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To Really Discover America

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s radical poetics at one hundred

Speaking as someone whose teenage discovery of the Beats was nothing less than life-changing, looking back on their legacy with the benefit of years of experience can be a mixed bag. Jack Kerouac became a sort of washed-up fat Elvis version of his formerly dashing self, turning grumpily right-wing as his talent dissolved from cheap booze and resentment for the hippies who crawled all over him, thinking they were following his lead. The poor mama’s boy ended up rather blatantly drinking himself to death. Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs had more on the ball as far as talent and general intellect, but the question of whether they should be held up as bohemian heroes gets a little morally complicated depending on how far into their checkered personal history one wishes to go. Sometimes the holy trinity of midcentury bohemia managed to create some salient works, to be sure, but a disappointingly large amount of their canon demonstrates how ephemeral a lot of their grand pronouncements were and how silly the “first thought, best thought” approach to writing really is.

By all means, all you young malcontents, wave those freak flags loud and proud but remember that there’s something to be said for not burning out like a fabulous roman candle and, instead, for patiently, diligently keeping the flame lit. The fact that Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a friend and publisher of his better-known confreres, has recently celebrated his hundredth birthday in style by publishing Little Boy, an uncategorizable stream-of-consciousness bildungsroman offers an inspiriting case study of keeping the blessed callings of poetry, art, and political radicalism alive by example.

To be clear, Ferlinghetti never really thought of himself as a Beat poet. As a self-described “anarchist at heart” he’s never really been one for labels. But a quick glance through the history of the other Beats displays how he was very much in the mix, albeit usually working behind the scenes. In 1953 he co-founded City Lights Books in a North Beach basement, which was at the time the only paperback bookstore in the country. It is still going strong today as a beloved San Francisco literary landmark. He loaned Kerouac his little cabin in Big Sur to help him get sober; read the harrowing novel that resulted to see how well that worked out. It is nice, after reading the Catholic guilt-ridden Kerouac, the ravenously horny Ginsberg, and the sadism-obsessed Burroughs, to read someone who is interested in relatively ordinary experiences as subjects of poems.

What Little Boy and Ferlinghetti’s poetry makes clear is his commitment to language above all else.

There he is in a snazzy bowler hat in The Last Waltz, reciting his ironic poem “Last Prayer” in mock-seriousness between songs. It was City Lights that published Howl soon after its public debut at the legendary poetry reading in 1955 and Ferlinghetti was among the ones who helped to successfully defend Ginsberg’s poem in court by attesting to the literary value of its raw, incendiary language. This was a major step forward in the cause of anti-censorship, particularly in the paranoid, puritanical mid-fifties, giving the San Francisco Renaissance some public attention, and bringing in some cash for the fledgling little bookshop. It was much harder to keep Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley’s Lover off the shelves after that, too, though such books seem pretty tame nowadays.

Many years after it blew my adolescent mind wide open, I’ve noticed to my somewhat naïve chagrin that Howl generally fails to shock or even intrigue most of the people I’ve shown it to, with one friend’s reaction—“less bloody shoes, more fucked in the ass!”—being kind of simultaneously hilarious and disappointing. I guess it just goes to show how one generation’s succès de scandale eventually becomes another’s boring old war stories. Or maybe it’s better if you’re young, or maybe you just had to be there.

Speaking of war stories, a tour through Ferlinghetti’s biography shows what an all-American boy he really is, given his radical affiliations, and places him in the midst of some of the biggest moments of twentieth-century American history. Born in New York City and shuttled between New York and France, “handed off to a distant relative by an exhausted bereaved mother who could not take on one more child with her growing brood,” Ferlinghetti knew the French countryside as well as the massive library that his foster parents, trustees of Sarah Lawrence college, let him use. He is a bona-fide (if subversive) member of what the Baby Boomer media piously calls “the greatest generation” and was the skipper of one of the boats in the Normandy invasion. After seeing the “landscape in hell” caused by the atom bomb on Nagasaki firsthand, he became a pacifist on the spot. Say what you will about the tenets of pacifism, at least it’s an ethos—it’s one thing to decry the horrors of war from an armchair but quite another to have seen it before your disbelieving eyes. Ferlinghetti had been a patriotic Eagle Scout type up until then, but he later explained that Nagasaki really “woke him up.” After returning home he used the GI Bill to study at the Sorbonne and wander through Paris, somehow managing to be too broke to sit at the cafés with Sartre and Beauvoir.

What Little Boy and Ferlinghetti’s poetry makes clear is his commitment to language above all else. Ferlinghetti’s long poetic career provides a wonderful example of how a poet can dance along the line between obscurity and accessibility. “The poet like an acrobat / climes on rime / to a high wire of his own making” moving across the page like a “little charliechaplin man.” Published in 1958, A Coney Island of the Mind has sold over a million copies since and has been translated into several languages. People like to gripe about how no one reads poetry anymore (generally, to be fair, these people tend to be poets) but this book offers a stellar example of how to reach out to the reader in good faith, using fairly clear and uncomplicated language, to offer some cheerful subversion along with the wonder at existence.

