The Poem

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...

(The entire section is 529 words.)

Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 569 words.)