Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s (born March 24, 1919) poetry may be looked on as a kind of travelog in which he has subjectively recorded choice experiences or montages from experience, often in a jazzlike or free-associative manner. For Ferlinghetti, “reality” itself becomes metaphorical, something he endows with mythical import, although he is not a poet given to hidden meanings. Although his poetry is largely autobiographical, an adequate analysis of his poetry is possible without thorough biographical knowledge; Ferlinghetti’s poetry is not excessively self-contained.
A Coney Island of the Mind
Whereas Ferlinghetti’s poems are for the most part historical, or autobiographical, Ferlinghetti the man is a myth, appearing as a cult hero, one of the original Beats. Sometimes a martyr to a cause, Ferlinghetti will occasionally insert his political ideologies into a poem for no apparent reason other than that they seem to fit his role. Halfway through the sometimes absurd, sometimes delightful poem “Underwear,” Ferlinghetti overextends his metaphor by becoming politically involved:
You have seen the three-color pictures
with crotches encircled
to show the areas of extra strength
and three-way stretch
promising full freedom of action
Don’t be deceived
It’s all based on the two-party system
which doesn’t allow much freedom of choice
The reader is often seduced, but behind Ferlinghetti’s speaking voice, full of American colloquialisms, is an intellect schooled in the classics, highly knowledgeable of literature, past and present—a voice full of allusions. Rather surprisingly, Ferlinghetti makes many direct references to greater works of literature by borrowing lines to suit his own purposes. Even the title of Ferlinghetti’s best-selling book A Coney Island of the Mind is taken from Henry Miller’s Into the Night Life (1947). One repeatedly discovers lines and phrases such as T. S. Eliot’s “Let us go then you and I” and “Hurry up please it’s time” ironically enlisted for use in such poems as “Junkman’s Obbligato.” Ferlinghetti frequently employs fragments from literature without alerting his audience to his borrowing. In “Autobiography,” he states, “I read the Want Ads daily/ looking for a stone a leaf/ an unfound door”—an oblique reference to Thomas Wolfe’s opening in Look Homeward, Angel (1929). He makes even more esoteric references to William Butler Yeats’s “horsemen” in poems such as “Reading Yeats I Do Not Think” and again in “Autobiography.” In “Assassination Raga,” one finds a variation on Dylan Thomas’s “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” In its stead, Ferlinghetti writes of “The force that through the red fuze/ drives the bullet”—the poem being in honor of Robert Kennedy and read in Nourse Auditorium, San Francisco, June 8, 1968, the day Kennedy was buried after having been assassinated during his presidential campaign in Los Angeles.
In his role as a subjective historian and political rebel, Ferlinghetti never orates with so much pomp as to raise himself above his audience. In his meager “Charlie Chaplin” manner—Chaplin being a persona to whom he continuously compares himself in poems such as “Constantly Risking Absurdity,” “In a Time of Revolution for Instance,” and “Director of Alienation”—Ferlinghetti is just as capable of making fun of himself as he is of satirizing various institutions and aspects of society.
Whereas some poets seek to find metaphorical reflections of themselves in nature, Ferlinghetti rarely looks there for inspiration. Furthermore, being more fond of philosophy than of drama, Ferlinghetti projects a sense of conflict mainly through his own personal quest—for his true self. His feelings of alienation and the quest for environmental constants that do not restrict one’s freedom are depicted in the poem “Dog” (from A Coney Island of the Mind), which begins: “The dog trots freely in the street/ and sees reality/ and the things he sees/ are bigger than himself. . . .”As the poem progresses, the reader comes to understand that this is an ordinary stray dog—and also Ferlinghetti in a stray-dog suit. “And the things he sees/ are his reality/Drunks in doorways/Moons on trees. . . .” The dog keeps on going with a curiosity that demands diversity from experience.
Ferlinghetti goes deeper, allowing the reader also to don a dog suit, to see “Ants in holes/ Chickens in Chinatown windows/ their heads a block away.” Thus the reader learns that he is roaming the streets of San Francisco. The dog trots past the carcasses that are hung up whole in Chinatown. At this point, the reader learns that he “would rather eat a tender cow/ than a tough policeman/ though either might do.” The reader has already been told that the dog does not hate cops; he merely has no use for them. Here the reader begins to wonder whether being stray is conditional on having no preferences. Is the dog a Democrat or a Republican? The reader later learns that this dog is at least “democratic.” Ferlinghetti does deal with unusual specifics as the dog trots past the San Francisco Meat Market, and keeps going: “past the Romeo Ravioli Factory/ and past Coit’s Tower/ and past Congressman Doyle of the Unamerican Committee. . . .” Here Ferlinghetti manages to make a political statement that is alien to a dog’s perspective. This “Unamerican Committee” is obviously something that Ferlinghetti the Beat poet—not the Ferlinghetti in the dog suit—has recognized. The Ferlinghetti in the dog suit says that ultimately “Congressman Doyle is just another/ fire hydrant/ to him.” A few lines earlier, Ferlinghetti alludes to the poet Thomas by labeling the dog “a sad young dog” (see Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog, 1940): The dog appears to be metaphorical of all poets and artists, especially Ferlinghetti himself.
