Lawrence Ferlinghetti [1919- ] has been a dominating presence in the American literary scene for a half century. That a writer of his limited gifts should have achieved this, is a testament to the power of reputation, publicity, and ambitious promotion. At age 92 [in 2011], he has outlived most of his contemporaries, and many of those younger writers whose early avant-garde work he championed, through his publishing ventures, through publicity generated by his retail City Lights bookstore in San Francisco's North Beach district, and by his public defense of literary works against censorship.
Ferlinghetti's inauspicious beginnings belie his later accomplishments. Orphaned shortly after birth, he was handed around several times, attending various schools, eventually taking a degree in journalism in 1941. After a stint in the Navy during the War, he attended Columbia on the GI Bill, where he studied English literature, and became interested in Modernism. He next spent three years studying at the Sorbonne in Paris (he had had French as a first language as a child, living for five years in Strasbourg with his aunt Emily), receiving a French doctorate.
What seems clear, given what we know of his production, that he was drifting during this period, trying out writing, painting, journalism, but not finding a suitable expression for his energies. Arriving in San Francisco in 1951, he was caught up in the new scene cohering around Kenneth Rexroth (another transplant, from Chicago). In short order, he co-founded a magazine, City Lights, and a retail bookstore (City Lights Bookstore), and in 1955 launched a publishing venture, City Lights Books. The City Lights The Pocket Poets series of pamphlets was initiated with Ferlinghetti's own first collection of poems, Pictures of a Gone World .
In the popular imagination, Ferlinghetti's long been lumped together with the Beats, or the San Francisco Renaissance literary movements (which are to some degree synonymous). As I attempted to say in a previous post--"What We Mean by Beat Writers - A Finite Definition" [Jan 9th 2010], Ferlinghetti's associations were spot-on with respect to certain key figures of the Beat Movement (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, McClure, Lamantia, Snyder)--though he himself was really pretty old to be considered a key participant. It would be obvious to anyone reading Ferlinghetti's poetry (in Pictures, or the larger collection A Coney Island of the Mind [New York: New Directions, 1958]), particularly at the time they were first published, during the 1950's, that Ferlinghetti could not have been considered a serious aspirant to official literary genius status. His poems were self-consciously light-hearted, irreverent, and satirical, intended to appeal to a broad reading public. They weren't serious poetry, either in the traditional sense (as in Lowell or Bishop or Wilbur or Nemerov) or in the Modernist experimental sense (as in Olson, say). Their obvious antecedents were Cummings, Patchen, Sandburg, Lindsay, Prévert, Mallarmé, Mayakovsky, Williams, and the Joyce of Finnegans Wake.
You could say, with justice, that Ferlinghetti's poetry seemed most well-suited as a comic antidote to the over-arching seriousness of some of the authors whose work he published and promoted (Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, McClure, Lamantia). With Whalen, he shares a certain occasional levity, but his highest voice is seldom more than toss-away ironic declamation. It's fair to say, as well, that Ferlinghetti, always the shrewd businessman, usually had his eye on the commercial potentials of a perceived "underground"--first, the Beatnik phenomenon of the 1950's, later the Hippie Revolution of the 1960's, and the Flower Generation of the 1970's--not only in the literary sense, but in the political sense. The bookstore, due largely to the publicity he's been able to generate over the years through the publishing venture, and the very public persona he's projected through his connections, has been a veritable goldmine.
The contexts--the literary frameworks--through which Ferlinghetti tended to see his own poetic contribution--was an amalgam of diverse cliché'd stereotypes, drawn from his reading experience in the 1940's and before. There was a strong strain of social protest, coming out of the 1930's Depression Era, an identification with labor and the working-class. Formally, he tended to think of experimental writing as ending with the work of Cummings (in verse), and with Joyce (in prose). In the way it was expressed, he tended to over-simplify writers and works almost in a Pop Art sense, as crude caricatures of their significance in the popular imagination. His use of imagery almost always suggests hackneyed prototypical banalities, instead of three-dimensional presences within a specific context.
These early poems are almost like obvious literary commodities--their "symbols" and "themes" and "stances" designed to evoke the lowest common denominator of feeling and thought in any given circumstance. Ferlinghetti was undoubtedly a sensitive and thoughtful man, but his conception of the purpose of his poetry involved a compromise with the potentials of serious art, acknowledging his limitations through a self-indulgent glibness and sarcasm, or a sophomoric, easy romanticism, neither of which was true to his subjects, nor respectful of his readers. Whereas this kind of condescension is commonly regarded as a deliberate exploitation, in Ferlinghetti's case, it was as much a confession of the meagerness of his art.
