The Poem

Within a few months in 1956, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote twenty-nine poems that he envisioned as a unit. In his second book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, they appear numbered, without titles. Number 1, “In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see,” is a lyric written in open form, having no regular rhyme, meter, or line length. Placed on the page so as to have a visual effect, the poem has six sections of varying length, ranging from twenty lines to three words. (Anthologies vary in the way they present the poem, not always retaining the original spacing between lines and thereby varying the number of sections.)

The title, taken from the first line of the poem, immediately introduces the first of two topics: works by the Spanish artist Francisco de Goya. The poet directs readers first to Goya’s works, which present “suffering humanity.” Ferlinghetti then suggests scenes of war through words such as “writhe,” “veritable rage,” and “adversity.” Specifically, the poem alludes to Goya’s Disasters of War, created in 1810 but not published until 1863, years after his death. This series of sketches depicts the brutality, on the part of both the French and the Spanish, in the Peninsular War (1808-1814). Although Ferlinghetti never names the Disasters of War, he uses words to bring Goya’s images from those sketches to mind: “bayonets,” “landscape of blasted trees,” “wings and beaks,”...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

Forms and Devices

The poem depends, for its power, on the connection Ferlinghetti makes between the people in Goya’s sketches and those of twentieth century America. The allusion to art is not unusual for Ferlinghetti. A painter and art critic himself, he is influenced not only by great works of art but also by painters’ techniques. Just as he calls up Goya’s sketches through words, Ferlinghetti presents his poem, in part, as a picture. The page is a canvas, and his words and lines are placed for visual effect. The design on the page suggests an unexpected or brutal separation of parts that reinforces his theme. Goya’s prints graphically show dismemberment; the poem envisions American culture as an isolating force. What is physical brutality in the Goya section becomes spiritual brutality in the section on America. Even Ferlinghetti’s alliteration signals the difference: Goya’s sketches link “babies and bayonets” and “cadavers and carnivorous cocks,” while the section on America speaks of “bland billboards/ illustrating imbecile illusions” and “a concrete continent.” The physical destruction gives way to a spiritual nothingness. Yet despite the move from blood to banality, the poem highlights the continuity between the Spanish and the American scenes through the lack of terminal punctuation; one flows into the other. America has discovered its own form of brutality.

Ferlinghetti repeats key images and grammatical structures from the Goya section...

(The entire section is 435 words.)