SOURCE: "Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Painter's Eye," in Nine Essays in Modern Literature, edited by Donald E. Stanford, Louisiana State University Press, 196 5, pp. 107-16.
[In the following essay, Corrington compares the structure of Ferlinghetti's poems to the style of several modern painters.]
With the gradual ebb of publicity concerning "The Beat Generation," it has become possible, in the last year or so, to read the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti as literature rather than as a portion of an attenuated and faintly ludicrous social documentary. The "Beat" tag, so long an active element, arousing a surprising degree of partisanship among otherwise astute readers, has lapsed at last into the same kind of literary irrelevance as have such relatively meaningless terms as "The Auden Circle" and "The Imagistes." Having survived the onslaughts of Life and the Saturday Review, the praise of Kenneth Rexroth and the blame of J. Donald Adams, this most recent of literary phenomena and the figures connected with it have become the proper matter of literary criticism. One can, with some hope of objectivity, attempt to discover what meaningful sound may persist in certain "Beat" writing, now that the fury has subsided.
It becomes apparent, I think, to even the most casual reader, that those writers lumped together by news media and popular reviewers under the "Beat" label are, in fact, as distinct from one another as was Baudelaire from Rimbaud, Verlaine from Mallarmé. In the case of Ferlinghetti, one finds it difficult to understand why he has been considered of a kind with his more celebrated contemporaries, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. While there are marked differences between Ginsberg's poetry and that of Corso, a veritable chasm separates their work from Ferlinghetti's. If Ginsberg can be said to possess form, it is a form based on rhetorical repetition—a form reminiscent of Sears catalogues. Corso's shorter poems are loosely unified even considered as lyrics, and his long poems, for the most part, make use of the same Whitmanesque periods common to Ginsberg's Howl. But in Ferlinghetti's poetry, one finds a consistent and subtly developed sense of form based not upon rhetorical devices or repetition, but on the analogies between poetry and painting; on the correspondences between written and graphic style; on the metaphorical and actual unity between major art forms.
In some thirteen poems scattered through Pictures of the Gone World and A Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti makes constant reference to painters and sculptors, both ancient and modern. Moreover, even in poems not specifically dealing with or mentioning art and artists, Ferlinghetti betrays his own post-war education in painting and his dependence upon that background by an overwhelming reliance on visual imagery and by creating a series of essentially graphic events which contain little of the ideational and narrative matter expected of a literary work. An example of this nonconceptual poetry is poem "1" from Pictures:
Away above a harborful of caulkless houses among the charley noble chimneypots of a rooftop rigged with clotheslines a woman pastes up sails upon the wind hanging out her morning sheets with wooden pins O lovely mammal her nearly naked teats throw taut shadows when she stretches up to hang at last the last of her so white washed sins but it is wetly amorous and winds itself about her clinging to her skin So caught with arms upraised she tosses back her head in voiceless laughter and in choiceless gesture then shakes out gold hair while in the reachless seascape spaces between the blown white shrouds stand out the bright steamers to...
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Such a poem, when set against the work of a poet like Dylan Thomas, whose whole artistic orientation was essentially verbal, who clearly did not move from image to language but rather conceived in terms of language itself, becomes readily identifiable as a work moving from a visual conception into the matrix of poetic language. Perhaps a concurrent reading of poem "1" from Pictures and Thomas's "Altarwise by owl-light" will illustrate the profound distinction between visually and verbally conceived writing.
Ferlinghetti, in his exploitation of the image almost bereft of "idea" as such, follows rather closely upon modern theory developed by major painters. "Subject"—that which a picture is about—is of far less significance than composition—what, in fact, because of the painter's shaping genius, the picture is. In a sense, the "subject," whether it be a horse, a landscape or a human figure is essentially an excuse for painting, and is hardly to be considered in valuing the picture as a work of art. Speaking of Cézanne, Picasso and the other fathers of Modern Art, Maurice Grosser says, "… their subject was art itself—how pictures are built. Their aim was to isolate the essential qualities of character and structure in a picture which make it a work of art."
Grosser mentions James Joyce and Gertrude Stein as poets who, following the painters, took composition as their subject matter. He compares two Stein poems, suggesting that "Portrait of F. B." and "Rooms" have "the same cadences and the same shape." He concludes: "But the actual words used in the two poems are completely different. This is exactly the sort of thing a painter of the time might have done—different versions of the same composition constructed with different still-life objects or with different colors." Had Grosser a wider acquaintance with modern poetry, he might have found more felicitous examples of this similarity in the work of Stephane Mallarmé, certain of Ezra Pound's early poems, or Federico Garcia Lorca's Poet in New York. However, Grosser makes clear that "subject" has become increasingly irrelevant in contemporary art. In the case, for example, of abstract expressionism, the subject has, in James Joyce's phrase, been "refined out of existence," leaving behind an artifact, an object which, rather than containing a rational complexus to be comprehended by a viewer, is an esthetic ikon to be apprehended. There is no idea to be extracted from a canvas in the abstract expressionist mode; rather the picture is constructed to produce a response in one looking at it. By analogy, those poems of Ferlinghetti's which we are discussing—like many of Mallarmé's, Pound's, Lorca's, and Rimbaud's—are not concerned with ideas, themes, narrations, conceptualizations, but rather with the representation of events and entities in such a way as to evoke a response or a series of responses in the reader. After reading poem "1" from Pictures it would seem difficult to explicate the poem except in terms of its graphic significance. It is a paean to woman, to unconscious sexuality, to the art of artlessness—but as a vehicle of idea (in the sense, say, that "Dover Beach" is a vehicle for Matthew Arnold's concepts) the poem would appear insignificant.
In poem "5" from Pictures, Ferlinghetti speaks of
… this man who was all eyes had no mouth All he could do was show people what he meant And it turned out he claimed to be a painter But anyway this painter who couldn't talk or tell anything about what he meant looked like just about the happiest painter in all the world standing there taking it all "in" and reflecting Everything in his great big Hungry Eye….
Departing from the "pure poetry" we have been discussing, Ferlinghetti turns his hand to theoretical matters. This figure who has no mouth, who cannot tell, but must show his meaning, is representative of the painter—and, by logical extension, of the poet as well—who chooses to work outside the limitations of "subject" ordinarily expected and traditionally called for. I suspect the absence of a mouth in Ferlinghetti's "happiest painter" refers not to the muteness of painting, but rather to its refusal to limit its dealings to the logical and narrative, to the merely anecdotal. In this sense, the modern poet, like the painter, frequently has no mouth. Both take in the world through their "Hungry Eyes." But neither limits himself to phenomena: what is taken in is not simply reproduced on canvas or framed in words. The artist's eye is not, in Grosser's phrase, "the innocent eye of the camera." Rather, the world is dissected, sorted, manipulated, and recreated in terms of the artist's vision—which, a Hungry Eye indeed, devours in order to create.
It should be noted that, as I have suggested above, there are numerous figures antedating Ferlinghetti whose work, whether based in the same theory or not, bears considerable resemblance to the "pure poetry" found in Pictures and Coney Island. To quote a few of these, with the purpose of emphasizing the visual orientation of this earlier work, one might begin with Rimbaud: "The cascade resounds behind light-opera huts. Candelabra extend out through the orchards and alleys of the neighboring labyrinth,—the greens and reds of the setting sun. Horace nymphs with First Empire coiffures. Siberian rounds, and Boucher's Chinese ladies." Compare the descriptive nature of Rimbaud's brief prose-poem with poem "17" from Pictures:
Terrible a horse at night standing hitched alone in the still street and whinnying as if some sad nude astride him had gripped hot legs on him and sung a sweet high hungry single syllable
In each poem it is the figurative which dominates; both poems function as artifacts to be experienced, to be seen, rather than as verbal cognates for ideas impacted within them. Again, precisely the same sort of function is discovered in a number of Pound's early poems—though in less sophisticated and self-conscious form:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.
Here, as in Rimbaud's poem, as in poem "17," we find the poet moving from a seen reality—a festive sunset occasion in Rimbaud's poem; a group of people awaiting the subway in Pound's; a horse hitched alone in Ferlinghetti's—to an unseen but still visual re-creation of the seen in the poetic imagination. The pictorial nature of the imaginative extensions is not altered by the fact that Pound shapes a kind of one-for-one relation between fact and creation (faces = petals; station platform = bough) and Ferlinghetti superimposes his "sad nude" simile upon the actual horse.
Charles Mauron, in discussing the poetry of Mallarmé, finds it necessary to use metaphors of painting in order to explain the "obscurity" of the work: "The poet certainly wishes to avoid sharp contours, but, like Renoir, will have rich and full color nonetheless." Again, Mallarmé "had in him something of the great 'baroque' artists: a passion for vast wave-like diagonals, for sentences running from end to end of the work." In the same volume, Roger Fry discusses Mallarmé's creative method:
… with Mallarmé the theme is frequently as it were broken to pieces in the process of poetic analysis, and is reconstructed not according to the relations of experience but of pure poetical necessity. In this he anticipated by many years the methods of some Cubist painters.
Thus, Fry suggests, there is no limit to the violence the poet or painter may do to a given "subject." The artist's "Hungry Eye" absorbs, and what is projected by his inner vision will be an autonomous object: "… as in painting, so in poetry, you can do as you please," Wallace Stevens puts it.
Continuing this brief chronology of Ferlinghetti's antecedents, one cannot overlook the work of Garcia Lorca. Celebrated by younger writers because of his tragic death in the Spanish Civil War, Lorca's Poet in New York has been profoundly influential on contemporary American poetry. And Lorca, like Ferlinghetti, was possessed of a singularly "Hungry Eye":
Blood fell on the mountains, and angels went in search of it, but their chalices held only wind; blood spilled from their shoe-tops, at last. Lame dogs puffed at their pipes, and the smell of hot leather was gray on the circling lips of those who vomit on street-corners….
Angel del Rio considers Lorca's later poetry as purely visual in form. "In a certain sense," del Rio says, "Lorca was more surrealist than the surrealists." Del Rio is conscious of Lorca's derivations from painting techniques in the poems that make up Poet in New York: "… the similarity in imagery between some of Lorca's poems and Dali's paintings … is such that no better illustrator could have been found for Poet in New York than the Catalonian creator of the 'surrealist object.'"
On this question of Ferlinghetti's antecedents among poets whose work was conceived and executed within the frame of modern painting's theory, there remains one further example to point out. It would be difficult to find a piece of modern poetry more completely visual than this:
fandango of shivering owls souse of evil-omended polyps scouring brush of hairs from priest's tonsures standing naked in the middle of the frying-pan—placed upon ice cream cone of codfish fried in the scabs of his lead-ox heart—his mouth full of cinchbug jelly of his words—sleighbells of the plate of snails braiding guts—little finger in erection neither grape nor fig—commedia dell'arte of poor weaving and dyeing of clouds—beauty creams from the garbage wagon—rape of maids in tears and in snivels—on his shoulder the shroud stuffed with sausages and mouths—rage distorting the outline of the shadow which flogs his teeth driven in the sand and the horse open wide to the sun which reads it to the flies that stitch to the knots of the net full of anchovies the sky-rocket of lilies….
It is to be expected that a prose-poem by Pablo Picasso would be a flood of imagery. The poem was written during the Spanish Civil War as Picasso prepared a set of sketches to be called The Dreams and Lies of Franco. It illustrates, with considerable power, a kind of reversal, a feed-back from artist to poetry. As Ferlinghetti and his predecessors have drawn both method and conception from the graphic arts, so the most distinguished of modern painters makes use of poetry in order to sketch, as it were, a schema for drawings which he plans.