Ferlinghetti's true gifts were in the arena of promotion and salesmanship, and he quickly learned to exploit the cultural vanguard which was unfolding around him in the 1950's and 1960's. Though he was of an older generation--he had, after all, graduated from college before World War II--he easily imagined himself as a confederate in the sweeping changes which were coming over the horizon in those decades. Indeed, he would be one of their facilitators.
Reading the poems in these first two books today, it is immediately apparent that Ferlinghetti was speaking as an older "outsider"--the wearied, hollowed-out, cynical veteran of the lit'ry wars, conducted in Paris streetside cafés--and that his sojourns during the immediate post-War period had led him not to Dionysus but to Mammon. In the world of cultural politics, if you can't join'em, it's usually best to set up as a cottage revolutionary, which is pretty much what Ferlinghetti did. But the bottom line wasn't literary--it was mercantile. Ferlinghetti, unlike those with whom he was purportedly in spiritual collaboration (Ginsberg, Kerouac, et al), his primary function was as a businessman, not a writer. Despite essaying several different forms--poem, novella, play, political diatribe (essay)--his output, taken as a whole, is surprisingly slight, the expedient pretext for most of his work being timely current events. He tended to see his work in terms of a dialectic with the prevailing vogues of the day, which is why so many of his later poems feel dated and passé.
Capitalizing on the "paperback revolution" of the 1950's and 1960's, a cheapening of the material artifact if there ever was one, he exploited the tourist mecca along Columbus Avenue--famous chiefly in those years for being the carnival row for topless dancing and tawdry soft porn joints, selling cheap copies of Howl and Gasoline and Poems of Love and Protest and Red Cats side by side with the usual popular fare available from any quotidian bookmart. Emphasizing the counterculture of difference, the forbidden and reviled, along with old-fashioned leftist protest, and sexual liberation, he was able to foster a public image of righteous indignation and artistic integrity, though the actual matter, the product, was really just a papered-over run-of-the-mill retail bookstore.
The terms of Ferlinghetti's "poetics" are clearly laid out on the back panel blurb which he himself wrote--"I have been working toward a kind of street poetry . . . to get poetry out of the inner esthetic sanctum and out of the classroom into the street. The poet has been contemplating his navel too long, while the world walks by. And the printing press has made poetry so silent that we've forgotten the power of poetry as 'oral messages.' The sound of the streetsinger and the Salvation Army speaker is not to be scorned . . . I've used 'open-form' typography to indicate the breaks and hesitancies of speech as I heard it in the poem . . . ." The blurb goes on--"His material, his tone and phrasing, are taken from everyday life, from the 'Coney Island' of ideas and feelings in all our minds, and he transmutes them into poetry of satiric bite and lyric beauty." One might ask, just in passing, what the result would have been, had Ferlinghetti simply strode out onto Columbus Avenue in the afternoon and begun reciting his poems, an act which his espoused goal would seem to imply--instead of turning out millions of copies of printed books. As far as poets contemplating their navels, he'd likely have had to reconsider those words if asked to pass judgment, for instance, on the meaning of navel-gazing in the work of Allen Ginsberg or Gary Snyder or Philip Whalen (or even Kerouac!), each of whom was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. The focus on a tradition of "street poetry"--or oral literature--undoubtedly comes from Lindsay, chanting to the congregation in the missionary tent, or Mayakovsky, whose declamatory style of hollering across roof-tops, and inciting the working-class to action, probably constitute the purest forms of "street poetry" there are.
The typography of the New Directions edition has always amused me. Employing an "outlaw" or "wild west" font for the titling and numeration probably was intended to suggest that the book had untamed contents, a "wide open" quality associated in readers' minds with the clichés of the Western Movies or the Western Genre fictional world--references which were still vital to audiences in the 1950's--the heyday of the television Western. Was it intended to suggest a rough-and-tumble unruliness?
Or did it connote saloons, whorehouses and gunslingers? Probably all of the above. Ferlinghetti's particular combination of free love (physical liberation), lower-class urban romanticism, and pop-artsy graffiti and ersatz rabble-roust was probably considered pretty exciting to the East Coast Establishment.
Thinking about the title, which is taken from Henry Miller's piece "Into the Night Life," one is reminded that the grand amusement park, from which the name comes, was once a major attraction in the New York area, but by the time that Ferlinghetti appropriated it from Miller's riff, it was well into its senescence. It had already become a symbol of urban decay, so that Ferlinghetti's evocation of it was purely nostalgic.
