Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Bah!

The Atlantic a month ago ran a pig-headed bit of snark slamming prog rock as "The Whitest Music Ever ", a catchy bit of clickbait that uses "white", as in race, as a required pejorative to make its points. I took the bait, I am sorry to say, and it made a mess of my emotional equilibrium. Hardly a fan of prog rock--I've been accused of being the John Wayne of American rock critics --but there have been more than a few artists who make complex , rock-oriented sounds that I think are enjoyable and perfectly defensible . First, the article advances on the premise that music that was created and performed by , let us say , 99 1/2 percent white musicians is awful and unnatural from the get go, which is ridiculous. The characterization of Prog Music as "the whitest music ever" is racist on the face of it and The Atlantic is too thick between the ears, too dimwitted to recognize the irony.It's an argument someone cannot credibly sustain. David Weigel, a Slate politics writer and a prog fan, wrote a history of the genre a few years ago with The Show that Never Ends, and makes the point of showing how British bands came to incorporate classical ideas into their original compositions. Simply (too simply in this squib) it was a generation of players rediscovering their own musical heritage, drawing inspiration from composers they heard on radio. The piece is intellectually bankrupt. Anyone wanting to read a rather more level-headed appraisal of History of Prog would do well to pick up Weigel's book.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI

Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away last month, age 101 years, and what we’ve lost is a great American voice.  His poems were written in a wonderfully amorphous American idiom, his rhythms were light, quick, jazz like, his patois seemed to come from anywhere in 50 states.  His poems were vocalizations of the man on the street who appears to be always next to you at the end of the bar, on the subway car, the city bus, in line for a hot dog at a ball game, the next guy holding a picket sign in front of city hall, speaking with a tone sturdy but quickly uttered, starting in one  area with an observation but morphing through the chain of associations to  areas you didn’t know were related in any way.  You read him, you listened to him read, you were never sure where the poems would go but you knew there would be a point, an irony, a moral certainty tempered with good humor.

 Due to his being based in San Francisco and proximity to the city’s edgier literary community, Ferlinghetti is often grouped with the generation of Beat writers and poets who flourished in the 1950s. He balked at the inclusion, remarking that he was “…the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.” Even so, it’s arguable that he did more than anyone else to usher in the Beat Era in the 50s with his Pocket Poets Series printed under the City Lights imprint. The first in the series was own book 1955 poetry collection Pictures of the Gone World, with subsequent volumes introducing the world to Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Anne Waldman, Frank O’Hara, Gregory Corso and many other voices, Beats and non-beats, who poked holes in the quilt of Eisenhower’s America. In 1956 the publication of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems found publisher Ferlinghetti in court on obscenity charges, due to Ginsberg’s frank and comparatively specific 

depiction of homoerotic content. With the aid of the ACLU, Ferlinghetti won the case and continued to publish and nurture writers from the margin’s society with his press and bookstore and extended his own writing further into the soul of America, a great country that has done remarkable things, but which could do far better. He was writing that he was waiting for the promise of freedom and justice for all to come to be fact, not fantasy, his activism revealed a character of  that wouldn’t abide by the idea that the   Artist was at a remove from the public, inoculated against controversy. He knew art wasn’t a commodity to insulate citizens from the harsher facts of war, racism, poverty; his poems didn’t blind us with banality. Art was not a thing to make us “ feel good”; it was a way to make us feel, fully and painfully if need be. It was a tool to nag, prod, provoke, elicit a response, to get readers out of their seats and into the streets to work for that Better Day. Many an effective activist from the era had their moral compass fine-tuned and enhanced by the effusive, chatty, astute poems of Ferlinghetti and the quarrelsome songs of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti thought about things he liked and even more about things that bothered him, that bothered millions. He was a worldly man, and he was the man who lived in the upstairs apartment, who owned the shop on the corner, he was a citizen poet waiting for and working toward the Better Day.  His persona was a sublimely self-effacing Everyman, less grandiose and bombastic than Whitman, wittier than others by far, the man in a government waiting his turn at the DMV, for jury duty, and while he waits, he muses about what else he and the rest of us are waiting for besides for our numbers to be called.

