More than Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, or even Rod McKuen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the poet of the 1960’s, the poet who spoke to the youth of that generation, like them full of hope and idealism, believing in love and sexual freedom, rejecting war, mechanization, and dehumanization. His words were used on banners, in demonstrations, even in church services, and they summed up the feelings of thousands of young people.
Endless Life gives a retrospective of Ferlinghetti’s work over the past twenty-seven years since his first book, Pictures of the Gone World (1955), which established once and forever his characteristic style and voice. His free verse lines floated back and forth across the page in no special form, suggesting fragmented impressions, often allowing for interesting juxtapositions of images in adjacent lines. His voice combined classical poetic diction (often incorporating quotations from William Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, and later Americans) with colloquial language that often involved clever wordplay—puns, unexpected word choices, and epithets that united two figures of speech in a single new one. His characteristic themes appeared: pleasure in the here and now (shown through vignettes that captured mundane incidents and revealed in them something special, spiritual, even mystical), joy in sexuality and appreciation of the body and all physical sensations, ridicule of American commercialism, and criticism of the injustices and abuses that prevail throughout the nation and the world.
“The World Is a Beautiful Place” is an excellent example of his method. It uses several loose stanzas which begin with a repetition of the title, followed by various explanations and qualifications which often deflate the praise by recognition of some of the less beautiful aspects of life, presented through wordplay: “its men of distinction/ and its men of extinction,” “its various segregations/ and congressional investigations/ and other constipations.” The poem culminates in a simple but exhuberant listing of enjoyable human activities, interrupted at last when “right in the middle of it/ comes the smiling/ mortician.” The fact of death does not so much negate the value of what has been described as it adds to it a deeper awareness.
Ferlinghetti’s subsequent collections continued to give evidence of his playfulness with language and his enjoyment of the world around him. In these later collections, however—beginning with his second and most popular (with almost a million copies in print the world over), A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)—he took on a stronger persona as a prophet, such as one of his favorite poets, Walt Whitman. His goal was to awaken and enlighten his fellow Americans, not only to the beauties of their world but also to their repressed selves and to the corruption and alienation rampant in their world. He often sought to do this in an incantatory style, recalling Whitman’s psalm-like cadences and long catalogs.
Perhaps his greatest poem in this mode is “I Am Waiting,” a poem that retains its validity and lighthearted but serious appeal a quarter of a century later. Its feeling of perpetual expectation for the miraculous to occur emerges from Ferlinghetti’s use of clichés which have permeated American culture, here twisted or taken literally, with the eternal optimism of the American spirit. Like most of his longer poems, “I Am Waiting” uses short lines all starting at the left margin to give emphasis ot the repeated phrasing. This poem’s expectations of an apocalyptic “rebirth of wonder” incorporate both the whimsical hopes typical of simpleminded patriotic fundamentalism (“I am waiting/ for them to prove/ that God is really American”) and more serious dreams that are hardly more conceivable (“I am waiting/ for a way to be devised/ to destroy all nationalisms/ without killing anybody”). All these wondrous events epitomize the spirit of hope and dreaming which characterizes America, and however trivial some of these dreams may be, others are valuable as ultimate goals, and all of them evoke thought and that “rebirth of wonder” in the reader, the spirit that says no dream is too outlandish, too impossible.
Another appealing catalog-style poem from A Coney Island of the Mind is “Autobiography,” in which the poet undergoes not only the full range of American experience (“I have heard the...
(The entire section is 1829 words.)