Lawrence Ferlinghetti Critical Essays


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry may be looked on as a kind of travelog in which he has subjectively recorded choice experiences or montages from experience, often in a jazzlike or free-associative manner. For Ferlinghetti, “reality” itself becomes metaphorical, something he endows with mythical import, although he is not a poet given to hidden meanings. Although his poetry is largely autobiographical, an adequate analysis of his poetry is possible without thorough biographical knowledge; Ferlinghetti’s poetry is not excessively self-contained.

A Coney Island of the Mind

Whereas Ferlinghetti’s poems are for the most part historical, or autobiographical, Ferlinghetti the man is a myth, appearing as a cult hero, one of the original Beats. Sometimes a martyr to a cause, Ferlinghetti will occasionally insert his political ideologies into a poem for no apparent reason other than that they seem to fit his role. Halfway through the sometimes absurd, sometimes delightful poem “Underwear,” Ferlinghetti overextends his metaphor by becoming politically involved:

You have seen the three-color pictures with crotches encircled to show the areas of extra strength and three-way stretch promising full freedom of action Don’t be deceived It’s all based on the two-party system which doesn’t allow much freedom of choice

The reader is often seduced, but behind Ferlinghetti’s speaking voice, full of American colloquialisms, is an intellect schooled in the classics, highly knowledgeable of literature, past and present—a voice full ofallusions. Rather surprisingly, Ferlinghetti makes many direct references to greater works of literature by borrowing lines to suit his own purposes. Even the title of Ferlinghetti’s best-selling book A Coney Island of the Mind is taken from Henry Miller’s Into the Night Life (1947). One repeatedly discovers lines and phrases such as T. S. Eliot’s “Let us go then you and I” and “Hurry up please it’s time” ironically enlisted for use in such poems as “Junkman’s Obbligato.” Ferlinghetti frequently employs fragments from literature without alerting his audience to his borrowing. In “Autobiography,” he states, “I read the Want Ads daily/ looking for a stone a leaf/ an unfound door”—an oblique reference to Thomas Wolfe’s opening in Look Homeward, Angel (1929). He makes even more esoteric references to William Butler Yeats’s “horsemen” in poems such as “Reading Yeats I Do Not Think” and again in “Autobiography.” In “Assassination Raga,” one finds a variation on Dylan Thomas’s “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” In its stead, Ferlinghetti writes of “The force that through the red fuze/ drives the bullet”—the poem being in honor of Robert Kennedy and read in Nourse Auditorium, San Francisco, June 8, 1968, the day Kennedy was buried after having been assassinated during his presidential campaign in Los Angeles.

In his role as a subjective historian and political rebel, Ferlinghetti never orates with so much pomp as to raise himself above his audience. In his meager “Charlie Chaplin” manner—Chaplin being a persona to whom he continuously compares himself in poems such as “Constantly Risking Absurdity,” “In a Time of Revolution for Instance,” and “Director of Alienation”—Ferlinghetti is just as capable of making fun of himself as he is of satirizing various institutions and aspects of society.


Whereas some poets seek to find metaphorical reflections of themselves in nature, Ferlinghetti rarely looks there for inspiration. Furthermore, being more fond of philosophy than of drama, Ferlinghetti projects a sense of conflict mainly through his own personal quest—for his true self. His feelings of alienation and the quest for environmental constants that do not restrict one’s freedom are depicted in the poem “Dog” (from A Coney Island of the Mind), which begins: “The dog trots freely in the street/ and sees reality/ and the things he sees/ are bigger than himself. . . .” As the poem progresses, the reader comes to understand that this is an ordinary stray dog—and also Ferlinghetti in a stray-dog suit. “And the things he sees/ are his reality/ Drunks in doorways/ Moons on trees. . . .” The dog keeps on going with a curiosity that demands diversity from experience.

Ferlinghetti goes deeper, allowing the reader also to don a dog suit, to see “Ants in holes/ Chickens in Chinatown windows/ their heads a block away.” Thus the reader learns that he is roaming the streets of San Francisco. The dog trots past the carcasses that are hung up whole in Chinatown. At this point, the reader learns that he “would rather eat a tender cow/ than a tough policeman/ though either might do.” The reader has already been told that the dog does not hate cops; he merely has no use for them.

Here the reader begins to wonder whether being stray is conditional on having no preferences. Is the dog a Democrat or a Republican? The reader later learns that this dog is at least “democratic.” Ferlinghetti does deal with unusual specifics as the dog trots past the San Francisco Meat Market, and keeps going: “past the Romeo Ravioli Factory/ and past Coit’s Tower/ and past Congressman Doyle of the Unamerican Committee. . . .” Here Ferlinghetti manages to make a political statement that is alien to a dog’s perspective. This “Unamerican Committee” is obviously something that Ferlinghetti the Beat poet—not the Ferlinghetti in the dog suit—has recognized. The Ferlinghetti in the dog suit says that ultimately “Congressman...

(The entire section is 2444 words.)