Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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Ferlinghetti, Lawrence (Vol. 6)

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Ferlinghetti, Lawrence 1919(?)–

Ferlinghetti, an American poet, playwright, essayist, novelist, and anthologist, owns City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and is publisher of City Lights Books, the press which first published and then successfully defended against obscenity charges Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems. As David Kherdian has written, that little volume made "the store, the Beat Generation, and poetry in America" famous. Ferlinghetti has said that his own work is written to be read aloud and he himself "performed" many of his early poems, sometimes to jazz accompaniments. According to Ruby Cohn, both his poems and his plays "are influenced by French Existentialist attitudes to love and death." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

I don't think anyone else has the tone of Ferlinghetti—the flat, dry, laconic, and compelling tone-sound of his voice. If his impetus [for "1000 Fearful Words for Fidel Castro"] was from the French of Prevert—I think he would freely acknowledge it—his language is American, the poetry has become American…. Ferlinghetti has kept his own idiomatic style and technique. The technique of "1000 Fearful Words" is the persistent inner logic of a rhetorical device, the structure covered up with a loose, casually idiomatic poetic language. The poem—in the opening lines—implies an ignorance, an innocence…. The ignorance is only a pretense—a place to stand so he can look around him. The rhetorical technique is that of the pretended fool—his questions his own thinly veiled comment. The stance is difficult to hold long. As it moves further and further into a maze of ambiguities it becomes more and more difficult to remember every previous turning, but Ferlinghetti is too skillful to drop his pretense…. [There are] incongruities of idiom, the juxtapositions of language that only someone as skilled as Ferlinghetti can pull off. (pp. 77-9)

There isn't much good contemporary political poetry. The modern idiom itself, which is personal and revelatory, with its attentions centered inward, is poorly adapted to something as public as a political poem. For the public poem you have to be able to generalize, to become almost impersonal, to find some kind of objective distance from the self. When the diction of the modern poem—the language and the syntax—is used for large generalizations it usually sounds overblown and uncomfortable. The most successful political poems using contemporary techniques seem to be personal poems, satirical or insulting, even offhand, with their point the reference to the place where the political irritation rubs against them. Often the poetry only works when there is an assumed attitude, a consciously theatrical stance, like Ferlinghetti's, with its pretense that someone else is doing all the talking. This has so sharply limited the effectiveness of political poetry that the modern poet has almost ceased to be an effective influence on anything happening in the society around him. Part of the effect of Ferlinghetti's poem is the realization that a poet has about as much social weight as his figure of the cowardly, ignorant bar fly. (p. 80)

In the middle of his noisy shouting Ferlinghetti suddenly steps away from the attitude he assumed—throws away the costume…. With the sudden movement as he shifts character he alters the entire structure of the poem…. Ferlinghetti is as skilled in controlling the rhetorical movement of the poem as he is in the use of the colloquial word and phrase. Now that he has forced a complete emotional shift in the poem he is able to move, in only a few lines, to his own sense of helplessness, and the poem suddenly becomes clearly an intensely felt, an intensely personal experience....

(This entire section contains 2172 words.)

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(pp. 81-2)

Samuel Charters, "Lawrence Ferlinghetti," in his Some Poems/Poets: Studies in American Underground Poetry Since 1945 (copyright © 1971 by Samuel Charters), Oyez, 1971, pp. 77-83.

Ferlinghetti is one of those spiritual panhandlers bred by our age who has been infected by poetry, having the hazy notion that, when respectable, poetry is synonymous with reverie, exempt from construction by the poet but sufficiently fascinating, if, within a series of parallel phrases that sound sort-of-musical, you incorporate quotations from Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, Robinson Jeffers, D. H. Lawrence, whomever. Most of his exercises in this vein would have no texture at all if they weren't interwoven, not too skillfully, with silver threads from greater poets in a tradition he despises. But he's not choosy; he has compiled a sheaf of what he names Mantra, Tantra, and Shaman chants. They are so boring I don't want to quote any of them. Yet the real point is that he is probably admired for a function which doesn't compel me and which is but dimly related to what we usually agree to call the art of the poem. He's a community singer, an agitprop bard, an injustice-hunter with an elementary power of rhythm and a crude sense of humor. When he's most himself he can't get a page written without "fuck," "shit," or "asshole." "A World Awash With Fascism and Fear," "Las Vegas Tilt," or "Carnaval De Maiz" represent the extreme limits (I hope) of his hysterical oratorios.

Ferlinghetti is at home anywhere because he's at home nowhere. When histrionically stricken by the still sad music of humanity he can rarely manage more than a dozen reminiscent lines before writing a refrain, because in fact he has only a vegetal response to life and to say anything fruitful about a rainy morning in London or the snowbound ideology of Russia would overtax his powers, as poet or thinker. In more than one attempt at depicting other people ("fucked-up people") he watches a couple or a trio in a diner, or some such setting (he seems to be habitually a voyeur), trying to deduce their lives from their mimed responses to each other. As he has no imagination, really, about anyone else's insides, he concludes, with tiresome tread, that they are just waiting to get out into the landscape and copulate. For the life of him he can't make this probability interesting and as he is totally without any other level of curiosity—except when faced by Russians or Indians, foreign enough to secure his attention (but never deeply)—he finds it easier to play anarchist or guru, to chalk dirty words on the wall, to intone page-length "exemplars and assholes of fascism," slogans for Greece, anti-imperialist platitudes for the Mexicans, broadsides for jailed negroes: all of it interlarded with expletives from Whitman, Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, D. H. Lawrence—and the nearest subway-toilet wall. (pp. 170-71)

Ferlinghetti never chooses to know anything that would refine, complicate or deepen the flat, plebeian verdicts he passes on phenomena he fails completely to understand, or in which he fails to discern any secondary qualities which would invest them with the adequate mystery for becoming subjects of a poem!… Open Eye, Open Heart? I shall resist the most coarse association available and merely note in conclusion that Ferlinghetti's most conspicuous physical qualification as a poet is his wide open mouth. (p. 171)

Vernon Young, in Parnassus: Poetry in Review (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Spring/Summer, 1974.