I am waiting for my case to come up   

and I am waiting

for a rebirth of wonder

and I am waiting for someone

to really discover America

and wail

and I am waiting   

for the discovery

of a new symbolic western frontier   

and I am waiting   

for the American Eagle

to really spread its wings

and straighten up and fly right

and I am waiting

for the Age of Anxiety

to drop dead

and I am waiting

for the war to be fought

which will make the world safe

for anarchy

and I am waiting

for the final withering away

of all governments

and I am perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of wonder

--“I Am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (from  Coney Island of the Mind, 1958).  

 Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the greatest Public poet America has in the second half of the 20th century. Poet, novelist, playwright, travel writer, bookseller and publisher of the revered City Lights Books press, Ferlinghetti wasn’t a dry academic composing intangible lines of verse about impossible metaphysics. His feet were on ground along with those of his fellow citizens, trudging and grunting along that road, a man with an unshakeable belief that the world can be made better even although a   “perfect one” seems beyond our reach. He wrote to his reader’s ear, seeming less to intone from the deadness of the page and more to speak to you directly.  “In Goya’s Greatest Scenes”, one of his best-known poems from his landmark 1958 poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind we hear the unique voice again, leaning over to our ear and remarking sotto voce:

In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see

                                           the people of the world   

       exactly at the moment when

             they first attained the title of

                                                             ‘suffering humanity’   

          They writhe upon the page

                                        in a veritable rage

                                                                of adversity   

          Heaped up

                     groaning with babies and bayonets

                                                       under cement skies   

            in an abstract landscape of blasted trees

                  bent statues bats wings and beaks

                               slippery gibbets

                  cadavers and carnivorous cocks

            and all the final hollering monsters

                  of the

                           ‘imagination of disaster’

            they are so bloody real

                                        it is as if they really still existed

 

    And they do

 

                  Only the landscape is changed…

 

This works as a mast  

Lawrence Ferlinghetti is in that tradition of the public poet, no less than Vachel Lindsay or the wonderfully expansive Whitman; less a man to complain about how the world doesn't fit comfortably around the skin he was born in, or muse long and serially on fragments of memory and half recalled cliches that never crystallize as a perception. His poems a force of personality that eschews introspection and opts instead to verbalize, extol, berate, rant and rave in a lyric vein at once lyric, cranky, ecstatic, lustful and very much in love with the senses that bring him the full force of the beauty and ugliness that is life. Ferlinghetti was not a ruminator, a worrier, an introvert, a sad soul contemplating many shades of despair. He didn’t decorate the walls of his inner life with gloom. There is no melancholic wallpaper in the world the poet finds himself in, there is no metaphysics of gloom and regret.  We need to recall that one of his poetry collections was  titled How to Paint Sunlight. Not that Ferlinghetti's poems are bluster or weakly transpired musings on a beauty obscured urban density; his lines are confident, sure, idiom matching rhythm, not lapsing into a self-parody of hip argot except when he deigned to do so. His images are fresh and electric, encompassing emotions and the consequence of things done to seek truth, beauty, a reason to celebrate the fragile miracle that is life.


There is little in the way of introspection, and that, I think, is the secret of his endearing popularity, and why his poems remain readable decades after the Beat craze has passed on into history. These are poems that like a good friend, a very good friend, who talks to you at the bar and pokes you in the shoulder, the man who would not let you get away with lying to yourself, the second opinion you constantly get, like it or not, that is a crude but freshly phrased thing we can call the truth, of a sort. It is, I think, a voice attached to an imagination that realizes that there are not enough years in any lifespan to not live fully, senses engaged with the raw stuff of existence.

