Friday, November 21, 2008

STL #78: Ferlenghetti

(Note: The misspelling of the subject's name in the title seems somehow appropriate in reflecting my utter lack of interest in the poet, so I have intentionally left the incorrect form. Other errors are unintentional.)

Some time ago, I said that the only poets in NAP I knew were Creeley and Levertov. Using the threshold of being in the same room with as knowing someone, I actually know Lawrence Ferlingetti too, having been loitering in the City Lights poetry room when he came sprily up the stairs. I've known his poetry for a long time, having come across it in an anthology my sister had called, dig this hipness, Beowulf to the Beatles (cause the modern rockers, they're like poets man). The "little charleychaplin man" and "christ climbed down" are in there for imagery or something. I read Coney Island of the Mind on the recommendation of a hipster I knew while an undergrad. Despite (or because of) the long acquaintance, his poetry doesn't mean that much to me. The Coney Island book has become an official Beat artifact, and it's hard to read it as other than something acting out its own dated hipness. I don't think this is a fault exactly, but there's nothing in the book that transcends the period it helped define. In NAP, a handful of poems from Coney Island are presented as numbered sections of, by implication, a book-length poem. I had never thought of Coney Island of the Mind as a long poem. That doesn't salvage it for me, but does make it potentially interesting. Unfortunately, neither my memory of the whole text or the represented extracts show on extension from the beginning to the end. Each poem begins by invoking an outsider artist (usually through a specific work) and ends with some existential resolution: damning the "engines/that devour America," or contemplating "her eternal form/spreadeagled in the empty air/of existence." There are other repeated elements to these poems: the descending and ascending white space, the scare quotes thrown around phrases, the agressive alliteration and long-vowelled assonance. Later poems I've seen work out of this paradigmatically 'beat' framework: not to my taste still, but more varied.

STL #77: A Blessing

The last piece I wrote in response to a political event was four years ago, after a terrible election when I was in a desperate mood. (It was actually on Inauguration Day: read it here.)Following Obama's election, I'm more optimistic--hopeful really--about government than I can ever remember being. And in the month it's taken me to find time to return to this post, I've become even more hopeful. And while STL is not a political organ as such, I wanted to mark this mood by prying into coincidence that entwines my mood with Obama and my own intellectual geography. "Barack" means "blessing" in Arabic, just as "Baruch" does in Hebrew. The coincidence is that that because Benedict Spinoza's birth name was "Baruch," and because Louis Zukofsky loved Spinoza, etymologies and puns, variations of the word "blessed" are woven through Zuk's long poem "A". I'm very familiar with "A" which is, as it happens, a work which is easily navigable by its index. Its index notes nineteen occurrences of "blessing," "blessed" or "blest," so as an experiment I cobbled together a poem from those lines. That poem isn't interesting and regardless I certainly will never publish original poetry here. But to get back in the saddle (its been forever since I've posted), I thought I'd examine a few of the most striking and relevant lines.

1.) "Honor, song, sang the blest is delight knowing/we overcame ills by love." From "A"-11, the famous turn into family life. Most uses of the word suggest a redemption, overcoming a difficult (cursed) past. It also suggests unity, with the collective pronoun.

2.)"Some hundred years later the blest:/ A timid child thinks he can fight" Time and transformation. This also suggests the disenfranchised standing up, "yes we can" etc.

3.)"To be blest--/To act well/Or live well (235) But to be blessed is a cultivated virtue. You can bless yourself by acting nobly.

4.) "Blest/Ardent/Celia/ unhurt and/ Happy" Most of the uses of 'blest' occur in "A"-12, where the word is a cipher for Spinoza, one of the movement's tutelary spirits. The four motifs entwine here: to be blest is to behave with an ardent heart. If you are like Celia, you will be like Celia: unhurt and happy.

5.) "how unhappy a place once blessed can grow" The four key terms come together again. The place is America.

6.)"none legislated/into blessedness: Blest/ against obstinacy" Suggesting the hope of coming change.

7.)"mean 'no/shame'--that is 'blessed' sun/for a light" And that change: to not be ashamed of the land once blessed that will end blessed.

There are small blessings, like the three week break that will give me the time to somewhat recoup the three and a half months of silence (not once since the first week of the semester did I post!), but then there are the larger blessings, like the return of public discourse, of debate and deliberation, of drawing energy from allies and opponents alike. Am I too optimistic? I hope not.

Coming up in STL: Back to the NAP project with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, albums of the month from Minutemen, Led Zeppelin and Fairport Convention, and the year in this and that.

Recencies: West Wing seasons 1 and 2, trip to Baltimore (Lola Montes at the Charles St. Theater), Ian Fleming and Allan Furst novels, bunch of Black Saint recordings.