Reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955-1993 brings back an era that cannot be held to a specific time period; it is the era of the counterculture. The poet’s own era has been a long one, and these poems span four decades during which Ferlinghetti wrote dozens of books. His best known are probably Pictures of the Gone World (1955), A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), and Back Roads to Far Places (1971); one of his other titles may help define his image:
Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower (1958). In addition to poetry, he has written plays and done translations. This populist poet’s own education does not come from the streets, or at least not all of it does: He has a graduate degree from Columbia and a Doctorat de l’Université from the Sorbonne.
Many poetry readers will identify Ferlinghetti’s epoch with a misty period of romantic idealism in their own past, tying their youthful revolts to it and the political rebellions of their era, however large or small these were. The poems encourage this kind of empathic reading. The lines are familiar, even when encountered for the first time. One of the new poems, “Sandinista Avioncitos,” begins:
The little airplanes of the heart
with their brave little propellers
What can they do
against the winds of darkness
Sandinistas aside, the four lines capture the theme of the collection. What indeed can these poems, can any “little airplanes of the heart,” do in dark times? The lines hover like the aircraft-surely we have been here before with Ferlinghetti? No, we have not. Many of us will come back.
Born a New Yorker, Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco in 1950 and is still an important part of the cityscape. He can often be found at Enrico’s, his favorite bistro, close 10 City Lights, the all-paperback bookstore and publishing house he founded with Peter Martin in 1953. He still considers himself a rebel of sorts, literary when not political. “I find most poetry these days very academic,” he told William H. Honan of The New York Times in an interview. “What’s needed is a whole new conception of reality, which is what ’Howl’ was for its day. At the moment, it’s like everything’s holding its breath.” Ferlinghetti seems to believe not only that there is some new artistic revolution in the wind but that it is imminent and he can participate in it. He clearly is not among those who think that poetry has become a game for academics and that there is no hope for its ever regaining force.
Ferlinghetti is something of a puzzle to those who compare his theory and his practice. Although he almost always uses free verse and he frequently calls for a poetry of the people, his poetry is laden with art allusions, references to French literature, foreign words, and quotations from the entire canon of Western literature, supplemented with some materials from the East. In these ways he is closer to Ezra Pound than to Allen Ginsberg. Nevertheless, Ferlinghetti’s spirit is populist, and he follows Walt Whitman stylistically with his vast, miscellaneous lists of things that represent the American scene and thematically with his emphasis on feelings as the source and measure of human worth. Like Whitman, Ferlinghetti trusts the validity of his own experience, and does not find it self- indulgent to offer this experience as his art:
Reading Yeats I do not think
but of midsummer New York
and of myself back then
reading that copy I found
on the Thirdavenue El
The poem blends Ferlinghetti’s life and William Butler Yeats’s art to produce new perceptions based on both.
Like the work of his brother bohemians Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Jack Kerouac, Ferlinghetti’s work is flavored with Eastern mysticism and natural religion. Like them, too, he writes a number of travel poems that show the isolated observer making of himself a psychic vacuum so that the particularized environment of wherever-France, Italy, the Netherlands-may impinge on him. The poems with the most staying power, though, tend to be those that best practice what he preaches and are in truth poems of and for the people, shockingly simple, antidotes for everything in contemporary modern poetry that distances it from everyday experience. These poems make few initial demands on the...
(The entire section is 1866 words.)