Ferlinghetti proceeds to declare that a dog’s knowledge is only of the senses. His curiosity already quite obvious, the day becomes:
a real live
engaged in real
with something to say
something to say
In this segment, a major change can be noted: Ferlinghetti has abandoned flush left margins. Beginning with the line “barking,” Ferlinghetti demonstrates a newfound freedom through his staggered, free-form typography. The poem continues, and the dog trotsmore freely, cocking his head sideways at street corners “as if he is just about to have/ his picture taken/ for Victor Records.” His ear is raised, and it is suggested that he embodies a question mark as he looks into the “great gramophone of puzzling existence,” waiting and looking, just like Ferlinghetti, for an answer to everything—and it all sounds like poetry.
A Far Rockaway of the Heart
In 1997, nearly forty years after the publication of A Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti published a volume whose title insists that it be taken as a companion piece to the earlier work: A Far Rockaway of the Heart. Its 101 poems revealed that both the poet’s strengths and his weaknesses were in full force as he approached his eightieth birthday. The colloquial diction is as easy as ever, but its novelty is somewhat tarnished; the wide-ranging quotation from and reference to the words of other poets is as masterful as ever, and all the more impressive as the common literary canon has all but disappeared from the cultural landscape. A number of critics noted that Ferlinghetti’s styles, themes, and techniques seemed barely to have changed over the long course of his career, yet the poet himself begins the volume acknowledging this fact:
Everything changes and nothing changes
and all goes on
as if nothing
As clouds still stop in mid-flight
like dirigibles caught in cross-winds
And the fever of savage city life
still grips the streets. . . .
It’s as if those forty years just vanish.
Perhaps it is presumptuous of the poet to proclaim his own timelessness. However, perhaps his ongoing social and political concerns are timeless because in forty years, little has occurred to remedy the ills he sees around him, and the world goes on as absurd—and as beautiful—as ever.
How to Paint Sunlight
In the introductory note to How to Paint Sunlight, Ferlinghetti paraphrases American painter Edward Hopper by saying that “all I ever wanted to do was paint light on the walls of life.” The thirty-four poems of this volume, subdivided into four sections, each headed by a note or an epigraph, signal varying concerns with images of light and darkness. Ferlinghetti sees the world as art and light as its paint. The poet’s job is to “paint” the world with authenticity and innocence and in all its various hues. Ferlinghetti also suggests that the poet is the medium, the source of the tempera and the gesso. The poet thus creates the world anew on a canvas of former “paintings” and is astonished by each new creation.
Ferlinghetti relies on techniques familiar from earlier work: wide-ranging allusion, an oral quality, free-form lines, and humor. The first section explores varieties of light and darkness in such California landscapes as San Francisco and Big Sur. The introductory poem, “Instructions to Painters&Poets,” theorizes about the connections between creating poetry and creating paintings. Subsequent poems begin with images of bright light and end with darker meditations. “Yachts in Sun” begins with the image of bright light catching the sails of the yachts on the bay and ends with the image of the dead lying drowned in the bay beneath the hulls of the boats. The second section, “Surreal Migrations,” traverses world and time in search of transcendent light, incorporating allusions to Eliot, Adolf Hitler, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Marcel Proust, Walt Whitman, and the Beatles. The poem ends with images of the creation of song arising from the sounds of leaves and birds. “New York, New York,” the more political and sarcastic third section, focuses on urban settings and explores images of New York and personal memories of the narrator’s past.
The fourth section, “Into the Interior,” combines poems set in midwestern venues and transitions to meditations on the death of Beat poet Ginsberg, including one of the few prose poems of the volume, “Allen Still.” Early poems in the section treat the interior of the country (the Midwest) and transition to poems that explore the human interior. “Blind Poet,” a poem meant to be performed blindfolded, alludes to the poet’s interior vision and to blind bards such as Homer and John Milton. The final poems of this section turn increasingly introspective as the narrator of one poem (“Mouth”) laments his inability to express himself and another (“A Tourist of Revolutions”) describes the superficiality of his political activism and foreshadows his own death with a wry comment: “And when I die without a sound/ I’ll surely join I’ll surely join/ the permanent Underground.” The final poem of the section, in keeping with the overall tenor of the entire volume, is a paean to the god of light.
