Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind (New Directions, 1958, ) and Tyrannus Nix? (New Directions, 1969) were among the first books of poetry I selected from the dusty shelves of the much-missed Fahrenheit 451 in Laguna Beach. It was the 1980s, and an outrage I barely comprehended was building inside my awkward, 14-year-old frame, outrage that swelled every time I saw Ronald Reagan on TV. Ferlinghetti’s “I Am Waiting” gave shape to the rage: “I am waiting,” he wrote, “for a way to be devised / to destroy all nationalisms / without killing anybody / and I am waiting / for linnets and planets to fall like rain / and I am waiting for lovers and weepers / to lie down together again / in a new rebirth of wonder.”
This — and his portrayal of Orange County homeboy Richard Nixon as a lumbering, vicious dinosaur — made much sense as I began to understand that American-trained troops were raping and pillaging their way through Central America and that my college prospects were being whittled down to finance the war machine. I’d crank up the Clash’s London Calling on my Walkman and read Ferlinghetti over and over. I didn’t understand anarchy or revolution; I just understood that I was angry and that being angry all the time scared the shit out of me. Ferlinghetti didn’t make me less angry, but he did make me less afraid of being angry.
“That poem’s more than 40 years old,” said Ferlinghetti, admonishing me recently. “I’ve got more recent books, like A Far Rockaway of the Heart. Have you read that yet?”
Mortified, I mumbled no, and realized that the man enjoys screwing with everybody, admirers included.
Ferlinghetti remains as busy as ever. He served as San Francisco’s first poet laureate, has written a regular poetry column for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, “Poetry As News,” and still runs a small press out of his San Francisco bookstore, City Lights. Partly because of those things — and the fact that he once roamed the poetic world with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, among others — he may be the best-known poet living in America today. “More popular than renowned,” he says, correcting me. “I’m not a member of the American Academy of Poets. I’ve never been the country’s poet laureate or won a Pulitzer.”
Nor does he seem to mind. He seems to so enjoy being an outsider that he built it into the job description of his city’s poet laureate. It’s a perspective he thinks is missing from the national gig. “The U.S. poet laureate is supposed to be a quietus position,” he muses. “That’s why they appoint them. The U.S. poet laureate’s job is just to say, ‘Have a nice day!’ That’s why Allen Ginsberg was never poet laureate. He would have rocked the boat too much.... Who’s in a better position to criticize the American government than the poet laureate? He doesn’t have any commitments, no debts to pay. He’s an independent voice, but he doesn’t say anything.”
As evidence, Ferlinghetti offers current laureate (at the time this article was written) Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project. “‘What’s your favorite poem?’ That’s Pinsky’s trip, isn’t it?” he asks. “People are starving and dying, and the poet laureate says, ‘Have a nice day!’ People are starving and dying: ‘What’s your favorite poem?’” Ferlinghetti claims his poetry hasn’t changed really, just deepened, that he’s still about the work of “presenting a new vision of reality. You should be able to read a poem and say, ‘I never saw the world like that.’ That’s what Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ did, or Whitman or innumerable passages of Shakespeare. It’s a constant challenge. They say nothing is new under the moon, but poetry is news, and it’s important when it articulates a new vision of reality or an old vision in a surprising way. When it subverts the dominant paradigm.”
That last phrase, common throughout the Beat era of the ’50s and the hippie movement of the ’60s, has become a bumper sticker cliché now, but perhaps that’s because it’s still neccesary. Years ago, Ferlinghetti’s poems battered through the paradigm Reagan was pitching on the TV news. I ask him who’s doing that today, when the Academy and other poetry institutions seem more interested in patting one another on the back and handing one another awards than speaking out against injustice.
“The most interesting manuscripts we receive,” he says, referring to City Lights Publishers, “are from Third World writers or women writers. They still have a revolution to win. Whitey doesn’t have a revolution of his own to be passionate about or write about.” But Ferlinghetti evidently still does, and people are listening. Arguably, he already fulfills the role he wishes Pinsky and future poet laureates would embrace, to be “the true conscience of the people, sounding off poetically on crimes against humanity, political inanities or disastrous wars where someone had blundered.”
In other words, to be a poet in a world that badly needs them.