Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The notion of risk taking is central to Ferlinghetti’s portrayal of the poet’s role in the world. To say that the poet is “Constantly risking absurdity/ and death” is to remind the reader of how poetry is marginalized by a society that often finds the language and assertions of the art absurd and meaningless. This is partly because poetry refuses to yield to the forces of conformity and standardization, but poetry can also pose a threat to the state. In Plato’s Politeia (Republic, 1701), Socrates advocated the banishment of poets from the ideal society because of their tendency to depart from reasoned discourse.

Many poets have literally risked death by having the courage to confront the injustices of their society. Osip Mandelstam and Federico García Lorca both lost their lives for standing up to totalitarianism and fascism. The poet can risk other types of death as well, such as a death of the spirit when creativity fails or the reader loses interest. Stage performers often speak of dying on stage when the audience fails to respond. In fact, Ferlinghetti’s poem strongly asserts that a poet needs the support of his readers. He may perform “above the heads/ of his audience” because he takes chances that most people do not take, but he is “balancing on [their] eyebeams.”

For Ferlinghetti, therefore, the poet’s role is highly public and entails performance, which is in keeping with the role of poetry...

(The entire section is 498 words.)