Perhaps none of Ferlinghetti's poems so fully exploits the method and the shape of a modern painting—and at the same time the form of Picasso's poem and subsequent drawings—as does his poem "6" in Pictures:
And the Arabs asked terrible questions and the Pope didn't know what to say and the people ran around in wooden shoes asking which way was the head of Midas facing and everyone said No instead of Yes While still forever in the Luxembourg gardens in the fountains of the Medicis were the fat red goldfish and the fat white goldfish and the children running around the pool pointing and pipingDes poissons rouges!Des poissons rouges! but they ran off and a leaf unhooked itself and fell upon the pool and lay like an eye winking circles and then the pool was very still and there was a dog just standing there at the edge of the pool looking down at the tranced fish and not barking or waving its funny tail or anything so that for a moment then in the late November dusk silence hung like a lost idea and a statue turned its head
It would seem clear that in Ferlinghetti's mind—and perhaps in Picasso's, too—there is no real or substantive distinction between the act of painting and that of making poetry. Technical differences are simply problems to be overcome—but the modern poem, like the modern painting, must be conceived in terms of composition, not in terms of subject matter. The poem is shaped by what Roger Fry, as noted above, calls "poetical necessity"—the poem's form shapes its own requirements. The same holds true of painting. "I have never made trials or experiments," Picasso has said. "Whenever I had something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I felt it ought to be said." Thus we have a poet who calls his poems "Pictures," and a painter who "says" things with his brush.
Insofar as prose statement may be required, Ferlinghetti has not stinted in its use. Indeed, his most recent work has suffered from an almost journalistic flatness, a regrettable lack of the brilliant imagery found in Pictures and in much of Coney Island. But if the poetry of "reportage," in E. M. Forster's phrase, should fail to match his vision, Ferlinghetti has had at his command the further resources of the painter's eye and the painter's wide-ranging, inclusive theory:
Don't let that horse eat that violin cried Chagall's mother But he kept right on painting And became famous And kept on painting The Horse With Violin In Mouth And when he finally finished it he jumped up upon the horse and rode away waving the violin And then with a low bow gave it to the first naked nude he ran across And there were no strings attached
If Marc Chagall, in poem "14" from Coney Island, serves as an epitome of the painter (as does Picasso in another poem—"24" in Pictures: "but that night I dreamt of Picasso / opening doors and closing exits / opening doors and closing exits in the world …"), then Lawrence Ferlinghetti may well stand as an epitome of the modern poet. Ferlinghetti, like Kenneth Patchen's "impatient explorer who invents a box in which all journeys may be kept," has ranged into the deep space beyond limiting canons of literature and has created a provocative and significant body of poetry which, while based in the tradition extending from the Symbolistes through Lorca, manipulating theory and technique born with modern painting, is nevertheless still experimental and tentative. Ferlinghetti has produced a poetry in which handling of object attempts to replace "subject" in significance, a poetry which must be apprehended and experienced as cultural event rather than as subject-verb-object reportage of "reality." Perhaps Ferlinghetti himself has best described the sort of thing he has attempted. In poem "13" from Coney Island, he tells how he would "paint" … "a different kind / of Paradise,"
… there would be no anxious angels telling them how heaven is the perfect picture of a monarchy and there would be no fires burning in the hellish holes below in which I might have stepped nor any altars in the sky except fountains of imagination
Lawrence Ferlinghetti 1919–
American poet, novelist, and dramatist.
The following entry presents an overview of Ferlinghetti's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 6, 10, and 27.
To fully consider the impact of Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the American literary scene, it is necessary to look beyond Ferlinghetti's writing. As co-owner of the City Lights bookstore and publishing house in San Francisco's Chinatown, Ferlinghetti the publisher and bookseller helped to firmly establish the Beat school of poetry. He became the leading force in developing and publicizing anti-establishment poetry, distributing the works of such writers as Frank O'Hara, Philip Lamantia, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. It was Ferlinghetti's arrest in 1957 on obscenity charges and the subsequent series of trials which brought the Beat movement to the attention of the nation.
Ferlinghetti was born March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, New York. He received a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Carolina in 1941, a Masters degree from Columbia University in 1948, and a Doctorat de l'Université from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1949. Ferlinghetti served in the naval reserve from 1941 to 1945 and was a Lieutenant Commander during the Normandy invasion. After the war, he worked for Time magazine before attending the Sorbonne. He had two children, Lorenzo and Julie, from his marriage to Selden Kirby-Smith in 1951 (divorced 1976). Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco and taught French from 1951 to 1953. In 1952, along with Peter Martin, he founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperback store in America. In 1955 he established the Pocket Poets Series with the publication of his own collection, Pictures of the Gone World. The fourth volume of the Pocket Poets Series, Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, led to Ferlinghetti's arrest on charges of publishing obscene material. As a result of the trial publicity, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg became national as well as international figures. Howl had started with a modest printing of 1,500 copies; by the end of the trial, 10,000 copies had been printed. The publicity surrounding City Lights started an explosion of other small radical presses. Lawrence Ferlinghetti also became a public figure through his performance poetry. He and Kenneth Rexroth began a series of poetry readings, accompanied by jazz music, in a San Francisco night club called The Cellar. They felt that jazz, the "outsider music," was an appropriate accompaniment and a viable way of attracting new listeners to poetry. And it was "listeners" they were after: Ferlinghetti repeatedly stated that much of his poetry was designed to be heard, rather than read from the printed page. Yet many critics describe the visual nature of his poems. The broken, fragmentary lines that seem to wander around the page were to many critics as much a part of the poems as the thoughts and feelings they described.
Ferlinghetti's first published work, Pictures of the Gone World (1955), is largely composed of poems of lyric observation. "Gone" was the Beat equivalent of "hip" or "groovy," but in the poems it also held onto the meaning of something past. His second and most famous work, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), is more satirical, with a surrealistic air to the wording and mixed-up metaphors: "… drugged store cowboys and las vegas virgins / disowned indians and cinemad matrons / unroman senators and conscientious nonobjectors…." Her (1960), his first novel, is an interior monologue narrated by Andy Raffine. Raffine views himself as fallen and fragmented as a result of becoming an orphan at an early age. He has a vision of himself prior to that event as happy and whole, and seeks to recapture that feeling. As an adult, he has developed a vision of a satisfying relationship that includes a sexual component. But the juxtaposition of the idealized relationship with memories of his mother makes his search for that feeling of emotional and sexual wholeness a situation he finds himself unable to consummate. With ironic symbolism, he dies at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The poems of Starting from San Francisco (1961) expand on Ferlinghetti's violation of conventional poetic form, following a predominantly oral style. His plays, a number of which are contained in the volumes Unfair Arguments with Existence (1963) and Routines (1964), were surreal, experimental drama, with settings and actions that were more symbolic than representational. The resulting development of a less rational, more intuitive form for seeking the meaning behind life's surface is seen in his verse collection, The Secret Meaning of Things (1969). Ferlinghetti's populist philosophy, his belief that poetry was for the masses, not the hoarded treasure of the academics, led to his publishing in newspapers many of the poems contained in Landscapes of Living and Dying (1979). In his continuing search for a voice that would bring more people back to poetry, many of the poems include references to pop culture in their imagery.
The critical response to Ferlinghetti's work has been mixed, even within the individual reviews of some critics. In a generally favorable review, John William Corrington describes Ferlinghetti's poetry thus: "… one finds a consistent and subtly developed sense of form based not upon rhetorical devices or repetition, but on the analogies between poetry and painting; on the correspondences between written and graphic style; on the metaphorical and actual unity between major art forms." The poems, he says later, "… function as artifacts to be experienced, to be seen, rather than as verbal cognates for ideas impacted within them." Later in the review, describing Poem I from Pictures of the Gone World, Corrington says, "It is a paean to woman, to unconscious sexuality, to the art of artlessness—but as a vehicle of idea (in the sense, say, that 'Dover Beach' is a vehicle for Matthew Arnold's concepts) the poem would appear insignificant." In Poem 5, Corrington sees a metaphor for Ferlinghetti's poetry: "This figure who has no mouth, who cannot tell, but must show his meaning, is representative of the painter—and, by logical extension, of the poet as well—…." Many critics focus on the visual nature of Ferlinghetti's poetry. James A. Butler describes Ferlinghetti's work as "projective verse," which he defines in the following way: "The syllable, not the foot or meter, is the building block of poetry. The syllables thus do not combine into a foot, but into a line … Meter and rhyme are therefore unimportant in the line length; the line is determined by those places in which the poet takes, and wants the reader to take, a breath." In Ferlinghetti's first novel, Her, themes which recur in most of his major works are already present. Mankind, in Ferlinghetti's world view, is fundamentally self-divided by disunity and limited perception. Gregory Stephenson writes that, "Ferlinghetti's art evolves out of his desire to communicate this vision and to uphold and advocate the cause of unity against disunity, love against power." Ferlinghetti experimented with various ways of communicating this vision, and getting his message to a wider audience. In addition to the poetry readings with jazz accompaniment, he incorporated phrases from other literary works and pop culture images into his poetry. While some critics felt these tactics were effective, others felt it was symptomatic of a lack of invention. Michael Leddy, commenting on the poems of Wild Dreams of a New Beginning, wrote that "Ferlinghetti seems the poetic equivalent of the jazz soloist who, for want of invention, quotes fragments of well-known songs, hoping that the audience will be content to congratulate itself on recognizing the sources." Other critics saw the everyday images in Ferlinghetti's poems as central to his message. Gregory Stephenson, incorporating quotes from "The Great Chinese Dragon" from the collection Starting from San Francisco, says the dragon "… represents 'the force and mystery of life,' the true sight that 'sees the spiritual everywhere translucent in the material world.'" Perhaps what Ferlinghetti wants his reader to do is to see the jazz music and the everyday images and the repetitive references to common culture found in his poems; and then see beyond them to "the spiritual everywhere translucent."
SOURCE: "Ferlinghetti: Dirty Old Man?," in Renascence, Vol. 8, Spring 1966, pp. 115-23.
[After an analysis of Ferlinghetti's style and subject matter, Butler suggests that Ferlinghetti has the talent and vision to rise above the restrictive label of "beat poet" and become a more "universal" poet.]
The public first began to suspect Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a dirty old man in 1955, when he published through his own City Lights Press his poetic Pictures of the Gone World. This first volume identified Ferlinghetti with the "Beat Generation Poets"—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and others—none of whom a girl could comfortably bring home to meet the family. The public's dirty-old-man suspicions were heightened when Ferlinghetti was tried in a 1957 obscenity case for publishing Ginsberg's "Howl." Finally, Ferlinghetti's fame for filthiness was assured by a 1965 Time article describing a "happening" at the American Students and Artists Center in Montparnasse: "Beat Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti intoned his latest work while a naked couple made love vertically in a burlap bag, black light playing on their shoulders."
It is tempting to merely categorize Ferlinghetti as a bush-league sick poet of a sick poetic movement, but several factors make this poet worthy of consideration. His major work, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), is now in its twelfth printing and has sold 130,000 copies to rank near the top of contemporary poetic best-sellers. In addition, Coney Island was received as "highly readable and often very funny" by The New York Times and as having "something of the importance 'The Waste Land' had in 1922," (Library Journal). Finally, if a man may be known by the company he keeps, it is significant that the 1965 Spoleto Festival of Two Worlds presented poetry readings by Russia's Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Stephen Spender, Ezra Pound, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
In the light of Ferlinghetti's popularity, it is necessary for the critic to determine whether the poet is a best-selling one because of his somewhat scandalous vocabulary and somewhat more scandalous activities, or whether there is intrinsic value in the poetry. The method of this paper is to first develop an evolving understanding of the poetic devices of Ferlinghetti by examining selected instances. The poet's philosophy of a "street poetry" will next be discussed to determine whether Ferlinghetti accomplishes his end. After the above considerations, an attempt will be made to reconcile the dirty old man and the poet.
The first Ferlinghetti poem to be analyzed is from Coney Island (No. 25):
Cast up the heart flops over gasping 'Love' a foolish fish which tries to draw its breath from flesh of air And no one there to hear its death among the sad bushes where the world rushes by in a blather of asphalt and delay
Perhaps the first thing that strikes the reader in the above poem by Ferlinghetti is the absence of traditional poetic devices: rhyme, meter, uniform left-hand margin. Ferlinghetti's free verse is, of course, indebted to such prosodic pioneers as Walt Whitman and especially William Carlos Williams:
IT IS MYSELF, not the poor beast lying there yelping with pain that brings me to myself with a start— as at the explosion of a bomb, a bomb that has laid all the world waste, "To a Dog Injured in the Street" (W. C. Williams)
In addition to being influenced by Williams' free verse, Ferlinghetti also shows in other poems that he has absorbed some of the visual effects of Williams; e.g., the line visually accentuating the meaning:
And the way the bell-hop runs downstairs: ta tuck a ta tuck a ta tuck a ta tuck a ta tuck a (Paterson—W. C. Williams)
like a ball bounced down steps (Coney Island, No. 22)
But these influences on Ferlinghetti's prosody, although important, are not dominant; it is rather the "Projective Verse" of Charles Olson that has not only influenced Ferlinghetti, but has become the new poetics of the new poetry.