Ferlinghetti’s poetry has a charmingly democratic appeal, in that pretty much anyone who is able to read can sit down and engage with it without too much getting in the way. Obscurity can be profoundly evocative in some ways, but there’s a political generosity implicit in using plainspoken language even if the ideas in the poems themselves are more complex than they first appear. This is a lesson he has been teaching for a long time, as in his “Populist Manifesto”: “Poets, come out of your closets / Open your windows, open your doors, / You have been holed-up too long / in your closed worlds.”  And as someone who has sat through his share of lackluster poetry readings, I chuckled when I read the lines “We have seen the best minds of our generation / destroyed by boredom at poetry readings. / Poetry isn’t a secret society, / It isn’t a temple either.”

Another poem insightfully explains that “reading Yeats I do not think / of Ireland / but of midsummer New York / and of myself back then / reading that copy I found / on the Thirdavenue El.” This is a clever way of taking the reader’s attention away from the Great Name invoked in the first line and toward an exploration of the texture of one’s own memory of place rather than tearing your hair out over what a Great Genius once said about this or that. In “Baseball Canto” he brings his copy of Ezra Pound to the ballpark and cheers for players like Willie Mays, Tito Fuentes, and Juan Marichal to knock out some dingers that will “hit a hole right through / the Anglo- Saxon tradition.” It’s a fun trope that takes on a sharper, more urgent meaning considering the race-baiting politics of our times. Ferlinghetti is a learned fellow, to be sure, but his references and range of experience are vast and stretches beyond the library; he’s also an accomplished painter and has traveled extensively, getting involved in progressive struggles across the globe.

Maybe the best way to demonstrate Ferlinghetti’s genial, wisecracking, eminently approachable anarchism (“challenge all political creeds, including radical populism and hooligan socialism”) is to cite his delightful poem “Dog,” where he describes an ordinary dog that “trots freely in the street” and is going about its doggy life content to be in blithe ignorance of the foolish affairs and absurd constructs of mankind: “he doesn’t hate cops / he merely has no use for them . . . he would rather eat a tender cow / than a tough policeman / though either might do.” This inquisitive, democratic pooch moseys “past Congressman Doyle of the Unamerican Committee / He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower / but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle / although what he hears is very discouraging.” The dog has his own approach to being free: “He will not be muzzled / Congressman Doyle is just another / fire hydrant / to him.” The recording of Ferlinghetti reading this and other poems with saxophone accompaniment (naturally) captures the poem’s whimsical sarcasm in a way that maybe doesn’t quite come across on the page. There ought to be more recordings made available of poets reading their work out loud—maybe this simple trick could help poetry to find some eager ears out in the ether.

Ferlinghetti’s work and life serve as useful reminders that radical poetics are really as American as jazz, baseball, and the atomic bomb.

To their credit, the Beats’ joyful embrace of personal freedoms has helped to make some aspects of bohemian life gradually more acceptable to the mainstream—gay sex and pot, to name a couple of the Beats’ kicks of choice, have gradually been legalized and decriminalized over the years. At the same time, though, their insistence on the enlightening joys of unbridled logorrhea has helped to unintentionally launch a lucrative industry of market-friendly self-exposure, with expensively designed notebooks getting filled with neurotic drivel at Starbucks and morphing into the ideation-fests of the boardroom.

Every time a Steve Jobs type starts setting up shop in San Francisco and wearing black turtlenecks and flip-flops, eating vegan, and enthusing about the lyricism of Bob Dylan, the best minds of previous generations flop over in their graves. When conservatives warn Middle America about “San Francisco values,” what they mean is stuff like pot and gay sex; but those pesky San Francisco values that Middle America should really be worried about are the ones the conservatives are always promoting one way or another: the technological creep that is settling into every aspect of their lives, privatizing and capitalizing on everything in its path.

As a longtime San Franciscan, Ferlinghetti has clearly seen how his adopted city has turned from a bohemian enclave into a technocrat’s wonderland, and he is appropriately dismayed about it. In Little Boy, he describes seeing “a young stud at the next table typing on his laptop, both ears stopped with headphones . . . I’m just five feet from the guy. Finally I say in a friendly voice, ‘You from around here? Haven’t seen you before in the neighborhood.’ No answer. He continues typing, staring at the laptop. He heard nothing? Is this body alive? I’m alarmed. I call 911. After some time a cop car arrives and he’s arrested for ‘nonparticipation in humanity.’ They haul the corpse away.”

But as cranky as he can be, there’s no doubt that Ferlinghetti is always hoping for something a little better to replace what the country has become. Ferlinghetti’s work and life serve as useful reminders that radical poetics are really as American as jazz, baseball, and the atomic bomb. Ferlinghetti doesn’t fall for the amateur’s trick of sitting out participation in the madness of American life. Instead he has staked out his own fertile ground over the years from which to send his subversive lyrical messages to anyone who is willing to listen: “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 awaiting / perpetually and forever / a renaissance of wonder.”