. “It made me an instant pacifist,” he said, and he’s remained one ever since.

After the war, he went to Columbia University, studied literature and particularly loved Shakespeare, Marlowe, the Romantic poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, Whitman, Eliot, Pound, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, and novelists Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos. Then he went to Paris, and got a doctorate at the Sorbonne. Got married, and the two of them settled in San Francisco.

In 1953, Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin founded City Lights bookstore, the first bookstore in the country to sell only paperback books: He wanted literature to be cheap and available to everyone. Two years later, Ferlinghetti, now the sole owner of City Lights, launched the publishing wing of the enterprise. The first book he published was his own first book of poems, Pictures of the Gone World.

Ferlinghetti is often classed as one of the West Coast Beats, along with Gary Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, and Phillip Whalen, in distinction to the East Coast Beats, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, but Ferlinghetti denies that he is a Beat writer. It’s true that he wasn’t much like a Beatnik: he was married, a war veteran, had graduate degrees, had a day job running a bookstore and publishing house, was not part of the On the Road life Kerouac and others wrote about.

What he did do is publish the Beat writers, gave them a platform, and his publishing allowed them to become known as a movement. The Los Angeles Times called Ferlinghetti, “The man without whom the Beat Generation might never have found its voice.” In style and theme, Ferlinghetti’s work is certainly quite different from what united Ginsberg and Kerouac, but every Beat writer was different, and Beat writing is not defined by any one style and theme.

Reasons for including Ferlinghetti among the Beat writers include: he shares the populist, democratic, Bohemian spirit of the Beatniks – the rejection of the stiff, stultifying conformity of the 1950s, the subversive impulse, the social critique that’s more implicit than explicit, and conveyed through irony, the questioning of authority. He wrote:
‘Truth is not the secret of a few’
you would maybe think so
the way some
and cultural ambassadors and
especially museum directors

you'd think they had a corner
on it
the way they
walk around shaking
their high heads and
looking as if they never
went to the bath
room or anything

But I wouldn't blame them
if I were you
They say the Spiritual is best conceived
in abstract terms
and then too
walking around in museums always makes me
want to
'sit down'
I always feel so
in those
high altitudes
Ferlinghetti also shares the Beat writers sense that poetry is an oral medium, meant to be read aloud, shared among real-live physically-gathered listeners, not merely ink on a page in an academic library. And the connection with jazz music. Ferlinghetti gave hundreds of poetry readings in the 1950s and 60s, reading counter-cultural poems to the accompaniment of jazz music – often, I might add, while wearing a beret. You can't get much more Beat than that.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Poetry Celebration: Lawrence Ferlinghetti"
See also
Part 1: Some Ferlinghetti
Part 3: Tragedy In the Context of Beauty. Or Maybe Vice-Versa.

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