Charles Olson's "Projective Verse" first appeared in Poetry New York of November 3, 1950. Summary of this complex essay is difficult, but basically Olson says that "form is never more than an extension of content." The syllable, not the foot or meter, is the building block of poetry. The syllables thus do not combine into a foot, but into a line. The length of this line comes only from "the breathing of the man who writes at the moment he writes." Meter and rhyme are therefore unimportant in the line length; the line is determined by those places in which the poet takes, and wants the reader to take, a breath. Ferlinghetti has much the same philosophy of sound:
The printing press has made poetry so silent that we've forgotten the power of poetry as oral messages. The sound of the streetsinger and the Salvation Army speaker is not to be scorned….
The application of the "projective verse" theory is evident in the first poem selected for analysis. The breathing stops are so placed as to emphasize various lines. The first line, for example, "Cast up," receives very strong stress from the breath taken both before and after. Other short lines also receive stress through breathing: "gasping 'Love'," and "among the sad bushes." On the other hand, the longer lines pound quickly, partly because of the strong, regular, iambic rhythm and partly because of the harsh, spitting t's, b's, d's and f's:
a foolish fish which tries to draw its breath from flesh of air
Throughout the poem, the line length and breathing are not used randomly as may first appear, but to accentuate the meaning.
Ferlinghetti does not, in spite of unconventional metrics, operate independently of poetic tradition. His entire poem is, of course, a metaphor comparing a fish out of water with a heart in love. The lines quoted immediately above represent a highly sophisticated use of metaphor: a heart in love that tries to exist from flesh is as helpless as a fish gasping for air. On the audio level, Ferlinghetti in this poem shows his competence at matching sound and meaning. One example of this skill is the explosive sounds (t's, b's, d's, and f's) used in the line above which through the explosion of sound, then unstressed syllable, then another explosion suggest breathlessness and gasping for air. "Gasping" in 1.3 is in itself onomatopoetic. The only true rhyme in the poem, the feminine rhyme of bushes and rushes, draws our attention to the pun on the meaning of rushes as plants. Finally, the last line plays with the a sound in a manner reminiscent of the slant rhymes of Yeats, Auden, Thomas, and Owen. The a's are all short vowels and move quickly to suggest the speed of which the poet speaks until the last, long a of "delay" slows the tempo:
in a blather of asphalt and delay.
We have seen in this poem how Ferlinghetti works with a modern prosody based on Whitman, Williams, and Olson. The poet is, in addition, a master of audio effects and in matching sound and meaning. Ferlinghetti also seems to delight in the pun by deliberately drawing attention to it. The following poem (Coney Island—No. 14) should reinforce those conclusions and add others:
Don't let that horse eat that violin cried Chagall's mother But he kept right on painting And became famous And kept on painting The Horse With Violin In Mouth And when he finally finished it he jumped up upon the horse and rode away waving the violin And then with a low bow gave it to the first naked nude he ran across And there were no strings attached
Here Ferlinghetti is seen in a more playful vein than in the previous selection. The projective verse is again used for startling emphasis; e.g. "painting" in 1.6 and "attached" in 1.17. But the onomatopoetic use of syllable is not as prominent in this more humorous offering. The lines are kept quick-moving—in accordance with the light tone of the poem—by a majority of short vowels and short lines.
The reference by Ferlinghetti to something such as Chagall's "The Horse With Violin in Mouth" is typical of the poet. Much of Ferlinghetti's work is predicated on the reader's familiarity with culture, both past and present. In the twentynine short poems of Coney Island of the Mind, the poet refers, directly or indirectly, to Goya, Cervantes, Thoreau, Keats, T. S. Eliot, Hieronymous Bosch, Dante, Kafka, Longfellow, Stockton ("The Lady or the Tiger?"), Cellini, Picasso, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Proust, Lorca, Nichols (Abie's Irish Rose), Tolstoy, Freud, and Joyce. Sometimes the entire meaning of a Ferlinghetti poem is based on the reader's ability to recognize a famous line out of context, e.g., Keats' "silent upon a peak in Darien." Obviously, this heavy reliance on cultural allusions somewhat limits Ferlinghetti's audience and will have major implications in regard to his "street poetry."
Ferlinghetti has a strong sense of humor as is evident both in this poem and in several others, notably one which describes the secular excitement of the erecting of a Saint Francis statue, with all the reporters and workers and Italians, "while no birds sang." In the Chagall poem, Ferlinghetti relies on the pun for humorous effect: "bow" meaning both a violin's bow and a bending of the body; "ran across" meaning both run under the horse's hooves and met in passing; and, "no strings attached" referring to the violin and to a gift. The linking of two synonymous words to create an enhanced meaning is also a favorite Ferlinghetti trick. In this poem, he uses "naked nude" for double emphasis; elsewhere he employs such figures as "sperm seed." By such puns and double emphases, Ferlinghetti is clearly trying to combat American semiliteracy, where all read but few stop to understand. Another method this poet uses to stop the reader in his tracks and make him go back to think is the twisting of a familiar saying so that it sounds much the same but means far more. Of several dozen examples, representative effects of this kind include the following: drugged store cowboys; cinemad matrons; unroman senators; conscientious non-objectors; [Christ hanging on the cross] looking real Petered out; My country tears of thee; I hear America singing / in the yellow pages; televised Wise Men / praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey; [Santa Claus] bearing sacks of Humble Gifts from Saks Fifth Avenue.
This second poem thus clearly reveals two more characteristics of Ferlinghetti's work: 1) The poet is heavily dependent on cultural allusions; and, 2) the poet attempts his humorous effects through puns, double emphasis, and changed clichés.
The following poem will be the last considered before turning to an analysis of Ferlinghetti's "street poetry" and an overall evaluation of the poet.
Constantly risking absurdity and death whenever he performs above the heads of his audience the poet like an acrobat climbs on rime to a high wire of his own making and balancing on eyebeams above a sea of faces paces his way to the other side of day performing entrechats and sleight-of-foot tricks and other high theatrics and all without mistaking any thing for what it may not be For he's the super realist who must perforce perceive taut truth before the taking of each stance or step in his supposed advance toward that still higher perch where Beauty stands and waits with gravity to start her death-defying leap And he and a little charleychaplin man who may or may not catch her fair eternal form spreadeagled in the empty air of existence (Coney Island—No. 15)
Like many of Ferlinghetti's poems, this one shows an eye for the commonplace. Elsewhere he speaks of "The penny candy store beyond the El / … jelly beans … / and tootsie rolls / and Oh Boy Gum," but here he compares a poet and a trapeze artist. Much of the skill of the poem is in this comparison as a detailed prose retelling should demonstrate.
The poem begins with the statement that the poet, like the acrobat, risks absurdity and death "whenever he performs / above the heads / of his audience" (italics mine). The acrobat risks actual death because he is performing at a great height from the ground, while the poet risks literary death when he writes at a higher intellectual level than that to which his audience is accustomed. Like the acrobat, the poet climbs to the high wire to perform, but the poet climbs on rhyme. In his performance, the acrobat balances on steel Ibeams, but also figuratively on the "eyebeams" of the spectators below. The poet also performs before eyebeams, the eyebeams of those reading his poems. Both the acrobat and poet do "sleight-of-foot tricks": the acrobat walking the high wire and the poet dealing with another kind of foot—iambic, trochaic, etc. The "high theatrics" of the acrobat are literally high above the ground, but the poet's actions are figuratively "high theatrics." Both the acrobat and the poet must, of necessity, perceive "taut truth" for if the acrobat's wire is not truly taut, he will fall; and if the poet does not see tightly-drawn truth, he will not succeed. This "taut truth" is necessary before the acrobat takes his "stance" (mode of standing) and before the poet takes his "stance" (intellectual or emotional attitude). The comparison continues with the acrobat waiting to catch his leaping female partner in that traditional trick of the high wire, while the poet tries to catch not a beautiful girl, but Beauty itself. Both the girl and Beauty jump and may or may not be caught by the acrobat and poet.
The mechanics of this poem again admirably enhance the meaning. The projective verse is used for heavy emphasis at crucial points (taut truth) and to visually and vocally correspond to the sense of the words:
where Beauty stands and waits with gravity to start her death-defying leap
In these lines, the spacing suggests a sudden drop and, in addition, the excitement of the last line is metrically shown by increased speed since it is a long line coming after a shorter one. Although the metaphors of the poem are all well made, perhaps the best is the picture of the poet trying to catch Beauty as "a little charleychaplin man". This metaphor conveys the perfect picture of a man—hands at his sides and a deadpan expression on his face—running helplessly in circles. In this poem, Ferlinghetti caught Beauty.
With some idea of Ferlinghetti's characteristics in mind, the philosophy of the poet will now be considered in order to determine whether he reaches his personally-set goals. This philosophy was quoted in Poetry of November, 1958:
I have been working toward a kind of street poetry … to get poetry out of the inner esthetic sanctum and out of the classroom into the street. The poet has been contemplating his navel too long, while the world walks by. The printing press has made poetry so silent that we've forgotten the power of poetry as oral messages. The sound of the street-singer and the Salvation Army speaker is not to be scorned….
In evaluating Ferlinghetti's success, or lack of it, with poetry for all, three characteristics of "street poetry" should be considered. First, poetry for all the people should be lively, rhythmic, and iterative. The advertising jingle would be an example of those traits, as would Vachel Lindsay's successful "popular poetry":
Booth led boldly with his big bass drum— (Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?) The Saints smiled gravely and they said: "He's come." (Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
Second, popular poetry should be narrative as in the ballad or in Lindsay's poem narrating General Booth entering heaven. Third, poetry for all should contain allusions familiar to nearly all.
Consideration of Ferlinghetti's poetry in regard to those three points shows definitely that his lines are not "street poetry." In the first place, Ferlinghetti's poetry is mostly tuneless, arhythmic, and hard to remember. Without the printing press, the heavy beat, repetitiveness, and alliteration of Lindsay's lines would make them easy to remember. In contrast, the following lines by Ferlinghetti offer little aid to memorization and are hardly likely to be on the tip of everyone's tongue:
We squat upon the beach of love among Picasso mandolins struck full of sand and buried catspaws that know no sphinx and picnic papers dead crabs' claws and starfish prints (Coney Island—No. 24)
Secondly, few of Ferlinghetti's poems have a narrative content, as the representative poems selected for analysis show. In regard to the third requirement—familiar allusions—the twenty literary and artistic references mentioned above of this paper are allusions generally specialized to the more widely-read of the populace. Indeed, if an entire poem hangs on a line from Keats or a reference to Kafka, it is not a "street poem."
There is one other trait sometimes found in popular poetry—the erotic—that leads to the consideration of Ferlinghetti as a dirty old man. As might be expected of a dirty old man, Ferlinghetti places prominently last in Coney Island a poem that maintains, in a style and vocabulary similar to the conclusion of Ulysses, that all is sex and sex is all. Nevertheless, the reputation of Ferlinghetti as an erotic poet is exaggerated—only five of the twenty-nine poems of Coney Island have sexual themes. In spite of such description of himself as "the poet obscenely seeing," Ferlinghetti's poems do not show as a dominant trait the ribaldness that to many seems to characterize his personal life.
Turning from the dirty old man to the poet, the poems selected for analysis show that there is great intrinsic value in Mr. Ferlinghetti's lines. The poem containing the dying fish—love metaphor, for example, demonstrates the poet's capabilities with a free verse inherited from Whitman, Williams, and Olson, in addition to a stunning use of metaphor and a skillful matching of sound and meaning. On the other hand, the Chagall poem shows Ferlinghetti's humor and punning both to be delightful, without becoming strained. In the acrobat-poet poem, Ferlinghetti creates a tour de force in metaphor.