Americus, Book I
Ferlinghetti’s ambitious Americus, Book I combines both epic and palimpsest. Its title suggests that it is only the first part of Ferlinghetti’s epic of the United States. The volume traces American history from the first European encounters with the natives through the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Ferlinghetti’s work combines political and cultural history with the individual story of its titular bardic character, Americus.
The work alludes to a variety of events, including the European colonization of North America, the French Revolution, westward expansion, and the two world wars. Much of this history takes the form of a collage of newspaper headlines, letters, and stream-of-consciousness prose poems.
Ferlinghetti sets his work firmly in the epic tradition, particularly in the third of the book’s twelve sections, where the long monologue by the epic poet Homer situates the poem in the context not only of Homeric epic and Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) but also of the epic works of American poets Whitman (Leaves of Grass, 1855), Ezra Pound (Cantos, 1925-1972), William Carlos Williams (Paterson, 1946-1958), and Charles Olson (The Maximus Poems, 1953-1983). Homer defines poetry in an extended catalog of inventive aphorisms that serve as an index to the themes of Ferlinghetti’s poetry. Ferlinghetti alternately presents his compendium of American history and pieces together its larger cultural and artistic history, alluding to influential writers and artists.
In addition to delineating the national history and character of the United States, Americus also describes the personal, semi-autobiographical journey of Americus, the central character. Americus begins his journey to America in the womb of his European mother and grows up in the East with all the hopefulness and opportunity contained in the stereotypical immigrant vision of the American Dream. He experiences the horrors, the deaths, and the disillusion of World War II and, following the war, moves west. This central singer of Ferlinghetti’s epic is reminiscent of Whitman’s central voice in Leaves of Grass.
Americus is also a palimpsest, as suggested by the use of the term in the second line of the poem. A palimpsest is a painting or a manuscript that has been created over a previously existing work, so that sometimes the previous work shows through the new work like a ghost. Ferlinghetti layers his work over previous works by making allusions to them, a technique accentuated by the existence of the notes section at the end of the poem. In the notes, Ferlinghetti lists the numerous sources for the various quotations and references that serve as the basis for his poem, quotations that are often elided, parodied, and reworked in much the same manner as the allusions in modernist poet Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) or The Four Quartets (1943). Ferlinghetti also uses lists and catalogs in much the same manner as Whitman, trying to express the vastness and variability of America in a cornucopia of references to people, events, and impressions that help capture the American experience.
Americus provides a compendium of poetic techniques from Ferlinghetti’s work. He uses free-form verse, dialogue, an oral quality, the stream-of-consciousness prose poem, humor, puns, and satire to capture the face and the sights and sounds of America and its past. Ferlinghetti notably ends this volume with a prose poem that portrays a hopeful and celebratory view of the “splendid life of the world.” This final prose poem is especially striking when contrasted with the descriptions of the horrors of war and the assassination of Kennedy that precede it. The final three pages of the poem celebrate the joys of the world in all its vitality and beauty.
Long fiction: Her, 1960; Love in the Days of Rage, 1988.
Plays: Unfair Arguments with Existence, pb. 1963; Routines, pb. 1964.
Nonfiction: The Mexican Night, 1970; Literary San Francisco: A Pictorial History from Its Beginnings to the Present Day, 1980 (with Nancy J. Peters); Leaves of Life: Drawing from the Model, 1983; What Is Poetry?, 2000; Life Studies, Life Stories: Eighty Works on Paper, 2003.
Translations: Selections from “Paroles” by Jacques Prévert, 1958; Roman Poems, 1988 (of Pier Paolo Pasolini).
Miscellaneous: Poetry as Insurgent Art, 2007.
Cherkovski, Neeli. Ferlinghetti: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979.
Fontane, Marilyn Ann. “Ferlinghetti’s ‘Constantly Risking Absurdity.’” Explicator 59, no. 2 (Winter, 2001): 106-108.
Pekar, Harvey, et al. The Beats: A Graphic History. Art by Ed Piskor et al. New York: Hill and Wang, 2009.
Silesky, Barry. Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Time. New York: Warner Books, 1990.
Skau, Michael. “Constantly Risking Absurdity”: Essays on the Writings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1989.
Smith, Larry R. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poet-at-Large. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
Stephenson, Gregory. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.