A widely anthologized poem which multitudes of high-school, college, and other students of poetry are enjoying and with the help of which are learning about the function of the poet, is Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Constantly risking absurdity," section 15 of Coney Island of the Mind. Here we see a performance:

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

The poet as high-wire performer—as popular entertainer. He is "a little charleychaplin man," i.e., pathetic, likeable, and innocent—at the mercy of the buffeting forces of society, and so forth. And yet, in this conceit, all eyes are upon him, at least the eyes of the kind of people who come to the circus to be entertained. In what I take to be the centrally defining metaphor of the piece, we learn of the extent of the poet's dependence upon the audience when we read that the poet

                  balancing on eyebeams                   above a sea of faces                   paces his way                   to the other side of day

performing "tricks" and "high theatrics."

It doesn't take much of a close reading to find, even when we allow the poem its donnée, midway in the performance, serious problems in the structure of the basic image. We have read of the "high wire of his own making," then a dozen or so lines later we read that the poet must "perforce perceive/taut truth/before the taking of each stance or step." I take the "high wire of his own making" to mean surely that the poet's truth comes from within, that it is of his own making—truth as subjective. But that he has to perceive "taut truth" before making a move suggests that the truth, the taut wire on which he performs, exists objectively as something prior to any (poetic) act of his own. Amidst such confused imaginings the metaphorical structure of the poem proceeds. It is in the final trope, however, where Ferlinghetti's failure of imagination completes itself. He is trying for a grand finale to his act. The ill-imagined, unthoughtout image of the wire itself is not enough; in the last image Ferlinghetti gives us an unintended bombastic absurdity with which the poem collapses. It is obviously not the "absurdity" of line one; it is the kind of absurdity Longfellow achieves when in "Psalm of Life" he wants to give us an image of lasting human achievement and, in a similar failure of the imagination, says that we can leave our footprints on the unfortunately nonindelible "sands" of time. Ferlinghetti's ending has the poet on the high wire waiting to catch "Beauty" in her "death-defying leap." He confuses a high-wire performer with a trapeze performer. It is the trapeze performer who would attempt to catch a fellow performer leaping from a higher place. If the fellow performer attempted to leap and be caught by someone on a high wire it would not be a "death-defying" leap, it would be suicidal. And so is the performance of this well-known poem in its failure of the imagination proper as well as by its reductive presentation of the poet as pop entertainer critically dependent upon an immediate audience, its revelation of the failure of the moral imagination. (pp. 735-36)

R. P. Dickey, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974.

Ferlinghetti has always been an extremely personal writer, one who consistently has vented his own feelings in his poems, but there was usually a hint of nonchalance, or of the ability of this man to cope with or to rise up against that which he harangued. Now, in Open Eye, Open Heart, we find the poet in despair; a feeling of helplessness and futility pervades the book's initial section and creeps from time to time into many of the "Poems In Transit," the second movement of this four-part composition.

The tone of the collection is clearly established after the first two poems, which, when coupled together, rival his previous "Autobiography" in depth, insight, and frankness. "True Confessional," whence the book's title comes, exposes immediately a man, old before his time, who, like Poor B. B., whom he paraphrases, was "wrought from the dark in my mother long ago." The feelings of futility and self-criticism portrayed in these opening pieces will catch many followers of the bard laureate of North Beach, U.S.A., by surprise. When he laments that he was "a wind-up toy/someone had dropped wound-up/into a world already/running down," we fear that he too is finally "running down." (p. 275)

The most memorable poetry in this volume appears within his "Public & Political Poems." Ferlinghetti emerges at his best in two rather lengthy compositions, both written in 1971—the seven-part "Las Vegas Tilt," in which the poet portrays a new American dream, an "Assassination Raga" for the Seventies, and, in what is certainly among his best work to date, "A World Awash with Fascism and Fear," a bold cry for freedom for those whose voices have long been muted.

In another noteworthy piece, "An Elegy on the Death of Kenneth Patchen," a poem full of the love and admiration Ferlinghetti possessed for his friend, the poet… bemoans the transitoriness of the artist in a world where most of the populace is "wishing it could just forget about him and his awful strange prophecies."

The final segment of his book the poet devotes to his "American Mantras & Songs."… The best of these would seem to be "Nine Shaman Songs Resung," a nine-part offering after Waley's Translation of 'The Nine Songs.' (pp. 275-76)

Open Eye, Open Heart is disturbing yet provocative, sad yet intense. I heartily recommend it to anyone who has already experienced the mind and mastery of Ferlinghetti. (p. 276)

Douglas O. Street, "A Phoenix at Fifty," in Prairie Schooner (© 1974 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1974, pp. 275-76.


Ferlinghetti, Lawrence (Vol. 27)