Thus Ferlinghetti is both dirty old man and poet. But the poet is far too gifted to let himself be dominated or destroyed by the dirty old man. The time has come for Ferlinghetti to abandon his "beat" themes and his "beat" vocabulary: "square-type, cool, king-cat," etc. A Coney Island of the Mind should be remembered as the early work of an excellent and universal poet and not as the best work of a "beat poet." The poet once wrote:
I am a social climber climbing downward and the descent is difficult
The ascent into excellence is too near for Ferlinghetti to climb downward into that morass populated by dirty old men and "beat poets."
Pictures of the Gone World (poetry) 1955Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower (poetry) 1958A Coney Island of the Mind (poetry) 1958Her (novel) 1960Berlin (poetry) 1961Starting from San Francisco (poetry) 1961Unfair Arguments with Existence (plays) 1963Routines (play) 1964To Fuck Is to Love Again (poetry) 1965After the Cries of the Birds (poetry) 1967An Eye on the World: Selected Poems (poetry) 1967The Secret Meaning of Things (poetry) 1969Tyrannus Nix? (poetry) 1969Love Is No Stone on the Moon (poetry) 1971Back Roads to Far Places (poetry) 1972Open Eye, Open Heart (poetry) 1973Who Are We Now? (poetry) 1976Landscapes of Living and Dying (poetry) 1979Endless Life (poetry) 1981Wild Dreams of a New Beginning (poetry) 1988Love in the Days of Rage (novel) 1988These Are My Rivers (poetry) 1993
SOURCE: "Fiction in Brief," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 4, 1988, p. 4.
[In the following review, Raksin provides a plot summary and critique of the novel Love in the Days of Rage.]
The author is perhaps best known as the poet laureate of Beat counterculture—co-founder of City Lights Bookstore and Press in San Francisco, inspiration to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac—but it is his sensitivity as a painter that is most apparent in this original, intense novel. Like a good visual artist, Ferlinghetti plays with light in these pages, contrasting the bright "masculine" daytime world—society, business and politics—with the feminine night, a haven of sensuousness and introspection. A love affair between Annie and Julian, set against Paris' "old, pearly gray light," represents the night. The day appears only in retrospect, as Julian and Annie reflect on their struggles to come to terms with the turmoil of their time, 1968.
Annie, an expatriate, Expressionist painter from New York City, tries in her work to "breathe life again" into the landscapes of the destroyed streets of the Lower East Side" and to make sense of the "harsh, 'big sky' light of America … that left no place to find one's private self." Julian, in turn, constantly talks of rebelling against his job as a banking executive: "The bourgeois mentality itself," he tells Annie, "is the real enemy."
Annie is the first to resolve her conflict, abandoning her efforts to make sense of the larger world through Expressionism and taking up an art she finds more human and meaningful, figurative painting. Julian lags behind her, warring against the daytime world by blowing up valuable security receipts he has stolen from his bank. Ferlinghetti gives us the sense that Julian will come around, though, when Julian's close friend and partner in the heist tells Annie that their activism is made up of "nothing, more than obsessions, obsessions of the tribe! Just like primitive tribes sticking pins into their totems to kill their enemies!… So what then, if thought itself is the destroyer—if thought itself divides us up into hate groups and sets us killing each other, over and over, century after century?"
Ferlinghetti's answer—we should follow our heart, even though it is only "another involuntary muscle"—reminds us that an artist's place is with nature, not above it. He brings this theme home in a concluding scene where Annie visits the country to meet Julian in a safe house after the bombing, and "lies down in the hot grasses, with the flesh that was one with hers … in that gold field at the end of time, where all beings breathed as one."
SOURCE: "Passionate Spring," in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Fall 1988, p. 44.
[Burnson provides a plot summary and favorable review of Love in the Days of Rage.]
When the streets of Paris erupted with student demonstrations twenty years ago, San Francisco poet / publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti began jotting down notes in his expatriate's journal which recorded the events as a painter might view them—impressionistically. It comes as small surprise, then, to observe that his novella should move at the same painterly, unmannered pace. Love in the Days of Rage challenges the reader on several stylistic levels as it attempts to mirror the anarchistic uprising of '68 which briefly united intellectuals, artists, and proletariats in common cause. It's an uneven ride, at times maddeningly confused, but noble in intent and final effect.
Our lovers are mature, yet unconventional. Annie is the forty-year-old daughter of New York "old lefties" who has abandoned political commitment in the Lower East Side to teach and study art abroad. Julian Mendes, the fifty-five-year-old Parisian bank executive she meets in the Café Malbillon, seems to her initially as the very model of bourgeois respectability. The physical attraction proves irresistible, though, and once they become better acquainted, Annie discovers that her suitor is a man of rare political passion who plans to act—and act decisively—upon his beliefs in the wake of spring's rebellion.
As a young man living in Portugal, Julian developed his anarchist principles in response to the repressive regime of Antonio Salazar, whose secret police "disappeared" countless numbers of free-thinking opponents: "Every cliché about dictatorships was truer for Portugal than anywhere else," Julian contends. "But no matter how absolute power is, there's always some corner holding out, silently, secretly, refusing to conform…."
The rhetoric falls upon deaf ears, however. For Annie, painting is a vocation unfettered by political concern; only when her sinecure as a Sorbonne instructor is threatened does she awaken to the urgency of student revolt and the anthem "Imagination au Pouvoir!" Her radicalism is fueled by the brutality of club-wielding gendarmerie defending the barricades. By the time Julian reveals himself to be of even more subversive bent than first perceived, she prepares for an adventure predicated on pure devotion to the man and the cause he champions.
It is here that this slender work of fiction begins to depart from conventional narrative form and takes on the more lyrical prose of the author's first novel, Her. Ferlinghetti, the painter, takes charge at this point, covering his canvas with imagery freighted with inchoate suspense and misty intrigue. Once embarked on the revolutionary path, the lovers are destined to remain "fugitives in an absurd fugitive dream."
In France a bavure is a hitch, a foul-up, notably by officials or police so common that a smooth operation is referred to as "sans bavure." Without disclosing the climax to this inventive plot, let us assuredly state that what Ferlinghetti has achieved is remarkably hitchless and honest.
Jacobson, Dan, "America's 'Angry Young Men,'" Commentary 24, No. 6 (December 1957): 475-9.
A critical survey of the writing of several writers from the Beat movement.
Schwartz, Stephen, "Escapees in paradise: literary life in San Francisco," New Criterion 4, No. 4 (December 1985): 1-5.
Schwartz argues that the Beat movement is highly overrated and more dogmatic than intellectual.
SOURCE: A review of Wild Dreams of a New Beginning, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 4, Autumn 1989, pp. 683-84.
[In the following review, Leddy criticizes the poetry collection Wild Dreams of a New Beginning for being derivative and unimaginative.]
Wild Dreams of a New Beginning reprints the volumes Who Are We Now? (1976) and Landscapes of Living & Dying (1979). Ferlinghetti's concerns in the poems are as timely now as then. "This must be the end of something / the last days of somebody's empire," he writes in "Director of Alienation," and the poems deal largely with cultural, ecological, and political apocalypse. An occasional piece works well to convey these concerns—e.g., "Seascape with Sun & Eagle" or "Reading Apollinaire by the Rogue River." Typically, though, the poems are a matter of predictable mannerisms: parallelism and repetition, sudden outbreaks of rhythm and rhyme and alliteration, intrusive puns, and countless allusions that are little more than clichéd quotations sprinkled about the poems: "alien corn," "darkling plain." Ferlinghetti seems the poetic equivalent of the jazz soloist who, for want of invention, quotes fragments of well-known songs, hoping that the audience will be content to congratulate itself on recognizing the sources.
What is particularly unfortunate in many of the selections is the poet's reductive perspective on humankind, an inability, reminiscent of Charles Bukowski, to imagine depth and intelligence in other people's lives. Ferlinghetti picks easy satiric targets—"two made-up ladies in fancy hair-dos & / doubleknit pants suits"—and amuses himself making up grotesque life stories for them ("Holiday Inn Blues"). Elsewhere he dismisses "the people" in "A Nation of Sheep": "I look down and see the fine grass roots / the people and cows and pigs / rooting and rutting and dying / feeding and breeding— / Dumb beasts all!" Ferlinghetti is capable too of a mawkishness again reminiscent of Bukowski, addressing the words "Te amo" (aloud? silently?) to a listener at a reading ("A Meeting of Eyes in Mexico") and finding existential anguish in the motions of a bee: "The door was open and he knew it / and flew in for a moment / and then flew back / away from his community / Something had alienated him" ("Alienation: Two Bees").
As the author of A Coney Island of the Mind and the publisher of City Lights Books, Ferlinghetti commands my respect. I regret that the poems of Wild Dreams of a New Beginning rarely offer compelling imaginative visions.
SOURCE: "The 'Spiritual Optics' of Lawrence Ferlinghetti," in The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, pp. 139-153.
[In the following essay, Stephenson describes the visual imagery recurring in several of Ferlinghetti's poems and plays, and in the novel, Her. He suggests that Ferlinghetti believes man to be fragmented by the opposing forces of love and power.]
The Sun's Light when he unfolds it Depends on the Organ that beholds it. "What is Man?"—William Blake
The Eye of man a little narrow orb, clos'd up & dark, scarcely beholding the great light, conversing with the Void. "Milton"—William Blake
I remember clearly that what impressed me and attracted me in the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, when I first read it as an adolescent twenty-five years ago, was its quality of mystery. By mystery I do not mean obscurity or hermeticism nor do I mean mystification, but rather, that magical, mythic, secret, and visionary power at the heart of the work of certain poets, that property that causes a poem to resonate so deeply in the mind of the reader. I continue to respond to that mystery in Ferlinghetti's work whenever I read or re-read it, and for that reason I want to consider his writing with close attention, not to explain the mystery but to approach it, to honor it.
My procedure is simply to follow what I see as the inner continuity of concerns in Ferlinghetti's writing, the correlations of thought and of emotion and of image within and among the works and to trace elements of the whole design as I perceive them.
As I read it, the work of Lawrence Ferlinghetti proposes what I call (borrowing the phrase from the title of an essay by Thomas Carlyle) a "Spiritual Optics," that is, a way of being and seeing, a mode of identity and vision. Ferlinghetti's writing embodies a myth or metaphysic which conceives an original unity of being from which human consciousness, individual and generic, has fallen. The fallen state is one of division and conflict where the mind struggles toward reconciliation and reunification with original being. The impulse toward reunification involves a twofold, interrelated process in each human psyche: the integration of the fragmented, fallen consciousness into a unity; and the reconciliation of subject and object, of ego and non-ego, in the communion of creative perception.
The development and definition of this "spiritual optics" is the central problem of Ferlinghetti's poetry, prose, and dramatic work. In the following I want to examine this double theme and to consider its evolution in his writing, with particular attention to his prose narrative Her, which represents a grammar of the premises and concerns of his work.
Her is an interior monologue narrated by Andy Raffine, an American painter living in Paris. In the opening paragraphs of the story, Raffine characterizes his psychic situation in terms of "a transaction with myself" and "a battle with the image." These two elements of his problem are mutually reflexive. The first, the "transaction," is a quest for identity, a search for the whole or completed self, which he images as a sexual union. And the second element, the "battle," is a quest for vision, for a true perception of existence, a perception beyond habit and preconception, beyond subjectivity and objectivity. The state of being and seeing in which he hopes to unite the masculine and feminine aspects of the self, unite subject and object in vision, he calls "the fourth person singular."
Raffine has a sense of an original, true, whole identity experienced in childhood and shattered when he was orphaned at an early age. He views himself as fallen and fragmented, continually seeking to refine and refind himself. He also sees his situation as a microcosm of the human condition, that we are "all of us, all splintered parts of the same whole." In Raffine's view everyone, whether consciously or unconsciously, is engaged in a quest "searching for something all had lost," a condition of original human unity that is now "a lost community … a far country" from which we are exiled.