He himself undoubtedly visited it, as Miller would have, many years before, but the carnival atmosphere which it implied, had long since peeled away in the weather of time. Miller, of course, had arrived in Paris too late to participate in the Modernist movement, and his manic free associations, his "Rabelaisian" humor and boisterous scatologies, were a mere footnote to the more committed and sophisticated exile phenomenon which had been played out during the previous two decades, before 1930. "Into the Night Life" is a section or chapter of Black Spring, the second part of Miller's "Tropic" trilogy [Tropic of Cancer--1934, Black Spring--1936, and Tropic of Capricorn--1939]. These aren't novels in the usual sense, but rambling semi-autobiographical accounts. "Into the Night Life"--(subtitled) "A Coney Island of the Mind"-- is a surreal riff, a nostalgic evocation of the Brooklyn of Miller's childhood and earlier life there, a world and a culture which he considered stultifying and dead.
"Everything is sordid, shoddy, thin as pasteboard. A Coney Island of the mind. The amusement shacks are running full blast, the shelves full of chinaware and dolls stuffed with straw and alarm clocks and spittoons . . . and over it all in a muffled roar comes the steady hiss and boom of the breakers, a long uninterrupted adenoidal wheeze that spreads a clammy catarrh over the dirty shebang. Behind the pasteboard streetfront the breakers are ploughing up the night with luminous argent teeth; the clams are lying on their backs squirting ozone from their anal orifices. In the oceanic night Steeplechase looks like a wintry beard. Everything is sliding and crumbling, everything glitters, totters, teeters, titters."
The writing in "Into the Night Life" is some of Miller's best work--a vision worthy of Blake or Beaudelaire, though you have to grant him a certain license--he doesn't observe the niceties, and he often uses slang and scat as shortcuts when he's impatient with the language. But my point here is to suggest that Miller's piece, as a source for Ferlinghetti's hackneyed adaptation of the older writer's inspiration, is really a purer expression, neither nostalgic nor borrowed, but original and fearless. In Ferlinghetti's hands, it becomes imitative, sentimental and bland, as I shall show.
A Coney Island of the Mind is really comprised of three books or parts of books. The title section is only 35 pages of text: Oral Messages, comprising 25 pages, was intended to be accompaniments to jazz; and the last is a selection, of 15 pages, from the earlier Pictures of a Gone World. This, then, is the sum total of Ferlinghetti's poetic output between 1946, say, and 1955, much less than 100 pages. The overall formal effect of these poems is astonishingly level and consistent, their style fulfilled. The first poem (1) "In Goya's greatest scenes" is typical of nearly all of them.
The lines are spread across the page as sentence fragments, the separate phrases set as a crude dialectic of descending rhythmic increments. From a linguistic point of view, the language is conversational. Formally, they owe something to Pound's Cantos, and to Williams's Paterson and the later lyrics of Journey to Love, Desert Music and Pictures From Breughel, the stepped, shifting progressions intended to mimic the diagrammatic segments of spoken sentences.
The other obvious thing about them is their burden of cliché'd phrases and tired signifiers--"in a veritable rage/of adversity"--"all the final hollering monsters"--"imbecile illusions of happiness"--the crude alliterations--"cadavers and carnivorous cocks"--and a nonspecific generality--"the people of the world" "heaped up" "in an abstract landscape" "engines/that devour America."
The poems' underlying sentiment is critical, "anti-establishment" in the words of that time, the Beatnik mantra against bourgeois decadence and blandness. Yet the imagination behind the poems feels empty and opportunistic, taking aim and shooting fish in a barrel. "Bland billboards"--"imbecile illusions of happiness."
I've always felt you have to grant a writer the privilege to pursue the kind of writing he/she wants. You can criticize an artist for not having a high enough standard, and I have done that at times. Easy targets. Poets who aspire to popular acceptance may claim, with some justice, that their audience proves their value. For a writer such as Ferlinghetti, who seems to have considered his writing career an adjunct to his role as businessman and erstwhile cultural ambassador and entrepreneur, popularity may serve as adequate pretext for aesthetic satisfaction. Ferlinghetti never pretended to be a critical talent, and was content to let his poetry and other writings serve as his official "statement" about the world.
