by Steve Heilig
Poetry Foundation Media Services
Poetry As Insurgent Art, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. New Directions. $12.95.
What is the "use" of poetry? Or, as more than one author has asked, Can Poetry Matter?
More than 50 years ago, renowned American poet William Carlos Williams wrote famously that "It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there."
A practical man who was not only a poet but also a practicing physician, Williams's lines are usually read to imply that poetry--good poetry, at least--is essential to one's inner life and spirit. In the cultural doldrums of the early 1950s, that rang true for many people.
Around the same time Williams wrote those lines, Lawrence Ferlinghetti arrived in San Francisco, fresh from Paris with a doctorate from the Sorbonne and a love of the printed word. He soon co-founded the landmark and still-thriving City Lights bookstore and publisher--issuing not only his own work but also the first printing of Allen Ginsberg's iconic poem "Howl" and many other works by writers who became known as Beat. Ferlinghetti has been poet laureate of San Francisco, received numerous awards both literary and civic, had his paintings widely exhibited, and, nearing 90 years of age, is about as famous as a poet can be in these times.
In other words, Ferlinghetti should need no introduction. That he still might, to the vast majority of Americans who rarely, if ever, read poetry, is part of the lamentable background to his latest book. It has been argued that the current decade is the 1950s all over again, but worse. And for Ferlinghetti, poetry's "use" extends far beyond the personal into the political. "Poetry can save the world by transforming consciousness," he argues in Poetry as Insurgent Art, a slim hardback pocketbook manifesto of prose epigrams, addressed to poets.
"I am signaling you through the flames," he begins in the new section from which his book takes its title. "The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it." Poetry, in this vision, must be a political statement, arrows slung for freedom of expression, thought and resistance. "Write living newspapers," he counsels. "Your poems must be more than want ads for broken hearts"--in other words, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, to write mere "love poetry" in such times is "almost a crime." So "challenge capitalism masquerading as democracy"; "Liberate have-nots and enrage despots"; "Don't cater to the Middle Mind of America nor to consumer society." And so on, in variations of his admonition to "be committed to something outside yourself."
This is a tall order for poetry, to be sure. But the six or seven (mostly) one-liners on each of the 30 pages are testament to Ferlinghetti's enduring vision and commitment. Some of these lines read as if they could have been penned in the Beat heyday, decades ago: "Stand up for the stupid and crazy"; "Dig folksingers who are the true singing poets of yesterday and today." Political economy, down-home mysticisms, and occasional cringe-worthy silliness ("Make permanent waves, and not just on the heads of stylish women") all blend into his own version of Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet." Thus, poets should "see eternity in the eyes of animals," but not "be too arcane for the man in the street." Ferlinghetti can be self-deprecating: "Don't lecture like this. Don't say don't." But he is also dead serious: "Don't let them tell you poetry is bull-" and, especially, "Don't ever believe poetry is irrelevant in dark times." Indeed, as Williams would probably agree, in dark times poetry becomes even more essential.
The second major section of the book, "What Is Poetry?," was started by Ferlinghetti in the late 1950s; here he provides backup for his argument for the importance of poetry, and that a "life lived with poetry in mind is itself an art." Here, the political returns--somewhat--to the personal, as "poetry is the shortest distance between two humans," is "the anarchy of the senses making sense"; and "it is a pulsing fragment of the inner life, an un-tethered music" which "restores wonder and innocence."
Again, a lofty charge, but many have believed it, and some, such as Ferlinghetti, have lived it--
We have seen the best minds of our generation
destroyed by boredom at poetry readings.
This impassioned, compact, and concise little book won't destroy any minds. But it may stoke some hearts, as Ferlinghetti intends. Long may he add to his poetic warning: "Wake up, the world's on fire!"
Steve Heilig is an editor, writer, award-winning poet, medical ethicist, environmental and public health advocate in San Francisco, as well as a frequent book critic for numerous publications and a music critic for the Beat magazine. This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by the Poetry Foundation. Read more about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and his poetry, at www.poetryfoundation.org.
© 2008 by Steve Heilig. All rights reserved.