Accordingly, the world in which we live, the fallen world, is divided into the forces of redemption and liberation that would restore humankind to unity and the forces of repression and oppression that, perhaps unknowingly, enforce alienation and divisiveness. Poetry, music, visual art, eroticism, affection, ecstasy, compassion, beauty, communication, and love represent the reintegrative principles. Egotism, power, authority, dogma—as embodied by the military, the police, the clergy, the customs authorities, and others and as reflected in "regulations and protocols and codes and restrictions and taboos and constitutions and traffic regulations and accepted maxims and venerated proverbs"—represent the principles of conflict, impediment, and disunity.
Raffine is, potentially, a redemptive, regenerative figure who could, through his life and art, help to bring about "the true Liberation" ending "the prolonged Occupation of the world." He could articulate the "final, irreducible secret" in paint, catalyze "the long overdue millennium of art and life." Raffine is represented as a sort of Fisher King figure and is associated with fish imagery throughout the text ("the fishy king none other than myself, my name a brand of canned salt fish." He is sexually wounded, pursuing a female Grail in the figure of "Her."
Raffine's sexual wound is not physical but mental. It consists of his view of women as either virginal-maternal or as insatiable devourers. This fixation prevents him from consummating a sexual union. Repeatedly, at crucial moments of erotic encounter he fails, held back in fear by his illusions, abstractions, preconceptions, never learning to use "the one true key of love that could unlock all the doors."
Similarly, Raffine fails continually in his art; his "orgasm" in paint is checked by an inevitable return to habit and cliché. He is unable to "break away into the free air of underivative creation" and is frustrated in his attempts to "enact the new."
Both Raffine's sexual and artistic failures are extensions of his essential failure to achieve identity and vision, a failure which ultimately results in his death.
Raffine's quest for identity and vision closely parallels the process of individuation as described by Carl Jung involving encounters with shadow and anima.
According to Jungian psychology, the shadow is a projection or personification of "the hidden, repressed and unfavorable (or nefarious) aspects of the personality." The shadow is not altogether negative though; it also possesses creative qualities and virtues, "values that are needed by consciousness," including "even the most valuable and highest forces."
Raffine's shadow in Her is Lubin, waiter at the Café Mabillon. Lubin is an ambiguous figure, whose face is "two masks, a mask of comedy superimposed on one of tragedy," whose jaw "was meant to cup a violin, or to clench a bone." Ferlinghetti compares him both to "a great bird of prey" and to "a great shy dog." Lubin is at once vulgar and wise, ragged and elegant, blasphemous and reverent. (There is a close resemblance, deliberate on the part of the author, between Lubin and Dr. Matthew O'Connor of Djuna Barnes' novel Nightwood.)
A drunkard and a debauchee, Lubin serves as confessor and counselor to the naive and idealistic Raffine. The identification between the two figures exists in both a paternal relationship (Lubin describes himself to Raffine as "your wandered father") and a twin relationship (doppelgënger, alter egos, opposite and complementary). To Lubin, Raffine is "my own past," while he sees himself as "the billous tagend of your future" and in memory as "an earlier Andy Raffine." Lubin's most important function is to disabuse Raffine of his notions concerning the virginity of "Her" and to serve as a mediator between Raffine and "Her." Lubin foresees disaster for Raffine, but his counsels and warnings to him are unheeded.
The second stage of the individuation process, according to Jungian psychology, "is characterized by the encounter with the soul image,… the complementary contrasexual part of the psyche"—for the male, the anima. The anima may manifest itself in a variety of forms including "a sweet young maiden, a goddess, a witch, an angel, a demon, a beggar woman, a whore, a devoted companion, an Amazon, etc." Andy Raffine's anima takes the form of most of the named figures above, constantly metamorphosing. Like the shadow, the anima has two aspects, benevolent and malefic. In its sublime aspect the anima is often "fused with the figure of the Virgin," while in its infernal aspect it often presents itself in the figure of the femme fatale or a witch.
Raffine's search for his anima is rooted in his childhood experience of the death of his mother, thus his insistence on purity and virginity. Another recurring virginal figure of Raffine's anima is "a little girl with a hoop in a dirdnl dress," whose piece of white string that is "as purely white as innocence itself" becomes defiled by mud. These two images are inhibitory, obstructive, and finally destructive for him. During the most critical sexual encounter of the book, his failure is attributable to his fixation with such virginal purity, for the involuntarily recalls "that first face" and notices a soiled piece of white string on the floor beside the bed. The ultimate symbol of the manifestation of the maternal-virginal aspect of Raffine's anima is the statue of the Virgin on the cathedral Notre Dame, between whose breasts he climbs before falling, figuratively "tangled up and trussed" in string, to his death.
The baleful aspect of Raffine's anima is the concept of woman as the emasculator, the insatiable whore, the devourer. Raffine views women in terms of female archetypes such as the Sirens, exhausting helpless men "in perpetual orgasm"; the Mona Lisa, "that eternal dame having just eaten her husband, note the famous enigmatic smile of containment if not contentment"; Salome, "she wants more than my head she wants my body on a spit"; the Queen Bee, "no sooner is the union completed than my abdomen opens and my organ detaches itself"; and the ominous old crone flowerseller who reappears throughout the book, with her mad, raucous laugh, reminiscent of the "layer-out" figure of Robert Graves' Triple Goddess.
Raffine fails to integrate and reconcile the positive and negative qualities of his anima, fails to balance or direct the energy. In consequence, both aspects are destructive to him and result ultimately in his death. His failure is most apparent during the central romantic-erotic encounter of the story which takes place in Rome.
Raffine travels to Rome in a desperate endeavor to flee his "half-life" and to seek to achieve genuine identity and perception. He attempts to "see without the old associational turning eye that turns all it sees into its own." Two brief unconsumated erotic encounters (one with a prostitute, the other with an Italian peasant girl) convince him of the necessity of liberating his psyche from his abstractions and preconceptions concerning women. He characterizes the restrictive grip of these habits of mind as a bird perched inside his head: "the crazy sad bird I carried in my head as the idea of woman … the parrot of love who kept repeating all the phrases and phases of it." His quest culminates in an involvement with an American girl in a hotel in Rome. Raffine vows to himself that he will avoid all the old patterns and associations and "this time begin with the real and stick to it." And, for a time, he succeeds: "Instead of a hazy image out of somebody else's painting or out of my own, I saw the girl in sharp outline, a clear incisive line…." But as they are about to make love, Raffine realizes that they remain "anonymous bodies" to each other, each imposing a pattern upon or evoking an image from the other. Raffine cannot escape the imprint of his early experiences, the memory of his mother, his fixation with purity. They do not make love, do not comfort, warm, or awaken each other, do not save each other. Raffine recognizes that he remains on the "carrousel" of unauthentic identity and perception, revolving continually through the same experiences, never able to grab the brass ring of true selfhood and vision.
Still blindly and desperately seeking a union with the feminine to complete his "transaction" with himself, Raffine returns to Paris. There he ascends the cathedral Notre Dame by means of a scaffolding, embraces the statue of the Virgin, and falls to his death. Raffine's final, fatal fall is, like Finnegan's, a reenactment of the Fall of Man—"a falling away through a failure of contact through a failure of life." The events of the story have taken place during the Lenten season, during Passion Week, and Raffine dies on Good Friday, a parody Christ, "a Friday fish to hand upon the old hook," an unhealed, unredeeming Fisher King who has lost his "battle with the image."
The final images of the narrative may, however, indicate a felix culpa, or fortunate fall, a redemption in death for Andy Raffine: "God grips the genitals to catch illusionary me … he plays the deepsea catch he reels me in O god." There is an echo here of a phrase of Lubin's: "The hand that grips the genitals, love plays the deepsea catch …" which is later recalled and expanded by Raffine, "Love plays the deepsea catch, it's love will reel it in…." Raffine is identified with fish both by means of his name, "a brand of canned salt fish," and by means of recurring fish imagery: "fished up … Fishface … swimming … fisheyed" and again, "my sardine can alack … a fart of a fish … my sardine boat … your fishy fellow." Thus, Raffine becomes "the deepsea catch" that is "played" throughout the book to be reeled in by God or by love in the end. Ferlinghetti employs a pun (a frequent device in Her), perhaps a double pun, involving the use of the word reel. Aside from its surface contextual meaning of being drawn in as a fish on a line, it may also refer to the image of "the unwinding reel" of cinematic film that Raffine uses as a metaphor for his life and his identity, a film projected frame by frame and then recoiled. In the meeting of the two metaphors, fish and film, there may be another meaning created, a sound pun, a homophone. Raffine is not only reeled in (like a fish or a film) but, perhaps also, realed in as well; that is to say, reeled into the real. In this case, Raffine's final exclamation, "O god," may be understood not as a cry of despair but as an affirmation. He may, in death, have achieved the fourth person singular.
Her is a complex, resonant work whose themes are developed through recurring images and associations. There are paired opposites such as blindness/sight, key/lock, obesity/Lent, climbing/falling, virginity/licentiousness, sleeping/waking; and there are associative pairs or clusters such as shadow/haze/dusk/fog (suggestive of ordinary perception, that is, cliché, habit) and gramophone/film reel/carrousel (suggestive of the endlessly repetitive nature of ordinary perception and experience). In addition there are multivalent images such as string, fish, bird, film reel, door, statue, flowers, mirror, window, flushing toilets. Puns and literary allusions are frequent in the text.
Her represents the myth or metaphysic of Ferlinghetti's writing, the cosmography of his poetic imagination. His view of existence has much in common with that of the English romantic poets, particularly William Blake, but it is nonetheless distinctively and uniquely that of the author himself. According to Ferlinghetti's myth, human beings are fallen (from unity to disunity, from true perception to false and limited perception) and are, as a consequence of their fall, self-divided. Their inner divisions are reflected in the world they create that is divided between power and love. Authentic (or visionary) perception and authentic being (which in combination, constitute what I have named a "spiritual optics") are the means by which unified human identity may be regained and a return to the prelapsarian world accomplished. Ferlinghetti's art evolves out of his desire to communicate this vision and to uphold and advocate the cause of unity against disunity, love against power. Thus, the theme of vision and the absence of vision is, in its various aspects and applications, central to virtually all of Ferlinghetti's writing.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's dramatic pieces, collected in Unfair Arguments with Existence and Routines, are extensions and expansions of the central myth articulated in Her. There is a particularly close relationship between Her and the play The Soldiers of No Country where the characters of Denny, Toledano, and Erma parallel those of Andy Raffine, Lubin, and "Her." The situation of the characters in a cave recalls certain of the images of Her and may ultimately derive from Plato's allegory in which the cave represents limited perception, the world of reflected reality, shadows. The cave is described in the stage directions as "womb-like," that is, a cave out of which we must be born. Denny's complaint is similar to that of Andy Raffine: "Nobody's listening, we're just talking to ourselves…. They don't even see you … seeing only themselves or someone else, not you but another…." Images of mirror, bird, white string, virginity, the Virgin, darkness and light, loss, a lost country without "evil or hate … only a blind urge to love" also unite the play with Her. The Soldiers of No Country seems more optimistic than Her, however, ending with Erma emerging from the darkness of the cave into the light and with a powerful image of birth.
The images of cracked binoculars, blindness, and the unwillingness to see in the plays 3,000 Red Ants and Alligation evoke the eye and sight motifs of Her. In The Victims of Amnesia the conflict occurs between a Night Clerk, a benighted authoritarian who likes to play at being a conductor or a soldier, and Marie Mazda, associated with miracle, mystery, and light. Motherlode portrays another "sounding of the same eternal situation" wherein "prospecting for love, we dig flesh…." The piece represents again the human quest for the lost and mythic "mainland" or "the land of lovers," the prelapsarian world from which we are exiled. The quest motif occurs again in The Customs Collector in Baggy Pants in which the object of the search is the lost "diamond of hope," associated also with erotic or generative powers, the power to love, "twin gems … King of Diamonds," which are also lost and must be recovered. The figure of the customs collector and the flushing toilets of this piece recall identical images in Her. (There is, of course, a pun involved in the word customs in this context. The Custom's Agents represent the inner forces of custom and habituation that allow no contraband impressions or perceptions to pass.) Further images from Her, climbing and falling, are central to the final play of the volume, The Nose of Sisyphus. The opposition between vision and blindness, freedom and repression, spirit and animality, is configured in this instance as the conflict between Sisyphus, a heroic, redemptive figure, and Big Baboon, a menacing embodiment of all that is base and retrograde in humankind.
