A Radical Presence Constantly Goading Us (Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems)

by Mark Chmiel

Owner of the San Francisco institution, City Lights Bookstore; publisher of the Pocket Poets series, including HOWL, which brought an obscenity suit to City Lights and global fame to Allen Ginsberg; poet of A Coney Island of the Mind, which has sold phenomenally for a book of poems in a country which doesn’t esteem poets; issuer of manifestos and proponent of poetry as a subversive art— like Mohandas Gandhi’s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s life has been his message.

Last year his publisher New Directions issued Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems, edited by Nancy J. Peters, Ferlinghetti’s long-time City Lights partner. Any avid Ferlinghetti fan will argue with the title, because each reader will note certain riveting works that are not included in this volume of 144 pages.

Yes, there is Rough Song of Animals Dying, but not An Elegy to Dispel Gloom.

History of the Airplane and Pity the Nation are here, but not Salute and Tall Tale of the Tall Cowboy.

I’ve shared Recipe for Happiness in Khabarovsk or Anyplace with scores of friends (page 66) but missing herein is In a Time of Revolution for Instance.

I first read Ferlinghetti in earnest in the middle of the Reagan years of the 1980s. His prophetic, engaged, and lyrical voice was a delight and a relief. Some of the poems from Coney Island were then and are now, worth rereading, such as “Christ Climbed Down” and “I Am Waiting.”

Several years ago I called together a small circle of Ferlinghetti and poetry aficionados to explore a sample of his work. Especially poignant that eve was when Dianne Lee read aloud “The Old Italians Dying”—

For years the old Italians have been dying all over America
For years the old Italians in faded felt hats have been sunning themselves and dying
You have seen them on the benches
in the park in Washington Square
the old Italians in their black high button shoes the old men in their old felt fedoras
with stained hatbands have been dying and dying
day by day
You have seen them
every day in Washington Square San Francisco the slow bell
tolls in the morning
in the Church of Peter & Pau
in the marzipan church on the plaza
toward ten in the morning the slow bell tolls in the towers of Peter & Paul
and the old men who are still alive
sit sunning themselves in a row
on the wood benches in the park
and watch the processions in and out funerals in the morning
weddings in the afternoon …

Why read poetry in this day and age? Here are a few provocations from Ferlinghetti’s masterpiece, Poetry as a Subversive Art

Poetry is madness and erotic bliss.
Poetry is the rediscovery of the self against the tribe.
Every poet his own priest and his own confessor.
It speaks the unspeakable. It utters the unutterable sigh of the heart.
Poetry is the ultimate illusion to live by.
Poetry is a radical presence constantly goading us.
Poetry can still save the world by transforming consciousness.
A poem is a window through which everything that passes can be seen anew.

Read Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems, or A Coney Island of the Mind, or Endless Life: Selected Poems (1981), or Blasts Cries Laughter (2014), and share a favorite poem or two with friends, strangers, teen-agers, octogenarians. “And there is no end/to the doors of perception still to be opened…”

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