Constantly Risking Absurdity

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity” is a free-verse poem consisting of thirty-three lines, broken into three progressively shorter sections of eighteen, nine, and six lines. The poem examines the role of the poet in society, the risks a poet must take, the relationship of the poet to the reader, the qualities of perception a poet must possess, and the relationship of poetry to beauty and truth.

This poem is one of twenty-nine poems grouped together under the title “A Coney Island of the Mind,” one of three sections in the collection of the same name. In an author’s note preceding these poems, Ferlinghetti says he felt “as if they were, taken togethera kind of circus of the soul,” suggesting their variety and vitality. “Constantly Risking Absurdity,” one of two poems in the group that actually uses circus imagery, is untitled in the book, appearing only as poem Number 15 and subsequently taking its name from its first line.

The core of the poem is the assertion in line 6 that the poet is “like an acrobat,” with the entire poem taking the form of an extended comparison between poetry and acrobatics, both of which (as the opening lines suggest) are performances risking “absurdity/ and death.” The poem develops this comparison by portraying the poet as a tightrope walker performing on a “high wire of his own making,” risking his life, dependent not only upon his own skill but also upon the audience, because he is “balancing on eyebeams.” Poetry needs an audience, Ferlinghetti suggests, to complete and sustain the creative act of the poet.

At the end of the first section of the poem, Ferlinghetti introduces the idea that as the poet-acrobat performs his tricks, he depends upon clarity of perception, not “mistaking/ any thing/ for what it may not be.” This idea is further developed in the second section, with the assertion that a poet is a “super realist” whose success and whose very life are contingent upon perceiving “taut truth.” Just as high-wire artists must place their feet carefully upon the wire, poets must keep their eyes on the truth they wish to convey in their poems. Poets not only are concerned with truth but also attempt to capture beauty in their work, and so Ferlinghetti personifies “Beauty” as a female circus performer who is part of the act. At the end of the second section, she “stands and waits,” readying herself to leap into the air and be caught by the poet-acrobat. In other words, Ferlinghetti suggests, poets must not only perceive truth but also catch beauty in their work.

Does the poet-acrobat in this poem succeed? Ferlinghetti does not say, but the third and final section vividly portrays the plight of the poet,

a little charleychaplin man    who may or may not catchher fair eternal form   spreadeagled in the empty air  of existence

Interestingly, the poet is referred to here in the concluding lines as “a little charleychaplin man,” adding to the portrait of the poet the idea that, like Chaplin’s famous “Little Tramp” persona, he is an Everyman constantly trying to beat the odds and whose attempts are touched with humor and pathos.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

The placement of the lines on the page is typical of many of Ferlinghetti’s poems, but it seems particularly appropriate for this poem: The lack of a fixed left-hand margin and the irregularly staggered lines, ranging in length from two to eight words, suggest the poet-acrobat’s teetering motions as he tries to maintain his balance. Nearly half the lines begin near the middle of the page, approximating a center of balance, with other lines to the left and right suggesting the precariousness of equilibrium. Thus there is a strong visual component to the experience of reading the poem. Ferlinghetti’s free-verse technique also avoids punctuation, which adds to the free-floating quality. Although each of the three sections begins with a capital letter, the poem can be read as one long sentence, the final clause of which is incomplete, stressing the risks poets take, as well as the inconclusive nature of any judgment of poetic success.

The lines containing the simile upon which the poem is based,

the poet like an acrobat   climbs on rime     to a high wire of his own making

illustrate Ferlinghetti’s playful way with language by imperfectly rhyming “climbs” and “rime,” the latter an obsolete spelling of the word “rhyme,” the root meaning of which includes both the coupling of words with similar sounds and the rhythmic structure of a poem. Thus the importance of poetic devices and techniques to the poem’s success is emphasized. Ferlinghetti is also reminding readers that the root meaning of the word “poet” is “maker.”

In addition to irregularly appearing rhymes, both internal and external, other devices of sound are found throughout the poem, including assonance (the long a’s and i’s in the lines quoted above) and alliteration (“who must perforce perceive/ taut truth/ before the taking of each stance or step”). Together with the density of stressed syllables in the phrase “perceive/ taut truth,” the alliteration here accentuates the importance of Ferlinghetti’s point—that clear vision is necessary for the poet.

Ferlinghetti’s playfulness can be seen elsewhere in the poem, for example in his coining of the phrase “slight-of-foot tricks,” a play on the phrase “sleight of hand,” which again emphasizes the idea of poetry as a performance, poets being like verbal magicians. Ferlinghetti is also fond of puns, as when he says, “Beauty stands and waits/ with gravity/ to start her death-defying leap,” which suggests the critical nature of the situation, its serious demeanor, and the force of gravity that will cause its fall.

Informal yet precise in tone, the language of the poem is a blend of the ordinary and the somewhat obscure (“entrechats”), with occasional neologisms, like “slight-of-foot tricks” and “charleychaplin man.” The poem also skillfully combines abstract and concrete language. Continuing the abstract language that concludes the first section, the second section begins abstractly and then starts to turn concrete with the word “taut,” before moving on to a more concrete description of the poet-acrobat’s movements. With regard to figurative language, in addition to the controlling simile of the poem, several key metaphors advance its argument. For example, the assertion that the poet-acrobat “paces his way/ to the other side of day” suggests that poetry pierces through the world’s appearances to discover significance hidden from ordinary perception. “The other side of day” may also suggest night, a realm of mystery in which the poet feels comfortable.

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