Thursday, March 24, 2011

Poetry Can Save the World

Poetry can save the world, by transforming consciousness.*

          Say something no one else is saying, 
          or say something in a new way ... or both.

 Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Illustration by
Akiko Kato, with permission

I am signaling you through the flames.

                    You have to decide if bird cries are cries of ecstasy
                     or cries of despair
                                                         Be subversive!

          Strive to change the world in such a way
                    that there’s no further need to be a dissident.

                                    Read between the lives, and write between the lines.

                    Be committed to something outside yourself.
                                                Be passionate about it.

Speak up, act out! Silence is complicity.

Wake up! The world’s on fire!

 [Excerpts from "Poetry as Insurgent Art", 2007.]

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, today, has 
reached the age of 92!

In 2007, at the age of 88, Ferlinghetti was interviewed by Amy Goodman at Democracy Now.  Here are some excerpts.

Ferlinghetti, on nuclear warfare:

We took a train over to Nagasaki. It was just a few hours away. And I think it must have been about seven weeks after the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. And there had been time to "clean things up" for some time, but still it was a devastating scene. It made me an instant pacifist. There was just three square miles of mulch with human hair and bones sticking out, and on the horizon a sort of—a landscape you’d find in the painting of Anselm Kiefer these days: blackened unrecognizable shapes sticking up on the horizon and teacups full of flesh, teacups with flesh melted onto the teacup. Oh, we had no idea what—no one knew what radiation was.

On the state of the world [four years ago]:

It’s rushing over the cliff... Congress is totally ignoring the ecological crisis fast ascending on us ... people think that, "Oh, the calamities aren’t going to happen in my little corner right now. It might happen fifty years or a hundred years from now. I mean, my house isn’t going to be swept away—or my life isn’t going to change. I’m always going to be able to drive to work." But it could change overnight. The ecosystem is so finely balanced that it could go out of balance overnight and crash like a computer by tomorrow morning.

Ferlinghetti tells Goodman he has written a new poem and "just has to get this out":

"Pity the Nation," after Khalil Gibran.
Pity the nation whose people are sheep,
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced,
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice,
except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world with force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation—oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.

Advice to young poets:

Do you have to be a poet? If you don’t have to be a poet, be a prose writer. You’ll get further faster. Poetry—there’s probably more poetry published today than any time in the history of the world. Nevertheless, there is this—people think they have this blindness when they see a line in the typography of poetry, and it just blocks them. So if you can say the same thing in prose, you’ll probably be better off. For instance, this, my little book, Poetry as Insurgent Art, that’s written in prose, trying to break down the barrier.

[To hear an audio recording of the complete interview (where he talks about Kerouac, Howl, the Beats, and meeting Castro, etc. and reads several of his poems), click here.]



Anthony Duce said...

Thank you for posting this.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ferlinghetti was the very first non-British poet I was ever introduced to and the only non-Brit to be tackled at school. A hirsute student was allowed to teach our English class for a period and the poem he tried to teach us about was by Ferlinghetti, ‘Sometime During Eternity’. We were particularly difficult and the other kids encouraged me to take the mickey out of him but I didn’t really have the heart. I kinda empathised with him and I thought it kinder to let him squirm than put him on the spot with stupid questions. I’ve actually read very little Ferlinghetti since. No particular reason, I just never ran across him.

awyn said...

Hi Tony. You're welcome :) and thanks for stopping by.

Interesting isn't it, Jim, our first introductions to certain poets. From my first English class the only two names I now remember are Chaucer and Yeats. Yeats's "The Second Coming" haunted me then, and still does today. Ferlinghetti's poem that he "just had to get out" in 2007 (which I hadn't seen before), echoes that same sense of forboding that Yeats talked about.

Both poems, as Ferlinghetti suggests, ‘transforms the consciousness’, and though I’m not sure poetry can save the whole world, it did save (and continues to save) some of us. Even a ‘dark’ poem can let the light in.

I just noticed my comment verification word: “proustsi”. A randomly generated grouping of letters that just happens to spell out the name of a famous dead French writer, followed by the word for “Yes” in Spanish. (Does that mean Marcel agrees about the effect words have on us? I’ll take that as a oui, ha ha.)