Lawrence Ferlinghetti at Dartmouth

Dartmouth Hall

I was shocked to find that Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born in March 1919) was still alive. Today, I borrowed one of his poetry collections from the L.A. Central Library and remembered with great pleasure running into the poet himself at Dartmouth College around the mid 1960s. He was on campus to read a selection of poems from his collection A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) and to answer questions.

Never in my life had I seen someone with his uncanny ability to deflect questions. My classmates posed the usual bullshit queries that were typical of people who wanted to look very intellectual but didn’t know what they were talking about. I enjoyed the poems, and I liked all the anecdotes of the beatnik poets he published, such as Allen Ginsburg,  Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. But I kept my mouth shut lest I be exposed like so many of my classmates were.

Ferlinghetti’s Poetry Collection

I was pleasantly surprised to find that A Coney Island of the Mind is the best-selling poetry collection ever published in the United States, having sold in excess of a million copies.

Letter from Iceland

View Around Mývatn in Northeast Iceland

In the Thirties, two English poets, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, took a trip to Iceland. Auden wrote a book, published in 1936, called Letters from Iceland, which consisted of mixed prose, poetry, and photographs. The following is from a longer poem in Chapter III entitled “Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard”:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture,
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth.
The tourist sites have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge,
And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population
And cannot rise to many bores or hacks
Or paupers or poor men paying Super-Tax.
Yet further, if you can stand it, I will set forth
The obscure but powerful ethics of Going North.
*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *
In England one forgets—in each performing troupe
Forgets what one has lost, there is no room to stoop
And look along the ground, one cannot see the ground
For the feet of the crowd, and the lost is never found.
I dropped something, I think, but I am not sure what
And cannot say if it mattered much or not,
So let us get on or we shall be late, for soon
The shops will close and the rush hour be on.

The reference to a “lack of wealth” refers to the relative poverty of Iceland until it became an independent country in 1946. Under the Danes,  the Icelanders were one of the poorest peoples in Europe. No longer.

Bukowski: “A Dog Walking Backwards”

Poet Charles Bukowski

The title of this poem is “For the Foxes.” I do not understand why. But that’s okay with poetry. It takes quite a lot of readings sometimes to understand what is going on. Whatever it means—specifically—I like the feel of this poem.

Don’t feel sorry for me.
I am a competent,
satisfied human being.

be sorry for the others
who
fidget
complain

who
constantly
rearrange their
lives
like
furniture.

juggling mates
and
attitudes

their
confusion is
constant

and it will
touch
whoever they
deal with.

beware of them:
one of their
key words is
‘love’

and beware those who
only take
instructions from their
God

for they have
failed completely to live their own
lives.

don’t feel sorry for me
because I am alone

for even
at the most terrible
moments
humor
is my
companion.

I am a dog walking
backwards

I am a broken
banjo

I am a telephone wire
strung up in
Toledo, Ohio

I am a man
eating a meal
this night
in the month of
September.

put your sympathy
aside.
they say
water held up
Christ:
to come
through
you better be
nearly as
lucky.

 

“The Peace of Wild Things”

Finding the Ultimate Peace

I was wondering what to write about today, when I saw this poem quoted on Facebook by my friend Lynette Cahill. At that point, I said to myself, “Yep, that’ll do it!” It is called “The Peace of Wild Things” and was composed by Wendell Berry.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Los Encuentros

Highland Guatemala Town

I picked up a book from the library today by a Fulbright Scholar named Stephen Connely Benz entitled Guatemalan Journey and found the following poem entitled “Los Encuentros” in the front matter. I hope you like it as much as I did:

The phrase book tells me I’m at a crossroads,
I should expect encounters
in the vellum margins of this highway
where buses cough black clouds
and hanging men cry out destinations
I cannot find on the map.
I’ve heard rumors of what lies
ahead, the incidents hidden in hairpin
turns, dire straits for those who seek
passage through gullies, ravines, lava valleys.
The topography of this country,
an explorer said, is like a crumpled page:
palimpsest mountains, parchment plains,
hieroglyphic highlands awaiting interpretation.
Lexicographers take notes on each twisting
nuance in the road, turns of phrase promise
arrival or departure, movement along this text
I’m traveling. I read ahead
through the codex of curves
And straightaways to the congested towns
where babblers hail strangers
in unrelated vocables.
I study the morphemes in a parrot’s squawk,
signals sent up in volcano smoke,
stories revealed in aboriginal textile.
I skim long vistas of calligraphied macadam,
an endless panorama of road signs encoding
a traveler’s tale, a new message
But the phrase book’s no help now,
it all translates the same—
I’m at a crossroads,
expecting encounters, still waiting.

The book itself seems like an excellent introduction to Guatemala. I wonder if he wrote anything else.

 

Working Within the System

Time Magazine Cover Story on Yevgeny Yevtushenko

There are two Yevtushenkos. Coming to light in the early 1960s was the young Siberian poet who gave poetry readings to huge crowds in the Soviet Union, like some kind of rock star. He was critical of Stalin, of Russian anti-Semitism, and the “blue envelopes” with extra pay given to writers who toed the official line. Yet he clearly worked within the system, considered himself a loyal Communist, and was allowed to visit foreign countries without fear of his escaping.

I have just finished reading the poet’s A Precocious Autobiography, published in 1963, at the height of his fame—at a time when the Western press was touting him as a Communist they admired. It was a book that was at the same time critical of the government and eager to please it. According to an article in The Guardian:

Mr. Yevtushenko did so working mostly within the system, however, taking care not to join the ranks of outright literary dissidents. By stopping short of the line between defiance and resistance, he enjoyed a measure of official approval that more daring dissidents came to resent.

While they were subjected to exile or labor camps, Mr. Yevtushenko was given state awards, his books were regularly published, and he was allowed to travel abroad, becoming an international literary superstar.

As the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said about Yevtushenko: “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Here we have the second Yevtushenko, a figure of controversy.

Where do I stand on the poet? I have read his poems, but don’t care for them. But then, I don’t know Russian, and he could be badly translated—or else he might be one of those poets whose works don’t translate well into other languages.

When the Soviet Union blinked out of existence around 1989-1990, the the poet moved to the United States, where he taught courses at colleges in New York and Tulsa, Oklahoma. He died in Tulsa in 2017.

 

“Samurai Song”

Samurai Warrior with Sword Drawn

I love this poem by Robert Pinsky, formerly Poet Laureate of the United States. It reminds me of my own situation, in which I must deal with the waning years of my life with the spirit of a warrior. The poem is called “Samurai Song.” I first discovered it in The New Yorker. Several years ago, I met Mr. Pinsky at a book festival and told him how much this poem meant to me.

Samurai Song

When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had no
Mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.