These poems are jazzy, a crafted idiom that rings with the swinging chain of associations that cut through reams of rhetoric and regulation and get to the pulsing heart of the matter, birth, sex, death, joy, sorrow, glee, calamity. It all hurts, it all brings sensations we don't want, but this is a man who rolls with the punches, knows when to duck, writes as though he's astounded that he's still drawing a breath and walking still without a crutch or cane, that he has a voice to speak words of yet new seductions to come or already underway. It's worth noting that there was a selected poems edition of his work published in the 80s called Endless Life, which included a section of newer works, including a long piece that served as the collection's title.

What interests me isn't so much the quality of the poem but the  concern it expresses, to stay engaged with the doings of citizens he shares the planet with, to keep doing what a poet should be doing at all times when they choose to poke their muse and write in those irregular line breaks that are most people's idea of what poetry is; even as he ages and friends die and institutions and personalized traditions come to an end, the world goes on with things to do, people to know, controversies to become a part of. The conversation doesn't end until the tongue can no longer flutter about , the eyes cannot see and the mind cannot parse.

. I am signaling you through the flames.
The North Pole is not where it used to be.
Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.
Civilization self-destructs.
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....

From Poetry as Insurgent Art by Lawremce Ferlinghetti  

The first time I saw Lawrence Ferlinghetti was during a pilgrimage to San Francisco with two other writer friends of mine in the mid-1970s. The three of us( Steve Esmedina, David Zielinski, and this guy)-- were eager to garner some literary authenticity by visiting the places where famous scribes read . City Lights in North Beach was our first stop, and it was something of a surprise when we walked into the crowded shop, to see the Ferlinghetti behind the front counter chatting with customers, answering the phone, and ringing up sales.The last time I saw the poet was at D.G. Wills Books in La Jolla, 2005, where I was working. Ferlinghetti had just published a new book, Americus Book 1, something of a continuous, epic-length poem, which he described as

 "part documentary, part public pillow-talk, part personal epic--a descant, a canto unsung, a banal history, a true fiction, lyric and political," combining "universal texts, snatches of song, words or phrases, murmuring of love or hate . . . that haunt our nocturnal imagination."

Whatever this turns out to be, it was an inspired summing up of the spiritual state of affairs of America, a bittersweet and often comic recollection of the poet’s long journey and long life on the front lines of culture and politics. He was the featured poet at the 2005 Border Voices Poetry Fair at San Diego State University, an event organized by poet and journalist Jack Webb. D.G.Wills Books previously hosted Beat poets Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg , Michael McClure and Ted Joans, and Wills had the idea that having Ferlinghetti read at the bookstore would be a fitting and important addition to the roster of poets and writers who had read in the past . Wills contacted Webb and arranged, with Ferlinghetti’s assent, to have the Maestro read at D.G.Wills Books following his appearance at San Diego State.

To be expected, it was a wild and crowded scene, every seat in the  bookstore filled with, poets, fans, the merely curious. The front and side doors of the shop were open, an outdoor PA was mounted, and chairs were set up for attendees unable to sit inside. It was a crowd nearing three hundred.  It was a cramped situation where everything that could go wrong didn’t. Except one thing, to be sure, there’s always one thing that goes askew. In the flurry of overseeing the set up and directing the volunteer staff, Wills forgot to disconnect the business phone.  Twenty or so minutes into the reading, Ferlinghetti is reading an especially lush passage from Americus,the audience is leaning toward him to heart, there is a pause, an intake of breath, Ferlinghetti begins to read again. Then the phone rings.Wills was at the end of the store’s front counter and pounced on the phone before it could peal again.Ferlinghetti didn’t miss a beat.

“Is this Manny’s Bar and Pool Hall?” he asked. The accent was East Coast, New York perhaps, American. The audience inside and out gave a nice laugh.

 Lawrence Ferlinghetti grinned and continued to read, a man who will continued to be read in bars, pool halls, bus stops, libraries, quoted in academic papers and by bus boys and waitresses.