I think if there is a great depression there might be some hope.Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Poetry as Insurgent Art [I am signaling you through the flames]
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)
I am signaling you through the flames.
The North Pole is not where it used to be.
Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.
Nemesis is knocking at the door.
What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?
The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.
If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.
You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away Tuesday, the 200th anniversary of Keats death. February 23 must be a good day for poets to die or be born. There are ample biographies written about Ferlinghetti’s life, seek one out. He lived a grand life despite many obstacles along the way. He was quoted as saying, “I never choose to become a poet….” implying writing was an inevitable outpouring of his being. Even more important than his own writing, which is remarkable, was his steadfast commitment to books in all forms. Ferlinghetti founded one of the truly great bookstores in America, City Lights in San Francisco in the 1950’s. More than a bookstore, also an independent small press, Ferlinghetti stood up to over reaching prosecutors looking to ban books on the basis of perceived obscenity and won an important first amendment case that opened the door to an explosion of underground publishers. All of us that enjoy the freedom on the internet to access the broad range of artistic expression owe a debt to Ferlinghetti’s courage. City Lights ability to not only publish but sell materials considered too radical for conservative publishing houses was the start of a revolution of new voices in America.
Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers with his own Pictures of the Gone World, the first number in the Pocket Poets Series. This was soon followed by work by Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, and Allen Ginsberg’s landmark book Howl, which would bring national attention to both author and publisher and begin the legal disputes that ultimately Ferlinghetti won. In addition to Ginsberg, City Lights published classics like True Minds by Marie Ponsot, Here and Now by Denise Levertov, Gasoline by Gregory Corso, Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara and Revolutionary Letters by Diane di Prima. Ferlinghetti was a reader as well as writer and he thrived bringing great poets to a wider audience.
Ferlinghetti was one of my Mother’s favorite poets, living in the Bay Area for over 20 years, she was a frequent customer of City Lights and took me there on several occasions when I visited in the 1990’s. I have a number of older copies of Ferlinghetti pocket books of poetry that look more like pamphlets or an old church bulletin, so simple is the printing.
My favorite book of his poetry is How To Paint Sunlight, a gift from my Mother for my birthday many years ago. The concept of light played a central role in many of his poems, the idea that words and pictures and poetry all intermingle in many of our minds, and for some of us, words become their own sunlight in the hands of great poets. Ferlinghetti never lost his capacity for wonder and our world is richer for him sharing his life with us through words.
A Vast Confusion
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
How long I lay in the sands
sounds of trains in the surf
in subways of the sea
And an even greater undersound
of a vast confusion in the universe
a rumbling and a roaring
as of some enormous creature turning
under sea and earth
a billion sotto voices murmuring
a vast muttering
a swelling stuttering
in ocean’s speakers
world’s voice-box heard with ear to sand
a shocked echoing
a shocking shouting
of all life’s voices lost in night
And the tape of it
somehow running backwards now
through the Moog Synthesizer of time
back to the first
And the first light.