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Issue 10 - A Journal of Letters and Life
Critiques & Reviews
Reading in the Raw
by Richard Collins

Author's Links
Ferlinghetti Recycled and New-Sung

Lawrence Ferlinghetti. What Is Poetry?
San Francisco: Creative Arts.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti. How to Paint Sunlight: New Poems 1997-2000.
New York: New Directions.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's What Is Poetry? sets forth some pocket-sized perceptions about poetry in haiku-like aphorisms, 500 words worth of ars poetica for just $9.95. The question is: Is It Worth It?
     It depends. If you enjoy William Blake's annotations in the margins of Reynolds' Discourses, without the discourses, maybe. Some of these aphorisms are inspired or somehow stirred by other poets, philosophers, mystics, Zen masters and rock stars. We hear distant and distorted echoes of Hopkins (poetry is "shook foil"), Pound (poetry is "news"), Wordsworth (poetry should be "emotion recollected in emotion"), Dante, Aquinas, Jung, Angelou, Hui-neng (poetry is "the face behind the face of the race"), and Patti Smith (poetry is not just "heroin horses and Rimbaud"). While most of these remarks, reformulations and asides lack the argumentative energy of Blake's manic marginalia, they do show Ferlinghetti's mind at work.
     That might be enough, if some of these aphorisms did not belong on greeting cards, like: "The poet is a street singer / who rescues the alleycats of love." Ouch. Hip greeting cards, the kind you'd find at Whole Foods, and not the Hallmark cards you'd find at Wal-Mart, but greeting cards nonetheless. Or, "Poetry is all things born with wings / that sing." I don't know, he may be right, I've never heard wings that sing, though I've heard some that (ho)hum.
     I wish Ferlinghetti had attempted to illustrate certain of these aphorisms the way Stevie Smith illustrated her pithy-bristly jottings, extracting unexpected riches from even the most surface observations by "seeing" what she's actually saying. I'd like to see, for example, Ferlinghetti's "Ma in her / Woolworth bra / looking out a window / into a secret garden." Or, "a sofa full of blind singers / who have put aside their canes." (Nice images, but are they definitions of poetry or simply nice examples of poetic imagery? Or is that what Ferlinghetti is trying to convey by italicizing the IS in What Is Poetry? If so, let's call them "definimages" for "images that define.") Each of these definimages takes up only a fraction of the page, sitting like a sunken footnote down at the bottom, so there's plenty of room for the reader to collaborate by sketching in the illustrations for herself, Stevie-style.
     One of the vulnerabilities of the aphorism as a form is that it relies - even more than poetry itself - on the generosity of the reader. Its power lies in its suggestive brevity, but so does its weakness. The aphorism posits a provocative thesis and then relies on the reader to supply the implied argument. Such complicity can't always be expected from cranky readers who are notoriously uncooperative. Mea maxima culpa. As a result, some of these aphorisms sound good but don't bear up under scrutiny.
     Take this one, for example, with its distinct anti-intellectual aroma:

     Like a bowl of roses
     A poem should not have to be

     Fair enough. Poems and roses "should not have to be / explained," and neither should sexual desire, jokes, antipasto or detective stories. Yet there are great benefits in explaining these things - if at first you don't get them. They are all better, it's true, if the explanation doesn't lag too far behind the experience or isn't too condescending or pedantic. An explanation should be like a good parachute - packed tight and ready to rip when you need it - tight, light, but also able to bear a heavy load, keeping the weighty argument afloat, yet wafting it safely, in the end, down to earth. (This is the trouble with defining things by metaphor - the metaphors can shapeshift on you without warning and run away with your meaning.)
     Anyway, Ferlinghetti's aphorism about poems and roses strikes me as faux-Zen. Why? Because there can be no appreciation (or apperception) of roses or poems (or anything else) without explanation, although the explanation should preferably come not after the poem but during the poem, or even better before the poem. If you come to poems and roses already in a spirit of appreciation (which means you possess the tools and learned abilities to apperceive them), then you can meet the poems (or roses) in their own moment. Poems like roses, we might say, should best be pre-explained.
     But you see what has happened. Ferlinghetti has seduced me into doing exactly what he wants me to do - to explain the thesis of his aphorism. That's okay with me. I happen to like aphorisms, not to mention rhetorical seductions. I'm not allergic to explanations, either.
     If some of these aphorisms about poetry are not primo Ferlinghetti, at least his new-sung book of poetry is. How to Paint Sunlight: New Poems 1997-2000 begins with a series of poems that paint light on the page the way Matisse or Dufy treat canvas, by isolating his subject and letting his brushstroke cleanse it of all dimming shadow so that it can shine with its own light. Ferlinghetti provides us with a comparative catalog of the different lights of New England, New York, Indiana, Ohio, Paris, Prague, Greece, and especially of San Francisco, Big Sur, and the white light of dreams and dictionaries, "each steed a word / each verb a stallion / reared up against all ignorance." That's poetica!
     The poems are not all lighthearted, though, as Ferlinghetti descends into Manhattan ("Manhattan Mama"), the Midwest ("Don't Cry for Me Indiana"), and the radio-haunted South ("First, the News"). He also descends into the dark subject of the death of Allen Ginsberg in several poems, although there is more light in the memory of the dead friend suddenly sitting on the bed next to him, "a fleeting presence / but not fleeting / totally there," than in all the track lighting focused on "the leisure-class postmodern artwork" at MOMA. This search for the lasting and the essential, for what is important and not just visible or valuable, seems to be the presiding spirit in these poems.
     When it comes to taking responsibility for not always focusing on the essential, "Mouth" says it all:

               I'm tired of my mouth
               It's too small
               and it doesn't say enough
               doesn't sing enough
               and it doesn't emit light
               like your eyes
               He's a real asshole this mouth…

     The poem continues to confess to the things this mouth has done, both comic and tragic, and regrettably hasn't done. Words have a way of getting in the way, but when they're careful and thoughtful they can also clear the way and lighten the path.
     It must be good to live long enough to honestly regret the stupid things one has done and said. It must be very good to openly admit that one has done and said some pretty stupid things in one's time. It must be very very good to know that some of the same people who heard you say and saw you do those stupid things back then are still listening to you now. At 82, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a very lucky man.
     Ferlinghetti admits to his youthful flirtation with Communism, warming up to flattering Fidelistas and Sandinistas because it was nice to be called companero and poeta "(which means a lot down there)." Unlike Hemingway, who had the good sense to keep his mouth shut about Castro and "went fishing instead," Ferlinghetti let himself be used, "a gringo poet / right in line with their line."
     This is the age - not the New Age but the age of the coming of age - of liberal guilt. Let's not cling to our ideological assumptions. Let's cop instead to our well-intentioned stupidities. Let's hope that those of us who tramped along with Ferlinghetti into his youthful indiscretions, as "a tourist of revolutions / a dilettante of revolutions," can follow him out into the light of his mature reflections to realize: "I was Whitey / without a revolution of my own." And then to get a life (which is different than a cause or mission) of our own.
     In "Blind Poet" - "(To be performed with a blindfold)" - Ferlinghetti satirizes the poetry scene, making space in his mini-Dunciad for all the poets who are blind to their own careerist cynicism, and who define themselves (or who let themselves be defined by others) in terms of a style, a school, a position, or a stance, whether they fancy themselves to be a "deconstructed language poet," "far-out poet," "wandering workshop poet," "university poet," or "buddhist quietest [quietist?] poet." By striking each of these deserving noggins, Ferlinghetti reminds us that poetry has nothing to do with schools, flocks, panjandrums or political parties. The poet has to root for his own truffles and not follow the other hogs, whose paths lead only to the common trough.
     It's good that Ferlinghetti seems still to have the ear of young poets for whom the Beats still represent something new and vibrant - never mind that the Beats were passe in their own day, inviting the caricature that folds in upon itself and collapses into self-parody. (It's so tempting, though, to be cool! Even if you do end up looking and sounding like Maynard G. Krebs.) Ferlinghetti long ago gave up the Beat moniker and went on with his life and work which has now become a mission to "paint light on all the walls of life." What more should we ask of our poets?
     If we want to ask "What Is Poetry?", we'd do better to skip the recycled aphorisms in the little book (they're taken from radio, newspaper and other publications going as far back as the 1950s), and get the answer straight from Ferlinghetti's new poems. I don't think he'd mind my saying that, especially since the last aphorism encourages us to "Let a new lyricism / save the world / from itself." That sounds missionary, and it is, unless you can get beyond the self-importance of the directive and proselytizing aphorism and get back to the lyrical experience itself. Then its magic resides in its being nothing special, like sit down and have a beer with me and tell me how you've been. Or in words borrowed by Ferlinghetti from Gregory Corso, another dead friend - "let me lightdrench the saddest of men." Or in his own book's last words - "which is love on earth forever and ever / Amen!"


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