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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Number 174: Lawrence Ferlinghetti "Two Scavengers In A Truck,
Two Beautiful People In A Mercedes"

Two Scavengers In A Truck,
Two Beautiful People In A Mercedes

At the stoplight waiting for the light
Nine A.M. downtown San Francisco
a bright garbage truck
with two garbage men in red plastic blazers
standing on the back stoop
one on each side hanging on
and looking down into
an elegant open Mercedes
with an elegant couple in it
The man
In a hip three-piece linen suit
With shoulder-length blond hair & sunglasses
The young blond woman so casually coifed
with a short skirt and colored stocking
On his way to his architect's office
And the two scavengers up since Four A.M.
Grungy from their route
On the way home
The older of the two with grey iron hair
And hunched back
Looking like some
Gargoyle Quasimodo
And the younger of the two
Also with sunglasses and long hair
About the same age as the Mercedes driver
And both scavengers gazing down
As from a great distance
At the cool couple
As if they were watching some odorless TV ad
In which everything is possible

And the very red light for an instant
Holding all four close together
As if anything at all were possible
Between them
Across that great gulf
In the high seas
Of this democracy

--Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Hap Notes: Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born 1919) carries a large part of the responsibility for the massively heavy load that is contemporary literature, most especially poetry. It's hard to imagine what poetry and literature would have been like without Ferlinghetti's City Lights, both as a touchstone bookstore and as a publisher of seminal 20th century poetry and a magazine. You may not like the "Beats" as poets but if you like anyone that came after them, you owe Ferlinghetti a bit of thanks because the Beat generation soaked into this country so deeply that all literature was affected by its presence. Things were written with them, for them, against them and as a reaction to them and it still reverberates in literature today.

Unlike Ginsburg, Keroac, Corso Ferlinghetti has the muscle to carry this load. Highly educated and supremely well-read, he had already experienced many things that the Beats could only imagine. His life has been one of constant, patient, tolerant, often enthusiastic searching and this wisdom, to know that life is a search without end where all possibilities must be explored, is why he is such an excellent choice for the center that is the maelstrom of current literature. That perspective keeps him just a bit above the fray.

Ferlinghetti's dad died before he was born, his mother was committed to an asylum and he lived his young life in the company of his aunt, and by extension, the very rich whose children she was employed to watch as a governess. He spent some time in orphanages waiting for his aunt to find work. His aunt, Emily, was French and he spent the first five years of his life in France, with French his first language. He went to a fancy highly regarded private school and is an Eagle Scout (I say "is" because that's for life, you know). His B.A. in journalism was taken at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and he was writing short stories then, mostly. He went Midshipman's school in Chicago after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and shipped out as a junior officer. He was in the invasion at Normandy (he was part of the sub chaser screen) and after VE Day he transferred to the Pacific theater. This next thing is mighty important: six weeks after the bombing of Nagasaki, he saw the ruins of the city.

After the war he got his M.A. at Columbia in English Literature and later got his doctorate at the Sorbonne. All this stuff happened to him before the Beats. Ferlinghetti was growing into a man who was shocked into pacifism by the horror he saw in the war and believed that poetry and literature had to come down from its ivory tower and mix with the people.

Ferlinghetti and the Beats is far too large a subject to cover here but I wanted to give you some of the bone structure of Ferlinghetti to see how poetry could flourish under his generous leadership. City Lights published many of the Beats, went on trial for obscenity with Ginsburg's "Howl" and was the champion of free speech for many a poet and writer, all under Ferlinghetti's leadership. He published, in City Lights magazine, the Hungryalists of India, whose willfully obscene poetry would blanch the crudest rapper, in the interests of free speech and the freedom of the artist. Even Robert Lowell, when he went to City Lights for a reading, was moved to become a bit more spontaneous and less rigid.

City Lights published a who's who of luminaries including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Charles Bukowski, Marie Ponsot, Allen Ginsburg, Neal Cassady, Kenneth Rexroth, Denise Levertov, Kenneth Patchen, William Carlos Williams, Gregory Corso, Robert Duncan, William S. Burroughs and Gary Snyder, just to name a few. Ferlinghetti, as you can see, was not exclusively the publisher of only Beat poetry.

Now, I'll be frank with you. I am not a great fan of most Beat poetry with the exceptions of Ferlinghetti (who really was NOT a Beat per se) and Corso and Rexroth, but I will defend to the death their right to write how and what they wanted. I don't want to be too snooty about it, though, because there are many Beat poems I love, it's just not my favorite style of poetry.

In today's poem, I wonder who the scavengers really are, especially in the times we live in where the rich are unabashedly unafraid to show their avaricious indifference to those who keep the country going.

I will never forget, nerves thrumming with anticipation and excitement, the first copy I bought of Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind with its courier print, like a feverishly typewritten missive to the few who would read it (it has gone on to sell over a million copies so it's not THAT few anymore and by the time I bought it, the book had been in print for more than 10 years) and its revolutionary frankness. I was in a basement bookstore in St. Paul, Minnesota and I was 15 or 16 and my heart pounded as I bought the thing and I tingled with sparks all over as I read it on the long bus ride home. That copy fell apart about 10 years ago and I still miss it.

Ferlinghetti still lives, his artwork (oh, yeah, forgot to mention that, sorry. The masthead today is his painting, "Conquer") still has shows and a dealer and he still speaks on poetry and writes. The world is a better place while he's around.

Oh, by the by, City Lights was named after the Charlie Chaplin film- the Chaplin estate gave them permission to use it when the store was started in 1953.

Here's a good Ferlinghetti quote:
"Anyone who saw Nagasaki would suddenly realize that they'd been kept in the dark by the United States government as to what atomic bombs can do."

and another

"Don't patronize the chain bookstores. Every time I see some author scheduled to read and sign his books at a chain bookstore, I feel like telling him he's stabbing the independent bookstores in the back."

and another

"And one day ashore, we took a train over to Nagasaki. It was just a few hours away. And I think it must have been about seven weeks after the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. And there had been time to "clean things up," quote/unquote, for some time, but still it was a devastating scene. It made me an instant pacifist. There was just three square miles of mulch with human hair and bones sticking out, and on the horizon a sort of—a landscape you’d find in the painting of Anselm Kiefer these days: blackened unrecognizable shapes sticking up on the horizon and teacups full of flesh, teacups—"

One more: "Well, we didn’t use the word "beat" out on the back of any City Lights publication, including Allen Ginsberg’s books. I wasn’t a member of the original Beat Generation. I was—when they were in Columbia College, I was in graduate school at Columbia. I didn’t know any of them. And it was only after I came to San Francisco that I started meeting the poets, because a bookstore is a natural place for poets to congregate. And right from the beginning we tried to make City Lights a community center, which it soon became."

You can find more Ferlinghetti here:

And here's City Lights, still going strong:

Here's a great interview with Ferlinghetti:

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