Another way of thinking about this relationship would be to surmise that Ferlinghetti accurately gauged the value and purpose of his talent, and settled into a comfortable mediocrity which made no high-pressured demands upon him. The success of A Coney Island of the Mind--the material text has sold over a million copies!--undoubtedly exceeded his wildest expectations, but again, it was the commercial synergy between the the fame this engendered, and the magnetic attraction of the Columbus Avenue mecca, which characterize his approach his specific style.
As I have described it previously here, and elsewhere on other blog comment boxes, American literature historically was regional in nature. The Eastern Literary Establishment may have dominated our national consciousness--its hegemony of publishing houses, academic elites--its attention inevitably focused on Europe--but America was always too large to be a fully integrated cultural system of values (as it has traditionally been in England, France or Germany). America has always had its regional cadres and isolated figures. Steinberg's map of America as seen from New York is the perfect expression of this myopic obliviousness.
Ferlinghetti's position, like Rexroth's or Bukowski 's or William Stafford's or Richard Hugo's, or Horgan's or Stegner's or Herb Gold's--you could even go back to Jack London and Mark Twain--existed stubbornly outside the Eastern hegemony, did not subscribe to its standards, and could afford to ignore the superficial canons of taste and decency which it represented. Beat literature may have become a national phenomenon, but it's impossible to imagine it apart from San Francisco, the Pacific Basin, or the City Lights store and publishing venue. Aspiring young writers have made the pilgrimage to the place for at least three generations now, though the store itself hasn't been a real literary presence for decades. Ferlinghetti hardly ever shows up, preferring to pursue his other interests and commitments.
Geography seems less and less significant, in the information age, as a defining measure of the proximal connection among demographic contexts. When Kerouac hitch-hiked out to California in the 1950's, the journey had symbolic as well as actual implications. The Continental Divide signified an emancipation from tradition. That same possibility, which had drawn people westward--the Mormons, the 49ers, et al--attracted writers and artists, those who craved separation and independence. Those who, like Ferlinghetti, were refugees from the predominant, closed network of discrimination and correctness, saw the West as the land of opportunity in both the artistic and commercial sense(s). Trying to start a bookstore, or a publishing house, based on an avant-garde model (like City Lights) would have made little sense in New York or Philadelphia or Boston of the 1950's.
The air of cynical nostalgic longing comprises most of the subtext of Ferlinghetti's book--"the back streets of all my memories" "where I first/fell in love/with unreality"--probably of a sainted urban childhood which he didn't actually experience, but borrowed from Miller--
"The rest of the United States doesn't exist for me, except as idea, or history, or literature . . . But I was born in the street and raised in the street . . . To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts which gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude. In the street you learn what human beings really are . . . What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature. It doesn't matter whether you fly to the Pole, whether you sit on the floor of the ocean with a pad in your hand, whether you pull up nine cities one after the other, or whether, like Kurtz, you said up the river and go mad. No matter how exciting, how intolerable the situation, there are always exits, always ameliorations, comforts, compensations, newspapers, religions. But once there was none of this. Once you were free, wild, murderous . . . ."
--Henry Miller, the beginning sentences of "The Fourteenth Ward," from Black Spring (Grove Press, 1963).
Whereas Miller went to Europe, following the worn-out paradigm of seeking the source in old world settings--and finding it, to his chagrin, in many respects, already passé--Ferlinghetti, already having done the Europe exile trip in Paris during the 1940's, realized that the vanguard, at least for him, lay elsewhere.
Crucially, too, as with Miller's embrace of "the street"--as the vivid, tumultuous, raucous intercourse of humanity he recalled as the impression of his childhood--Ferlinghetti's "Beatness" was based on an imaginary, idyllic urban childhood--of "screendoor summers" "beyond the El"--
The great art of the Europeans--like Chagall--becomes the occasion for a tired pun--"there were no strings attached"--or the opportunity to have a "naked nude"--the girl in the rain with breathless breasts." The aura of sexual liberation seems to hang heavily on these poems, either as seduction of the adolescent mind, or as challenge to the reigning proprieties. The mixture of an idealized mythic childhood, mixed with an adult straining after release from inhibition, and a Depression Era working-class sympathy--characterizes most of Ferlinghetti's program, comprising a sort of second-tier pop radical avant stance, well-suited to the limited regional potentials of a frontier consciousness. Real outlaws had never had it so good.
Please note, I attempted to display enlarged images of selected text pages of the book where the little blue question-mark boxes appear, but Blogger wouldn't reproduce them on the blog page. Similarly, clicking on the small images which do appear, no longer enables a linking to a larger image display, as it once did on Blogger. There may be an Html code which enables these functions to work, but I don't know how to program it.