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 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
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 the verse about impossible metaphysics. His feet were on the ground along with those of his fellow citizens, trudging and grunting along that road, a man with an 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
They writhe upon the page
in a veritable rage
groaning with babies and bayonets
under cement skies
in an abstract landscape of blasted trees
bent statues bats wings and beaks
cadavers and carnivorous cocks
and all the final hollering monsters
‘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 are 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 bring sensations we don't want, but this is a man who rolls with the punches know 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 is 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.
From Poetry as Insurgent Art by Lawrence 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 for one thing, to be sure, there’s always one thing that goes askew. In the flurry of overseeing the setup 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 continue to be read in bars, pool halls, bus stops, libraries, quoted in academic papers, and by busboys and waitresses.