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Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Guest Reviewer Jack Foley

"The new American poetry as typified by the SF Renaissance (which means Ginsberg, me, Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, McClure, Corso, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Philip Whalen, I guess) is a kind of new-old Zen Lunacy poetry, writing whatever comes into your head as it comes, poetry returned to its origin, in the bardic child, truly ORAL as Ferling said, instead of gray faced Academic quibbling."

        - Jack Kerouac

Coney Isl.
[ Click to Order Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems (soft $) ]
    A new book by Lawrence Ferlinghetti is always an event, but this is especially true when the new book deliberately recalls an old favorite. A Far Rockaway of the Heart is a companion volume to the 1958 book, A Coney Island of the Mind. That book, its title taken from Henry Miller, began:

    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
    Œsuffering humanity'
    They writhe upon the page....

A Far Rockway of the Heart begins:Far Rockaway
[ Click to Order Ferlinghetti's A Far Rockaway of the Heart (soft $) ]

    Everything changes and nothing changes
    Centuries end
    and all goes on
    as if nothing
    ever ends
    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.

Selected Poems[ Click to Order Ferlinghetti's These Are My Rivers: New & Selected Poems, 1955-1993 (soft $) ]     Ferlinghetti's first book, Pictures of the Gone World, was published by his own press, City Lights Books, in 1955. His most recent selected poems, These Are My Rivers—a sumptuous volume—appeared from New Directions in 1993. The publicity for A Far Rockaway announces that Ferlinghetti underwent "a poetry seizure" that "lasted more than a year" and resulted in "a sequence of one hundred and one related poems with related themes." Ferlinghetti himself says, wryly, "The Œseizure' has lasted seventy-eight years." (The poet was born March 24, 1919.)

The new book is vintage Ferlinghetti, with much to recommend it. Calling himself a "stand-up tragedian," the poet assures us that:

    I'd still absurdly ask the ultimate
    of art and poetry
    Only the absolute need apply.

"The mind dances," he tells us, "when the body lets it,"

    And every poem and every picture [is]
    a sensation in the eye and heart
    Something that jolts you awake
    from the rapt sleep of living
    in a flash of pure epiphany
    where all stands still
    in a diamond light.

Light is a central image here, as it is in all of Ferlinghetti's work. The Master's thesis he wrote at Columbia University was called "Ruskin's Turner: Child of Light." Ferlinghetti remarked that Turner "was obsessed with light, and I linked it in my paper to fertility symbols, light as fertility symbol, and the symbolism of the Golden Bough...It was a great fertility trip." Discussing painting, he told me, "It's all a struggle with light—that's what it's all about. The struggle to paint light." In the concluding poem of this book he speculates, "There must be a place where all is light." In another he writes, "I take a Buddha crystal in my hand / And begin becoming pure light."

A Far Rockaway of the Heart is an immensely engaging, immensely lyrical book, full of rhyme in a way that recalls Ferlinghetti's early master, Jacques Prévert. (The poet also cites Apollinaire, whose work he is currently translating.) In one poem Ferlinghetti criticizes his "caro maestro," the "polyphonic poet-oracle," Ezra Pound, for writing "canti that couldn't possibly be sung." When I objected that Pound was modeling himself on Dante, whose "canti" can't be sung either, Ferlinghetti replied that the same criticism applied to Dante as well. "These are myCantos," he told me. "These are Cantos that sing (sometimes...I hope)."

The book is roughly chronological. It begins with Ferlinghetti's personal history; it moves on into a more generalized sense of history ("ŒHistory is made / of the lies of the victors' / but you would never dream it / from the covers of the textbooks"), then into literary history. Various poets and painters are mentioned and, often, criticized. Generally speaking, painters fare better than poets. Illustrious predecessors Eliot, Joyce, Neruda, and Beckett are taken on, though there is no mention of William Carlos Williams, E.E. Cummings (an important poet for Ferlinghetti), Gertrude Stein, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Louis Zukofsky, or H.D. There are of course Ferlinghetti's trademark love poems as well as poems which deal with weighty philosophical questions. "Life sails on," he tells us, "The zeppelin flies on into the twenty-first century. The zeppelin is life itself."   "An iron bell tolls," he writes,


in a clay cathedral
ringing out the end
of the
Christian era.

Place (and, equally, displacement) is important, as Ferlinghetti travels from Rome to Paris, to Bologna, to Greece, to Spain, and then back to San Francisco. A sense of loneliness and exile is often present (the poet describes animals as "those adepts at loneliness"); both we and he "seek the island inside us"—or the "place where all is light." As is always the case with Ferlinghetti, there is plenty of comedy, too—what he calls "the laughter of the Marvelous." One of the most successful and funniest poems in the book deals with "The Green Street Mortuary Marching Band," playing away, despite "the patriarch who / has just croaked," "as if it were celebrating life and / never heard of death." Throughout the book, Ferlinghetti's language is alive, pleasurable, and as demotic as light:

Passed the Bouncer's Bar tonight
in its old leaning building
just off the Embarcadero
Lots of stiffs in there
still nursing their beers
and staring at the wall.

What higher praise can we give A Far Rockaway of the Heart than to say that it is a worthy successor to its predecessor? Thanks to Mr. F for more of the same. In a sense, he has spent much of his life in a fierce battle with his patrician upbringing. At 78, he's still going strong, still making poems, still making paintings, still contemplating the relationship between "the pure lyric on one hand and art engagé on the other." It's an endless process, an endless play of consciousness:

The long boats

Sail into the night—

Farewell!

Jack Foley's reviews appear weekly in The Alsop Review

Links of Interest:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Bibliography for this poet and founder of San Franciso's City Lights bookstore, with Beat-related links.


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