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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

345:Lawrence Ferlinghetti: "A poem, should arise to ecstasy somewhere between speech and song.”

Day 345: Wednesday, February 24th, 2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: "A poem, should arise to ecstasy somewhere between speech and song.”

(Ferlinghetti, "Voyage II")

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a lifelong insurgent poet and painter died two days ago in San Francisco. I first met his poetry at the seminary in 1970 when a classmate Steve Smith from Montana give me a copy of his most famous book A Coney Island of the Mind. I, like so many other young people of that distant age, was instantly hooked. He was irreverent, political and fearless.

I was new to the City and found I could read to my heart's content in the basement of his City Lights Bookstore and walk next door for a beer at Vesuvio's. Through the years I'd see Ferlinghetti holding court at Cafe Trieste on Vallejo Street. It was always a treat to see him. Ferlinghetti fell in love with San Francisco in 1951 and never left.

For Ferlinghetti, poetry contributed to the rhythm and meaning of life. It was life.

“Every great poem fulfills a longing and puts life back together,” A poem, should arise to ecstasy somewhere between speech and song.”

The United Ststes was in ferment after World War II and Ferlinghetti had seen what war had done. He viewed the slaughter of D-Day with binoculars from the relative safety of his navy ship. He shipped out to Japan, arriving soon after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. “As soon as I saw the devastated landscape, this burned, scorched landscape, where human flesh and teacups were melded together, and bones and fingers and faces sticking out of the mud and not an erect building in sight. That made me an instant pacifist.”

He viewed poetry as "insurgent art." He never lost his zeal. “You’re supposed to get more conservative the older you get,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1977. “I seem to be getting just the opposite.”

(Ferlinghetti reading poetry 1957 San Francisco)

Poetry as Insurgent Art

[I am signaling you through the flames]

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?

What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words....

- Lawrence Ferlinghetti - 1919-2021

The Changing Light

The changing light at San Francisco

is none of your East Coast light

none of your

pearly light of Paris

The light of San Francisco

is a sea light

an island light

And the light of fog

blanketing the hills

drifting in at night

through the Golden Gate

to lie on the city at dawn

And then the halcyon late mornings

after the fog burns off

and the sun paints white houses

with the sea light of Greece

with sharp clean shadows

making the town look like

it had just been painted

But the wind comes up at four o’clock

sweeping the hills

And then the veil of light of early evening

And then another scrim

when the new night fog

floats in

And in that vale of light

the city drifts

anchorless upon the ocean

Lawrence Ferlinghetti - 1919-2021

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