On Ferlinghetti’s Americus, I
by Mark Chmiel
For Dianne Lee and Lynette D’Amico
When I first read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Americus,I just before The Book of Mev was published, I was energized by discovering how much it is a mish mash, full of allusions, weaving together autobiography, politics, cultural history, headlines, lit crit, a whole shmear of America! It really is Joycean: Here comes everybody!
Ferlinghetti’s the John Sayles of poetry: Americus is a down-to-earth, populist poesy and retrospective on what and who we’ve been. Obscure, pedantic, unreadable poets, sharpen your knives!
A couple of passages:
Some kind of new woman or man
in our great melting pot
petri dish of creation
A small-scale exhibition
of what mankind could possibly be—
“Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul)”
Hero or antihero
Man of pure action or Underground Man
Man of “heightened consciousness”
Or psychedelic mystic
Slave master or utopian dreamer
Bowery bohunk or blessed redeemer
Sister of Mercy or serial killer
Poet or panderer on the lamb
Keystone Kop or Chaplin’s little man
or Bush league Presidencies
in totalitarian plutocracies?
O which will it be? [pp. 2-3]
Song of the Open Road sung drunken
with Whitman and Jack London and Thomas Wolfe
still echoing through
a Nineteen Thirties America
a Nineteen Forties America
an America long gone now
Except in broken-down dusty old
Greyhound bus stations
in small lost towns
Ti-Jean’s [Kerouac’s] vision of America
Seen from a speeding car window
the same as Wolfe’s lonely sweeping vision
glimpsed from a coach train long ago [pp.64-65]
Over the last decade, Andrew Wimmer has stressed how much we as citizens need to recover our imaginations, to break free from the imprisonment of our spirits and language. Ferlinghetti sees poets as having a crucial role in that recovery:
[Poetry] is the street talk of angels and devils.
It is a subversive raid upon the forgotten language of the collective unconscious.
It is a lawless, insurgent enterprise.
[The poet] must be a gadfly of the state mating with a firefly.
It speaks the unspeakable, utters the unutterable sigh of the heart.
A poem should still be an insurgent knock on the door of the unknown
Poetry a radical presence, always goading us.
For great poetry to be born, there must be hunger and passion.
Poetry is the last refuge of humanity in dark times.
Radical, insurgent, subversive
Raid, refuge, gadfly …