Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 1958 collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, launched his career and became one of the century’s best-selling and most-translated volumes of poetry. But he’s just as well known for his activity off the page: for co-founding City Lights, the San Francisco bookstore; for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and serving as the defendant in the ensuing obscenity trial; for his association with U.S. countercultural movements; and for his meetings with leaders of the Left in Central and South America.
Along the way — when not writing poems, novels and plays, or exhibiting his paintings—Ferlinghetti, now 93, became a standard-bearer for accessible poetry engaged with contemporary politics and culture. “Poets, come out of your closets,” he wrote in his 1975 “Populist Manifesto.” “Open your windows, open your doors.” There is “no time now for the artist to hide / above, beyond, behind the scenes, / indifferent, paring his fingernails, / refining himself out of existence.” Instead, he wrote, poets should hit the streets, and poems should work toward a “new commonsensual public surface” built from accessible language yet still infused with a beauty beyond the reach of everyday talk.
Given his biography, it’s worth pointing out that much of Ferlinghetti’s poetry is not political in the usual sense of the word. He is not constantly trumpeting causes, decrying injustice or erecting barricades, poetic or otherwise. Flip open A Coney Island of the Mind and you’ll find romantic torment, meditations on nostalgia and a description of reading Yeats on New York’s elevated train. You’ll also find mockery of upper-class myopia and disgust with bourgeois snobbery. But these poems urge not support of X or Y cause, but instead an openness toward experience — and a refusal to let existing modes of life get in the way. “Let’s go / Come on / Let’s go” begins “Junkman’s Obbligato.” “Let them come / and take it away / whatever it was / we were paying for.”
At times, though, Ferlinghetti’s desire for openness has led to work about so much that it ends up being about nothing much. In Americus, Book I, a fragmentary, highly allusive, book-length poem released in 2004, Ferlinghetti attempts to survey U.S. history from the country’s founding through the JFK assassination while simultaneously celebrating his dearest poetic idols — all in less than 100 pages. The poem’s handful of beautiful passages are outnumbered by superficial flyovers of vast swathes of history and culture. Too often, Americus I reads like a left-leaning, uncomplete Wikipedia entry with line breaks added.
Ferlinghetti’s latest, Time of Useful Consciousness (New Directions), is subtitled Americus, Book II. Like Book I, it moves quickly through decades, social movements, and art scenes in a sprawling free verse dense with allusions and snippets of other poems, including his own. The central movement is from East to West: from old Europe to New York, and then westward to the Pacific. But, even more so than in Book I, historical tides are evoked not through descriptions of the ways they affected the individual consciousness, but through glancing references to history’s names: Sacco, Vanzetti, Einstein, Gödel, Debs, Goldman, Mother Jones, Kerouac, Stein, Dos Passos, Algren (to mention a few). Ferlinghetti’s work has always been allusive, but, at its best, also forgiving to the uninitiated. Here, if you don’t happen to know what’s going on, tough luck. Worse, if you do know, all you get is a nod and a wink.
Still, Book II has its moments. In one, a minister in a Las Vegas arcade listens to the instructions for a shooting game with an African safari theme. The goal of the game, at first, is to shoot as many jungle animals as possible. But soon the game’s disembodied voice is also urging the minister to shoot a native jungle-dweller, then anyone at all who isn’t white, plus any “creeps” or “freaks” for good measure. Finally, without warning, the game’s instructions end with advice cribbed from Shakespeare: “There once was a man / who sold the Lion’s skin / while the beast still lived / and was killed / while hunting him.” In less than two pages, Ferlinghetti sharply evokes not only the fear and violence woven into the fabric of the American project, but also the way those emotions are both assuaged and perpetuated by alluring spectacles moving faster than thought.
Yet this type of attention to the rhythm and texture of contemporary life — its “commonsensual public surface” — is too often bypassed in favor of generalities, delivered in leaden lines: “The deep soul of America / lost in video game arcades and pinball machines / in suburban malls / where lived the lives / of the middle minds of America.” These read to me like lesser Bruce Springsteen lyrics, minus the music. Elsewhere Ferlinghetti descends into a bland crotchetiness. Technology, Ferlinghetti proclaims, is “fated to destroy or ingest / all the age-old cultures / of the world / in a World Wide Web / of globalization / in an Ayn Rand projection / of world domination.”
The poem’s last three pages take a puzzling but telling twist. “Enough! Enough! / Enough of this ‘loud lament of the disconsolate chimera’ / in some waste land of our impoverished imagination.” For several stanzas Ferlinghetti describes the beauty still left in the world, then ends by asking, essentially: What would Whitman do? How might a poet today describe American reality without descending into despair? A good question, but one that sits poorly when posed briefly at the very end of a long poem dominated by despair.
“Time of useful consciousness” is an aeronautical term referring to the time between when a pilot loses oxygen and when she will pass out: the narrow window during which the plane and the lives aboard it might be saved. There’s time, Ferlinghetti seems to imply, for another great American poem. This, regrettably, isn’t one.
Correction: A mislabeled photo of Gregory Corso has been replaced with this shot of Ferlinghetti.