March 3, 2021

The Maze and Amaze of Life: Celebrating Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

By Stuart Mitchner

Imagine this scene from a gone world: a live event is underway at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. The owner is reciting a passage from Americus: Book 1 (New Directions 2004). It’s the summer of 2004, you can hear fog horns and there’s a North Beach mist steaming the windows. Projected on the wall next to Lawrence Ferlinghetti as he reads is the final moment of the silent film that gave the store its name.

Make this an audience for the ages, a gathering worthy of the poet publisher of City Lights whose subject is the “eternal dialogue echoing through the centuries of all the voices that ever sang or wrote.” Everyone’s feeling the “maze and amaze of life” when Chaplin gazes into the astonished eyes of the once-blind flower girl the moment she realizes that the rich handsome benefactor she’s imagined is a pathetic little tramp. He’s gone to great and hilariously exhausting lengths raising money to help pay for the operation that restored her sight and all he’s got to show for it is the flower she has just gently, sweetly, patronizingly bestowed on him, and yet he’s smiling as he holds the flower to his face, using it to hide the wretched, Chaplinesque wonder of a smile that made Einstein weep, a smile in synch with the words the white-bearded 84-year-old poet is reciting, “a sound of weeping beyond reason, a pianist playing in the ruins of Prague, a London fog.”

In his brief preface to the 60th anniversary edition of Pictures of the Gone World (City Lights 1955), Ferlinghetti remembers “the unique San Francisco consciousness of the 1950s” and the “freshness of perception that only young eyes have in the dandelion bloom of youth.” At the moment I’m thinking of 1958 when the then-39-year-old clean-shaven Ferlinghetti was a few blocks away reading from A Coney Island of the Mind (New Directions 1958), with the Cellar Jazz Quintet. I’m realizing that I never felt as close to the man or his poetry as I do now that he’s “no longer with us.”

“A State of Change”

In his brief preface to “Oral Messages,” Part 2 of Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti advises the reader that the poems “were conceived specifically for jazz accompaniment … rather than written for the printed page. As a result of continued experimental live readings, they are still in a state of change.” Going to Ferlinghetti after last week’s bicentenary celebration of Keats is like moving from one live performance to another.

The two poets died a day and 200 years apart, Keats on February 23, 1821, Ferlinghetti on February 22, 2021, yet  as soon as you open Coney Island of the Mind, you feel the presence of Keats, whether “silent / upon a peak in Darien” in the second poem; “where no birds sang” in the sixth, or “waiting for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn to catch each other up” in the first of the seven “Oral Messages.” And in case you thought the “chameleon poet” was being treated too gently, “the Beautiful Dame Without Mercy” is pictured “picking her nose” in “Autobiography”: “She did not speak English / She had yellow hair / and a hoarse voice / And no bird sang.”

The Poetry of Theft

Five decades later in Americus Book 1, Ferlinghetti states his motive at the outset: “To summarize the past by theft and allusion / with a parasong a palimpsest / a manuscreed writ over.” At the back of the book, he actually provides five pages of notes documenting the various “thefts.” The sightings of Keats in Coney Island of the Mind need no documentation, however, being no more “stolen” than Chaplin’s smile at the end of City Lights or the theme of Keats’s breakthrough sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” a poem inspired by one poet’s “borrowing” from another.

The Ultimate Road Show

Quoted on the City Lights home page, Ferlinghetti pitches Americus Book 1 as his own born-in-the-U.S.A. epic, “part documentary, part public pillow talk, part personal epic — a descant, a canto unsung, a banal history, a true fiction, lyric and political.” Get beyond the jacket copy litany to the book itself and it’s “All the images of the splendid life of the world …. a trillion trillion images, kaleidoscopic in a psychedelic tropic (later boiled down to a seminar topic).”

The big show really begins in Part III, which could be called “Two Hundred Ways of Looking at Poetry,” with Homer kicking off the festivities “looking like Odysseus drifting over oceans and tilled fields.” Addressing the multitudes “in wild demonic demotic Greek,” Homer begins with a nod to Walt Whitman, “your greatest soul speaker” and all “his wild children.”

As the “great rapper” raps on, with instant profiles of Pound, “Doc Williams,” and a long incantation of denunciation that takes in “bedroom visionaries,” “poetry workshop poets,” “masters of the sawmill haiku,” and “poetry critics drinking the blood of the poet,” Homer finally delivers his “burning answer … as to what poetry can be (which I being blind can see better than thou)”.

What follows is a rapid-fire scattering of shots of insight from the Ferlinghetti hip on poetry, poets, poems. Who says Homer’s blind? There are no misses worth mentioning; you may as well count the number of times Chaplin doffs his derby, twirls his cane, or delivers a kick. Here’s a small sample:

“Poetry’s a player piano in an abandoned seaside casino, still playing … a mute melody in the head of every dumb animal … the anarchy of the senses making sense … worth nothing and therefore invaluable … the voice of the Fourth Person Singular … the face behind the face of the race … a strange form of insanity tempered by erotic bliss … Any child who can catch a firefly owns poetry… The poet is a trance-dancer in the Last Waltz…”

At the end, Ferlinghetti sees poetry as “the last refuge of humanity in dark times” and the poet “by definition the natural born non-violent [his emphasis] enemy of the State.”

“Pity the Nation”

A few evenings ago I turned on the radio just in time to hear WPRB’s tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which began with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray dueling deep into the white hot excitement of “The Hunt” before a howling cheering ecstatic crowd in mid-century Central Avenue L.A. After Billie Holiday (“Lady Sings the Blues”) and Bird and Diz (“Bloomdido”), Ferlinghetti appears reading “Pity the Nation.” He may sound like a raspy-voiced old poet of the blues, but he’s not singing, he’s testifying, with the authority of 88 years on the scene:

“Pity the nation whose people are sheep … whose shepherds mislead them … whose leaders are liars … whose sages are silenced” and “whose bigots haunt the airwaves.”

“Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own and no other culture but its own” and “whose breath is money.”

You can see Ferlinghetti read it in full, on YouTube.

The poem was written during the George W. Bush administration.

The Acrobat

Quoted in The Independent in May 1998, Ferlinghetti says Charlie Chaplin’s character “represents for me the spirit of Eros, the very definition of a poet — the love-seeking, freedom-seeking spirit.”  Here he is in A Coney Island of the Mind: “Constantly risking absurdity and death,” 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.” At the end the poet acrobat is “a little charleychaplin man” who “may or may not catch” Beauty’s “fair eternal form.”

Ferlinghetti ends “Pity the nation”: “oh pity the people who allow their rights to erode and their freedoms to be washed away.” The last lines, with Ferlinghetti’s emphasis: “My country, tears of thee / Sweet land of liberty.”

A fuller picture of Ferlinghetti can be found in the August 28, 2019 book review headed, “Still Going Strong at 100.”