Many poetry readers born around the time of the Second World War feel an abiding loyalty to the excitement of the rebellious 1950s-’60s poets (and of the associated magazines, like Evergreen Review) and of our own awakening that owed so much to their work. New Yorkers, San Franciscans, and maybe Chicagoans could actually see them live! The rest of us, scattered around the country, could only read the work and imagine the poets, larger than life. Ginsberg, Corso, Di Prima, Snyder, and others had well-deserved, intense followings. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was something special even among these special artists: he published most of them, and created a space in City Lights Books where global travelers could worship at the veritable shrine.
A half century and more have passed. City Lights astonishingly remains (much also to the credit of Nancy Joyce Peters, who has done so much to hold together the store and publishing division over the decades) for one younger generation after another the same open sesame to rebellion and literary genius.
Now over 90, Ferlinghetti is not finished. Some reviews of this book, published last year, seem to suggest with a bit of condescension that the old man goes on, but his lines weaken. I don’t see it. Dig this:
Before the great metal bird
Changed the face of the continent
Changed the landscape of America—
An America shrunk to an island
seen from forty thousand feet
(the back of a turtle)
Isolate cabins in rock wastes
Lonely tracks lost in wilderness mounts
Blips on the screen attesting to
The huge loneliness of the great spaces.
Ferlinghetti still looks for the causes as well as the deep logic of the great loneliness, the craving for security that the Warfare State depends upon and simultaneously undermines. He shows a lot of humor, wonderful word-play, and a deathless idealism wedded to a determination to see a better day. But for me, it is that vision of the emptiness within the Empire, the trapped feeling of middle classes and upper classes with every material advantage but little satisfaction with their lives, and in millions of individual cases, a growing sense of desperation.
Ferlingthetti’s Coney Island of the Mind spoke directly to that sensation and to the uses of Christianity by the supporters of the powerful to render the Prince of Peace into their chosen weapon of endless warfare. Somehow, Ferlinghetti’s Jesus was mocking them, saying something they could barely comprehend and definitely could not accept. It was a strange message for a free thinker returning to the U.S. a Parisian sophisticate, and a strangely secular place, that is San Francisco, for the message.
Singular among the great radical poets, now practically the last of their legion, Ferlinghetti triumphs again. Hurrah!