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 proposed by the Beat poets, with whom Ferlinghetti has been associated. The Beats, after all, were largely responsible for creating the popularity of poetry readings in the twentieth century, and Beat poets such as Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg, all of whom were published by Ferlinghetti’s publishing company, City Lights Books, were well aware of the risks of challenging society’s established values.
In order for the risks taken by poets to be meaningful, their visions of reality must be clear. To say that poets perform “without mistaking/ any thing/ for what it may not be” is to say that they see things for what they are. A poet is not merely a realist but a “super realist,” able to pierce through mere appearance, perhaps even able to perceive a mystical reality unobscured by the illusions society creates.
With an echo of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Ferlinghetti emphasizes the importance of the concepts of truth and beauty to the poet. By maintaining contact with the truth, however tenuous, the poet approaches Beauty and in fact must catch “her fair eternal form” for the poem/performance to succeed. Whether the poet in Ferlinghetti’s poem succeeds is not known, for the verse concludes with the image of Beauty “spreadeagled in the empty air/ of existence,” a wonderful image that also suggests the existential vulnerability of the human condition. For the poet, Ferlinghetti implies, the rewards of the perilous and exhilarating attempt to capture beauty are worth all the risks.