The shorter dramatic pieces of Routines reflect and explore particular aspects of existence as repetition, as habit, and as pattern. In his preface to the plays, Ferlinghetti declares that "life itself … [is] a blackout routine … [we are] lost in the vibration of a wreckage (of some other cosmos we fell out of)." This metaphysical premise, already established in Her and developed in Unfair Arguments with Existence, provides a sense of the unity and continuity of the various "routines" as attempts to locate and describe the ground of our experience, with the ultimate intention of aiding us in transcending our condition.
The "question of identity" is the problem treated in Our Little Trip. Whether identity may be said to exist at all, whether it is attainable, and whether it is important are the issues raised by the Question Man, a dispassionate, reductive, intellectual relative of Big Baboon. The Question Man views human existence in terms of mechanics, physical properties, mental capacities, and operations, without metaphysics, without mystery, without meaning. The male-female relationship is again presented as being intimately involved with the process of identity. The central image of the piece is that of a man and a woman whose faces are wrapped in a single long bandage which attaches them to each other. We first see them "dressed conventionally," straining away from each other. Later, after an interval, they return to the stage naked except for the bandage around their faces and "now strain toward each other," finally rewinding themselves completely, pressing against each other and caressing. Their actions suggest a resolution to the question of identity, a casting aside of conventions, of defenses, a return to the true and original state of the soul, an integration of the masculine and feminine principles.
Male and female relationships are also the subject of His Head and Swinger, but these pieces seem only to describe conflicts without suggesting resolutions. They are, together with the other philosophical and political routines of the collection, provocations to the reader or to the audience, problems, questions to make us "think of life" and to precipitate "revolutionary solutions or evolutionary solutions." As Ferlinghetti reminds us, "Routines never end; they have to be broken."
Ferlinghetti's first volume of poems, Pictures of the Gone World, records epiphanies and vignettes of vision and satirizes and exposes elements of the conspiracy against joy and vision. In these poems, lovers, children, artists, and poets oppose librarians, cultural ambassadors, museum directors, priests, patrolmen—those who can neither love nor see because they have "been running / on the same old rails too long"; those who have "no eyes to see" the beauty of the world because they are preoccupied with trivialities and superficialities; the predatory and acquisitive; those who have no identity outside of "their hats and their jobs"; those who have
fatally assumed that some direct connection does exist between language and reality word and world.
The poems are also united with Her and to the plays by common imagery, including statues, mirrors, doors, virgin, and string.
A Coney Island of the Mind continues and expands the theme of vision with a unifying image of the eye. "The poet's eye obscenely seeing" discerns reality from illusion, the mysterious from the meretricious, the eternal from the temporal. "The poet's eye" may be developed through response to literature or to visual art (Goya, Bosch, Chagall, Kafka help us to see) or may be retained from childhood "when every living thing / cast its shadow in eternity." As in Her, humankind is engaged, consciously or unconsciously, in regaining "the lost shores" where there are "green birds singing / from the other side of silence." Human beings are "all hunting love and half the hungry time not even knowing just what is really eating them"; they are "always on their hungry travels after the same hot grail." In the paradise we seek there will be no clothes, no altars, no hierarchy or authority, but only "fountains of imagination." And though we are confounded as to how to gain admittance to the castle of the "Mystery of Existence" where "it is heavenly weather" and "souls dance undressed / together," the poet assures us that "on the far side" there is "a wide wide vent … where even elephants / waltz thru." We continually overlook the epiphanous possibilities of the obvious, the miraculous qualities of the commonplace.
In his "Oral Messages" section of A Coney Island of the Mind Ferlinghetti declares again and clarifies his opposition to tyranny, boredom, exploitation, nationalism, and war and reaffirms his faith in "a rebirth of wonder" and a "total dream of Innocence." If we would return to "the true blue simple life / of wisdom and wonderment," we would reach the "Isle of Manisfree," the just and joyous society. In "Autobiography" and "Dog" Ferlinghetti urges us to attention and observation of the world, to see what is around us with the innocent eye of the dog, to see directly, unintimidated, without abstractions or preconceptions, but instead "touching and tasting and testing everything." And in "Christ Climbed Down," Christ is associated with "the poet's eye," potential in every human being, the ability to reject the superficial, to discern the essential. In a commercial, consumer society, artificial and hypocritical with a vacuum of values, Christ must seek rebirth, a Second Coming in the soul of every human: "In the darkest night / of everybody's anonymous soul / He awaits…."
The image of a dormant, potential, redemptive force waiting in the world, waiting to be awakened in each separate psyche and in the collective human psyche, becomes the central motif of "The Great Chinese Dragon," which is one of the key poems of Starting from San Francisco. The dragon of the poem represents to the poet "the force and mystery of life," the true sight that "sees the spiritual everywhere translucent in the material world." The dragon is guarded and restrained by the police, the agents of the conspiracy against joy and vision, who recognize and fear its apocalyptic power. The poem concludes with the image of the dragon buried in a cellar, awaiting "the final coming and the final sowing of his oats and teeth." The dragon may be seen as the visionary imaginative potential within each human mind, restrained by the rational faculties and the collective regenerative qualities of humanity, repressed by the forces of authority, egotism, and materialism. (Appropriately, the ultimate etymological root of the word dragon is the Greek verb derkesthai, which means "to see.") Also closely related to the premises of Her are the concepts of the poem "Hidden Door" which rejects the "pathetic fallacy / of the evidence of the senses / as to the nature of reality" and explores the mystery of "our buried life," the attempt to rediscover the "lost shore of light," to find again the "mislaid visionary self." A number of images from Her and from the plays recur in the poem, including the blind man with tin cup, key, door, climbing and falling, palimpsest, vulva, and mirror. The poem "He" describes a poet-prophet who is "the mad eye of the fourth person singular," who has achieved "unbuttoned vision."
The Secret Meaning of Things is, as the title indicates, a further enquiry into visionary consciousness, an attempt to achieve and to convey a mode of observation that "leaves behind all phenomenal distinction," enabling the eye to perceive essences, inscapes, the mystery and the eternalness of temporal phenomena. The volume is notable for two poems in particular, "After the Cries of Birds" and "Moscow in the Wilderness, Segovia in the Snow," which can be seen as companion pieces. In the first of the two poems, Ferlinghetti prophesies "a new visionary society … a new pastoral era" in America, the reconciliation of occidental and Oriental culture and thought, the American frontier translated into a metaphysical frontier, the new manifest destiny in "the wish to pursue what lies beyond the mind / … to move beyond the senses." In the second of the poems, another prophecy, the Russian spirit, in the image of an ancient armadillo "asleep for centuries / in the cellar of the Kremlin," at last awakens to music, to ecstasy, and to vision. Considered together the two poems represent a prophecy, as described in Revelation, of "a new heaven and a new earth" achieved through the medium of the awakened eye.
The title to the volume Open Eye, Open Heart is again significant to the pervasive theme of vision. The phrase is taken from the poem "True Confessional" in which it refers to a way of seeing with the eye of "the inside self." Images of light, "shining … bright … skeins of light … luminous," oppose those of darkness, "cobwebs of Night … shadow"; the "inside self" is contrasted to the "outside with its bag of skin." In such poems as "Sueño Real," "The Real Magic Opera Begins," and "Stone Reality Meditation" the nature of reality is the central issue. These poems reflect an increased awareness of the ephemerality, the transitory nature, of material form with its "fugitive configurations" that occur in "the eternal dream-time."
The artist or poet, as in "An Elegy on the Death of Kenneth Patchen," is still seen as a redemptive figure who struggles against "the agents of Death" and who opposes the "various villainies of church and state." Ferlinghetti again depicts art as the medium of awareness and of visionary consciousness. He mentions, in this connection, references to music by Telemann, sculpture by Giacometti, paintings by Ben Shahn, and the writings of Lorca, Whitman, Blake, and Lawrence. The absence of vision is recorded in the poem "London, Rainy Day" where "life's eternal situations / stutter on … Nothing moves in the leaded air," and the transcending, transforming power of the inner eye is inactive: "The blue rider does not appear."
The "Her" figure, anima, muse of vision, psychic complement, appears again in Open Eye, Open Heart, glimpsed, lovely and elegant, in a restaurant or encountered in a Ramada Inn in Kansas, with her "far-eyed look." The "Eternal Woman" remains a disturbing presence for Ferlinghetti, at once magnetically attractive and yet dreadful in her demand for absolute abnegation. "Tantric Ballad" treats the theme of man and woman as "counterparts," who in sexual union form a lotus flower, a perfected form.
The external and internal relationship between the masculine and the feminine and its relation to identity and vision is again a dominant theme in the poems of Who Are We Now? Man and woman relationships are the subject of several poems in the volume, including "People Getting Divorced," "Short Story on a Painting of Gustav Klimt," "At the Bodega," and "The Heavy." In "The Jack of Hearts," Ferlinghetti's paean to the prophet-visionary who can redeem "the time of the ostrich," who can awaken and enliven "the silent ones with frozen faces," the hero with open eye and open heart has found
the sun-stone of himself the woman-man the whole man.
And in "I Am You," the poet praises and prophesies what Plato called the Spherical Man, the original and final human:
Man half woman Woman half man And the two intertwined in each of us androgynus ....................................... in the end as in beginning.
Further prophecies of ultimate harmony, ultimate unity, ultimate victory, occur in the poems "A Vast Confusion" and "Olbers' Paradox." In the first of these Ferlinghetti describes "a vast confusion in the universe" in which "all life's voices lost in night" and then envisions
Chaos unscrambled back to the first harmonies And the first light.
"Olbers' Paradox" is a metaphoric appropriation of the theory of an early astronomer Heinrich Olbers that "there must be a place / where all is light" and that the light from that place will one day reach the Earth. For Ferlinghetti the theory represents the final victory of light over darkness, the Great Awakening, the apocalypse of the fourth person singular:
And then in that symbolic so poetic place which will be ours we'll be our own true shadows and our own illumination.
In this manner the problems of identity and vision which were posited in Her are resolved in prophecy.
And in the concluding poems of the volume, "Eight People on a Golf Course and One Bird of Freedom Flying Over" and "Populist Manifesto," Ferlinghetti reaffirms his belief in the inevitable and final triumph of the indestructible, resurrective phoenix of life, truth, and vision over the conspiracy of politics, industry, religion, the military, the media, bankers, and the police and reiterates his faith in poetry as a primary instrument of enlightenment: "Poetry the common carrier / for the transportation of the public / to higher places."
The theme of "spiritual optics" that is articulated in the work of Lawrence Ferlinghetti is coherent and consistent but not static. Rather, it lends dynamism and invention to his writing, varying focus, tone, and response, permitting dramatic expansions and reductions of experience, fitting the poems to each other and to the plays and to Her in such a manner that they reinforce one another's meanings. The theme develops in the course of the work—from the diagnostic, essentially pessimistic Her, with its abortive poetry revolution and failed quester-hero, through the cautious hope in the plays and the early poems, with their continuing struggle from blindness to vision, from darkness to light, from power to love, from quotidian life toward "a renaissance of wonder," to the prophecies of the later poems which foresee a Great Awakening, the union of the masculine and the feminine principles, the reconciliation of Occident and Orient and of opposing ideologies, and which herald the emergence of a visionary society, "a new pastoral era," and the final victory of light over darkness.
SOURCE: An interview in Poetry Review, Vol. 82, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 22-27.
[In the following interview, Curtis and Ferlinghetti discuss a wide range of topics, including the poets Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg, and the status of the anti-war movement.]
[Curtis:] Lawrence, you were last in Wales briefly in 1989 when you were on tour promoting your novel Love in the Days of Rage. But you had a connection with Wales many years before that, didn't you? Weren't you close to us during the war?
[Ferlinghetti:] Well, I was in Plymouth harbor the night before the first day of the Normandy invasion, D-Day, and I was in Milford Haven one night, the night before that, I believe. And we were here in Cardiff the week before. I was in a small anti-submarine vessel and so on D-Day itself we left Plymouth at two in the morning, I guess, and what was memorable was coming up to Normandy and the beaches—the ships were steaming from all ports, as you know, and as the first light came up in the English Channel you could see the tops of the masts of ships in at least a hundred and eighty degree arc, all around you, behind you, just the masts of the ships silhouetted against the horizon getting light. And as the light grew, the masts became higher and more visible and came in around you like the whole horizon was this forest of masts advancing and converging on this one point off the Normandy beach-head. It was a sight I'll never forget, it was …
Rather like Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane?
Well, yes, and another parallel from Shakespeare was that the night before in all the lanes and alleys, behind all the hedgerows leading down to all the little ports the transport was packed, just lorries and lorries and American trucks and all kind of armored vehicles jammed full of soldiers, jammed full of men sitting. I remember after it got dark you could see these fires where there were encampments, camp fires, and no noise and the fires were hooded and you weren't supposed to show any light. And you had this feeling that the whole landscape was sown with troops waiting in the darkness. And I remember it was like before the battle of Agincourt. You felt that their officers were like the King himself stalking about from campfire to campfire. And it could very well have been. Well, those are the two main memories of that time. Except there were other pleasant memories after we got back to England. We were shipwrecked in the enormous storm that came up in the week after the Normandy invasion and we had to put into Cowes. We were in a shipyard in Cowes and I got to go up to London and enjoy myself in the middle of the war for a couple of weeks. That part was, oh what a lovely war. Even though there were buzz-bombs falling in London.
Do you know the poet Alun Lewis from the Second World War? From the British perspective the two major poets of the War are Keith Douglas, who died in the desert in North Africa, and also this Welshman Alun Lewis who died in Burma. He has a poem called "All Day It Has Rained" which is something along those lines in that it's that awful feeling of being in a bivouac tent of maneuvers and not actually getting to grips with the fighting. That awful lull which is worse than the fighting itself in a way.
I know that there was a lot of raining at that stage. For one thing the invasion was scheduled to start on one day. The troops started to get onto the ships stood out of the various harbors, and then Eisenhower called back the whole operation on account of the threatening weather.
Have you written about all those experiences?
No, I haven't. I mean to get back to it someday. Well it's a thing to do in prose and I … well, I hope to do it.
We were at Laugharne today, which is a place you were looking forward to going to. But while we were there, there was the distant sound of jet planes and cannon fire. It seems that you can't escape from that anywhere.
Well, that's different today from 1944. I don't know whose those planes were buzzing us today. But I have a feeling it's the American Empire—the frontiers of the American Empire. We were in Iraq just recently.
So you were against that war?
Oh, it was insane. There was absolutely no reason for that war. Bush painted himself into this corner so that there was no way out. He wanted war, he ignored all the proposals and overtures for peace that were made. They were barely reported in the American press. And he is also responsible for the million Kurds who were rendered homeless. He is directly responsible in his encouragement of their uprising. As far as I'm concerned he did it. Practically single-handedly. Even General Schwarzkopf is rumored to have been against it, and wanted to do it with sanctions. The sanctions worked in Nicaragua, but no one pointed that out. The economic sanctions worked perfectly well down there.
But, from Britain at least, it seemed the anti-Gulf War protests were short and ineffective.
Well, that's what we got in reports over here. I just came back from Spain and there they had the impression that there had been no anti-war movements in the States, and that the large majority of the population agreed with Bush's war policy. It simply wasn't so. In San Francisco alone, and in Washington, D.C. and in New York City and in Chicago there were enormous anti-war demonstrations. In San Francisco there were demonstrations of 200,000 people. Two or three of them in the course of a week. Hardly reported at all in the press. Some in the local newspapers but not on the national television. And what you have is the mainstream media completely controlled by the government. Not the way it's done in a totalitarian country, where you have absolute repressive restrictions between law and force, but by a hand-in-glove co-operation between the government and the large corporations who own national TV networks. For instance, General Electric owns national armaments plants, including nuclear armaments plants in Pennsylvania. These huge corporations own many other types of businesses apart from television, so there is a clear conflict of interest. So you're not going to have national television news reported objectively when you have an arms manufacturer who is selling arms to the Middle East owning the stations. When you have that close co-operation between corporations and governments-in Mussolini's Italy that was known as Fascism. We have a brand of corporate Fascism going on now. I'm just giving the line, the theories of Noam Chomsky, especially his book "Manufacturing Consent." The only way for this to be stopped is for laws to be passed saying that broadcasting companies cannot own types of businesses. But they'll never pass laws like that, because in the USA both parties are agents of corporate capitalism.
In your opinion does this also apply to American publishing?
Oh, no. But the trouble is that the television audience is, say, twenty times the number of people reading a daily newspaper.
So, if the newspapers aren't having a big effect, what effect can poetry have?
The poets remain as the only people who have the possibility of remaining not compromised. The poets are the only ones free to speak the truth, in a way. And yet so many of them give away that birthright by taking grants from the National Endowment. Or whatever they call it over here.
The Arts Council. You don't agree with that?
Well, it depends on whether you have a benevolent government which doesn't commit crimes against humanity. You see, in the United States you have a government which may be beneficent in giving out grants to artists and writers, but with its other hand it's killing millions of people in illegal wars overseas.
But it's difficult to find a government that didn't.
Well, that's the anarchist position.
But if you take the Guggenheim, the National Endowment or whatever, you are then able to bite the hand that's fed you. That's justified, isn't it?
I'm going from the point of view of Albert Camus who said that you're guilty of complicity if you go along with the system that operates like this. So many supposedly dissident writers and artists in the United States take the government money.
W.H. Auden said that poetry made nothing happen. When the Beats in the '50s and through the 1960s had those enormous performance audiences, wasn't there a sense there that poetry could make something happen?
Well, it did make a lot happen. For instance, when the Congressional Un-American Activities Committee came to San Francisco they had such a hard time they never came back. It was about the last appearance of that committee in the late 1950s or early 1960s in San Francisco. But remember that Plato banned the poets from his Republic as being too dangerous. The poet is, by definition, someone who is challenging the status quo, challenging the common accepted view of reality. That's the real function of the artist. By this definition the poet is an enemy of the state, and has to be if he's worth his salt.
We've been on a pilgrimage to Laugharne today and Dylan Thomas is about the most apolitical poet you could think of. He writes about childhood; he writes about rural Wales; he writes often in a Biblical language about things.
His poetry will last longer than the political poets. I mean as soon as we write a political poem we condemn ourselves to a short life. For instance, I wrote a tirade, a book about Nixon called Tyrannus Nix, and who wants to read that now? Who wants to read about the werewolf himself today? I mean that werewolf face of Nixon was enough to scare anyone. But no one wants to hear about that today—"Go away, don't give me that stuff." But Thomas is above all that stuff; he could get away with being above all that, you might say. A minor poet who ignored the world situation would be nowhere; there wouldn't be any reason to listen to him poetically. But it happened that Thomas was a genius with language and I don't understand what seems to be the current attitude to Dylan Thomas in both the United States and Britain, and Wales even. People put him down for having been too Romantic, too plush, too posh, too fulsome. And I don't understand that at all. This is one of the great voices of the century; poetically, probably the greatest to write in English.
And you heard him in '53 at the end?
Yes, I heard him twice in San Francisco, both times he was quite lushed up. His voice was very plush and very posh and his second reading was mostly devoted to poems about death by other British poets—everyone from Beddoes to Clough. And he was obsessed with death—I think he knew he was going to die. Couldn't stop drinking. And that was his last reading in the States. But I heard all the great poems in the first reading-"Fern Hill" and "On his Thirtieth Birthday." I was just young then—well, I was young as a poet. About thirty. I reviewed his readings for the San Francisco art magazine at the time. And I reviewed it for the San Francisco Chronicle—and I said, "There is nothing like Dylan Thomas in poetry today." I still stand by that. So I don't understand why people are not imitating him still. But for one thing they can't imitate him because they don't have his talent. It was more than talent, it was genius. It was something you can't teach or learn yourself if you haven't got it, I feel. It's an intangible something that comes over the poet when he's writing, it just poured out in his case. From the stories I've heard about Thomas being a bad boy personally, it reminds me very much of the American poet Gregory Corso, who is also a bad boy, and doesn't treat his friends so well sometimes, or his women. But Corso too is an original American genius, he's an American primitive. He's never derivative of anybody. He's always completely original. I don't know whether he ever read in Wales, but he was in the famous Albert Hall reading in 1967 with Allen Ginsberg and myself and other British poets including Adrian Mitchell and Michael Horovitz.
But the great art can't, in the immediate sense anyway, excuse the bad behavior, can it? When people are hurt? Are they casualties of literature, the bystanders?
Well, the bad boys pay for it. I mean it's the classic Romantic profile of the poète maudit who dies early. Dylan, like so many others of the genre, dying at 39.
Did America kill him?
Well, that's what Kenneth Rexroth said in a great poem called "Thou shalt not kill: an elegy on the death of Dylan Thomas." He condemns the consumer society in general, and in particular the man in the Brook Brothers suit, or the ugly American, for having killed Thomas. Of course, he drank himself to death, so he killed himself really. There's nothing like Rexroth's poem for a really vituperative castigation of American culture in particular which is now sweeping the world. It should be much better known.
Perhaps Dylan's reputation has taken a down-turn because we find the rhetoric too embarrassing. We want to be more streetwise. It's the Biblical echoes, the Shakespearean echoes, the big language, which, perhaps, we can't handle. Perhaps we are, both of our countries, a small screen nation now.
He's too rhetorical for the postmodern period. He's like the last of the classical poets.
In the '30s when he first appeared they tried to pigeonhole him, as critics do, as a surrealist for a while. It hardly fits. Perhaps that was their way of saying, "We don't know what the hell he's doing."
No, I think he was much greater than them. You have to be quite specific in saying the French Surrealists. There were American and British followers—at City Lights we republished David Gascoyne's book on Surrealism. But the surrealists I never thought were great poets per se. I never thought Andre Breton himself was a great poet. But Apollinaire and Cendrars were the greatest of twentieth-century French poets as far as I was concerned.
Coming out of a Dylan Thomas reading you were obviously affected by the sense of occasion as well as the quality of the language. Did that make you want to be up there and perform your writing?
Oh, definitely. Dylan Thomas had a very definite effect on the San Francisco Renaissance which began in the early 1950s when the Beat poets arrived from New York—I'm talking about Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and others that my little publishing house ended up publishing. When they arrived in San Francisco they were all kind of New York carpet-baggers, including myself, and they were very much turned on to what's called "performance poetry" today. Up till that period poetry had been dead on the printed page. It was a very dead poetry scene with old poetry magazines like Poetry (Chicago) publishing these precious little anthologies—poetry about language, poetry about poetry—like it is today. It was really a dead period or a gestative period; so in the 1950s, after the war, the population flowed towards the West as though the continent had tilted, there was a deracination, an uprooting of everyone by the Second World War. Half the guys who went off to the war never stayed back home anymore. How you gonna keep the boys on the farm after they've seen Paris? But it took up until the 1950's for this fantastic deracination to coalesce into the new configuration of literary elements. Naturally, it happened in San Francisco, which is sort of the last frontier. And the idea of most of the Beat poets was oral messages, poems that had to make it aloud first; the printed page came later, that would be incidental. It had to make it without explanation. I've always felt that the poem that had to be explained was a failure, to the extent it had to be explained. We were used to hearing the poets in the universities before that giving a five or ten minute explanation for a two minute poem. There's plenty of that right now. Our idea was to kick the sides out of all of that. If you heard Allen Ginsberg read "Howl" you'd slap yourself on the head and say, "I never saw the world like that before." That's what a great poet has to do, but how often does it happen—same with Dylan Thomas—you'd say, "I never saw reality or heard reality like that before," like it's a great new vision. So the oral bardic tradition which Thomas carried forward when he read was fantastic for many of the local San Francisco poets there.
So who was there? Can you name names?
Well, all kinds of poets were in San Francisco at the time—I'm not sure who went to the Dylan Thomas readings. And then the Caedmon recordings of Thomas were wonderful, a miracle that they survived.
But I would have thought that the major influence on a lot of American poets of the 1950s was Whitman. Though, of course, not for the oral presentation of readings.
Well, Allen Ginsberg claimed Walt Whitman for his homosexual side, but generally for his universal side. Allen had the same compassion that Whitman had.
It's the principle of "Song of Myself"—morally you start here, you sort yourself out and then move outwards.
No, with Allen it wasn't really the song of yourself—as a Buddhist you have to suppress yourself; you can't really go around singing songs of yourself. But you can say that he sang a song of humanity. And he sang William Blake. When Allen sang "The Songs of Innocence and Experience" it was really beautiful to hear. These are songs of humanity. I think Allen Ginsberg is still the greatest living American poet. No doubt about it—a great world view. He paid homage to Dylan Thomas; he came to Wales and he wrote a long poem of his own at Fern Hill—he happened to write it on LSD but it's a wonderful long poem in homage to Dylan Thomas. One master recognizes another. And all the minor poets don't recognize this—can't hear the eternal voice in there. You know, Allen read that on the William Buckley show on TV and Allen is such a powerful reader that Buckley could not interrupt him.
I think the problem in Wales is that Thomas is the only writer of ours who has had world recognition and, in a sense, he doesn't recognize Wales. You come away with a very limited sense of what this country really is.
You mean James Joyce wasn't Welsh? (laughs). "Well you know it, and don't you ken it, and that's the he and the she of it."
Well, perhaps we are being too chauvinistic. We ought to be grateful for Dylan Thomas. He is a world poet—he starts with a small canvas and it becomes enormous and important.
Of course, he wasn't political in any way. Some people claimed that he was religious. I don't see that at all. I think he was basically a pagan poet.
But you can certainly hear the preacher when he's performing and you can locate the Bible, "the ear of the synagogue of corn" and so on.
But that was just because he grew up with those images in his head from being around church services and Welsh preachers.
Is Allen Ginsberg a religious poet?
Allen is Jewish for one thing and yet his poetry is not Jewish. Even though he wrote a long book-length poem to his mother, Kaddish. Allen has never been classed as being a religious poet, his poetry is not predominantly characterized as being Jewish, it seems to me.
But that's what I mean. There's the sense that the term "religious" is used with regard to a poet such as Dylan Thomas because he celebrates life.
Ginsberg was closer to being a religious poet for his Buddhism. I don't know about Allen Ginsberg celebrating life: I think sometimes Allen celebrates death. His poetry since the death of his mother, since the big book Kaddish, has increasingly celebrated death. He has a song he sings called "Father Death," he does it with his Indian music-box, like an accordion. It's like a Blake song, "Father death be kind to me." And he has many poems that are really obsessed with death. He's been celebrating death for a long time now.
One of the things that I respond to strongly in Dylan Thomas is the refusal to mourn or accept, you know, "Rage, rage against the dying of the light." Is there something about clenching the fist in a cold northern European way about that? Like some crude Viking warrior, some macho hero saying. "Fuck you Death—I'm not going to take it."
He's not accepting it at all. He's not celebrating it and he's not using some religious escape. He's not saying, "And death shall have no dominion because Christ the Lord is going to save me." You never hear that from Dylan Thomas.
No, but there's some sense of a resurrection, but perhaps only as the flowers come up. Perhaps it's that kind of idea.
I don't think you get any feeling of resurrection in Dylan Thomas' poems. I haven't.
I was telling you that Vernon Watkins taught me for a while in Swansea University and Vernon, as a Christian, wanted to argue that Dylan was a Christian. I find that hard to accept, though I find that he is religious in the broader sense. But you could say that about almost any poet, couldn't you? Your own poem, "Christ climbed down / from his bare tree this year / and ran away to…."
Well, that's a satire on what modern society has done to the conception of Christ, but I also have a satire on the Lord's Prayer.
And there's that hip crucifixion in A Coney Island of the Mind isn't there?
Yes, I stole that from Lord Buckley, who was a hip white man. The first white man I ever heard talk black hip talk. He was a man who called his wife "Lady Buckley" and he called you "His Highness" and he was a kind of circus performer, charlatan in the way he dressed with robes and he swept them around him. His everyday dress was a robe or perhaps a crown or a turban. At City Lights we published a book of his jazz monologues. It was called The Hiporama of the Classics. He did hip versions of "Friends, Romans, countrymen," and things like the Declaration of Independence in jive-talk. And he did one called "The Naz" which was about Jesus Christ and I ripped it off for my poem on Christ.
That poem is still used in school assemblies, I can testify to that. I must confess that I pinched "Christ came down" earlier this year because my writing students were very concerned about the Gulf War and I showed them your poem and suggested that they could use your first five lines as a starting point for a structure into which they could fit specific Gulf War images. It seemed to work very well, as a kind of hook. It has a strong choric force. Is that satisfying for you? I mean, this is a poem that dates from A Coney Island of the Mind in 1958.
Oh yes, that book is still in print—about a million copies sold. They have a public surface that anyone can understand. And then they are supposed to make it aloud, without explanations. Of course, poetry has to have several other levels—a subversive level and a subjective level—otherwise it's just journalism.
Oddly, it seems to me that the quality of Dylan Thomas is that, although he sounds like a preacher, he's got this BBC veneer over his natural, though middle-class, Welsh accent. Although he sounds like a voice of authority he is, of course, radical in what he is saying. Some of the images are quite startling in the way in which they deconstruct conventional religion and conventional belief.
I can see how people would start to use the word "surrealist" in talking about him because "surrealist" has been misused as meaning any kind of disparate conjunction of imagery. I mean "Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axle-tree" in the Four Quartets—is that surrealist? I always thought that was Eliot's best poetry, not The Waste Land.
The great American poet who didn't want to be American.
Oh yes, when City Lights published Allen Ginsberg's Howl I wrote the jacket blurb and the first thing I said was that this was the greatest long poem to be published since Eliot's Four Quartets in 1943. There was a now famous reading in San Francisco in what was called the Six Gallery; it was a gallery in a garage, with maybe a hundred people at the most, half of whom were poets maybe. And Ginsberg read Howl for the first time there and I sent him a telegram that night using the words that Emerson used in writing to Whitman when he first received a copy of Leaves of Grass. He wrote to Whitman: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." And that's what I sent to Allen. I added, "PS—when do we get the manuscript?"
That sold hundreds of thousands of copies didn't it?
Yes, courtesy of the San Francisco Police Department and the US Customs which busted the book. And my partner and myself were put on trial and we were defended by the American Civil Rights Union—thank God for them otherwise we'd have gone out of business. And we had a criminal lawyer called Jake Ehrlich who latched onto the case when he thought he was going to get his picture in Life Magazine, which he did. It's hard to get that kind of publicity, especially these days. I mean, if you took your clothes off at a poetry reading today, do you think anyone would notice?
So Howl sells because it's supposed to be outrageous, Dylan Thomas attracts attention because he's supposed to be a drunk and a womanizer—is that what you have to do to get poetry noticed, for goodness sake? It's depressing.
Well, given the universal brainwash by television these days, I don't think we could do very much about that. You just have to realize that television is just this electronic gadget that has somehow managed to capture the consciousness of two-thirds of the people on earth. You don't have to be slaves to this thing. Poetry—with all the media that you have these days—the single unaccompanied voice doesn't have much of a chance. If I were a young, twenty or twenty-five year old poet I would go into film and video. In fact, I think that's where all the young poets are going in the States. The ones who would have become poets are all doing video. They're video-poets.
So is poetry weak at the moment in the States?
It's very academic. There's a lot of language about language, poetry about poetry. But some new young turk will come along and make a great new barbaric yawp.
But what about some of the old turks doing that, Lawrence? What about that? You obviously felt strongly about the Gulf War—did you write about that?
Well, no. It seems like older poets are baffled into silence (laughs). It seems like it's impossible to utter some great, all-encompassing statement these days. But even as I say that I realise that one of these days some turk is going to come along and give out a new, barbaric yawp (that was Whitman's term) and knock the sides out of everything again. And everyone will stand around saying, "Gee, why didn't I think of that—it was so obvious—it was just waiting to be said."
SOURCE: A review of "Pictures of the Gone World," in Small Press Review, Vol. 27, No. 9, September 1995, p. 12.
[Smith reviews the revised edition of Pictures of the Gone World, and discusses the impact of Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore and New Directions Paperbacks.]
One of the classics of contemporary small press publishing, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Pictures Of The Gone World (Revised) is ripe with legend. Just as Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin, his pop culture partner, were able to birth the first American all paperback bookstore in 1953—The City Lights Bookshop—so Ferlinghetti was soon able to send forth the first of City Lights Books in his slim Pictures Of The Gone World (1955, forty years ago). Pictures also launched City Lights influential Pocket Poets Series (modeled after the inexpensive French books and a letterpress edition of Kenneth Patchen's An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air, done on William Everson's Untide Press in 1946).
Ferlinghetti has recalled the experience: "The first one was done by hand. David Ruff and Holly Beye, and Kirby [Ferlinghetti's wife] and myself and Mimi Orr pasted on covers and gathered it by hand, like any other little press. The first printing was a thousand copies." It is the story of so many alternative, independent, small presses begun with care and cunning, and the cooperation of friends. This grass-roots effort, however, succeeded in publishing some of the most important books of this half of the century—#2 Kenneth Rexroth's Spanish Poems Of Love And Exile, #3 Patchen's Poems Of Humor And Protest, and, of course, Allen Ginsberg's defamed then celebrated Howl as #4.
And certainly Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books has gone on to rival New Directions Publishing as an international small press publisher of the avant-garde. His own Pictures Of The Gone World went on to form one third of his A Coney Island Of The Mind for New Directions in 1958—a most provocative and popular book, now selling over one million copies.
We should note that the original poems of Pictures were among Ferlinghetti's earliest experiments with blending painting and poetry, remnants of his "Palimpsest" manuscript he was working on in France in 1948 under the influence of Ezra Pound and H. D. "Their disarming content and charmed tone were the result of his vision of the painted poem—expert renderings of states of mind and mood, sharp in their timing and turnings upon the page, sight-sound phrasings at once lyrical and laconic. They seem today like old black-and-white films in a small Absurdist Theatre of the mind—Coney Island, North Beach, or Anywhere—Bohemia, America. Ferlinghetti's "gone world," to borrow the jazzman's phrase, is a very mad and beautiful place, and the poet (like Albert Camus's Absurd Hero) is truly in it and with it.
In #26 (There are 27 in the original, to which he has added 18 new poems), he pictures himself "in the Thirdavenue El" reading Yeats, but he does not think of Arcady and the woods:
I think instead of all the gone faces getting off at midtown places with their hats and their jobs and of the lost book I had with its blue cover and white inside where a pencilhand had written HORSEMAN, PASS BY.
Ferlinghetti declares himself here as a populist poet at one with the "gone faces" of humanity, a true poet-at-large.
The book's mood is comic-sad—his little Charlie Chaplin role—yet the mode is clearly open form, abstract expressionist, where street speech compels the diction, a la Rosenbach. Other favorites from the original are "Sarolla's women in their picture hats …," "Picasso's acrobat epitomize the world …," "The world is a beautiful place …," and my favorite, "Dada would have liked a day like this / with its various very realistic / unrealities / each about to become / too real for its locality / which is never quite remote enough / to be Bohemia." There is a boldness and rightness about these risky poems that early claimed a larger turf for all of poetry. They've served us all as doorways.
In the newer poems we see some of his filmic scenes—in fact #29 "Bicyclists among the trees by the lake" is presented in filmic verite. "It's all an unfinished film / for which there is no finis / (so we would like to think) / seen through a telefoto lens…." Many have a softer, more lyric voice—some are downright love poems: "Her voice was full of Yes …", "In an old black & white photo / a made-up angel", "She looks so good in the morning …" and "Why don't you sometimes try—." These are fine performances by a wizened and mature poet, who has kept his eyes and heart open. And there is still the tragic-comic voice still dressed with "The classical masks of / tragedy and comedy / superimposed / upon each other," still leading us finally to a place of laughter where "the most Absurd / true-life tragicomedies / follow after."
Ferlinghetti has never received his due as a poet; perhaps now we can revisit this early-late work and share his achievement of keeping head and heart alive.