Beat Poetry Day

October 7th is Beat Poetry Day. It marks the anniversary Allen Ginsberg reading his radical poem, ‘Howl’, at the Gallery 6 in San Francisco in 1955. The poet and owner of the City Lights Bookshop (still there to this day, visit if you get the chance),
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was subsequently tried for obscenity and cleared. Here, Visiting Research Fellow, Martin Jesinghausen, reflects on Ferlinghetti’s influence.

New American Poetry against the Plague

Over the last year or so I found some relief from virally or politically induced nightmares in poetry. New American writing proved particularly good as antidote against the atrocities of budding US-style fascism.

I came across two new writers Ocean Vuong (born 1988) and Jennie Xie (no data), immigrants into the USA from Asia at an early age, one from Saigon, Vietnam, the other from Hefei, China. Both are offering new perspectives on global culture and on North America today, often by rendering strange the tropes and images from an unknown homeland they left behind, through blending them with material representing their new-world environment, at the same time alien and familiar to them. As child-migrant outsiders they have grown up inside an adopted culture, in language acquired and honed to standards of poetic expressiveness. This is poetry that offers fresh and raw vistas, new ways of seeing and feeling across divides. Vuong’s collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds came out in 2016, Xie’s is called Eye Level and was published 2017.

Awarding the 2020 Nobel Prize for literature to Louise Glück (born New York 1943) came as a lovely surprise, the second American poet in a row following Dylan’s selection of 2016. Glück’s poetry is dark post-modernist word-music, her special voice that of a peculiar stream-of-consciousness, often as if history itself were speaking or dreaming. Material from myth and the collective unconscious resurfaces, salvaged from an underground flow of cultural jetsam and flotsam reaching us from ancient times. She has not published much very recently; her career is fully documented with complete collections in Louise Glück. Poems 1962-2012. The latest title dates back to 2014: Faithful and Virtuous Night.

A few weeks ago I discovered Terrance Hayes’s prize-winning 2018 collection entitled American Sonnets for my Past and Present Assassin. The intricate and strict formal architecture of the Sonnet, a new poetic form originating at the beginning of the modern period with Petrarch, proved attractive for the expression of complex, often contradicting, or even paradoxical thoughts, ever since its heyday when it was adopted (and adapted) in Elizabethan poetry, and especially Shakespeare, of course. Hayes appropriates the Sonnet as an Afro-American form. He does so by breaking away from the prescriptive traditional rules of Sonnet-construction. He ‘deconstructs’ the Sonnet by overhauling its old formal parameters so that it becomes fit as a medium for debates of the aggravating contradictions in contemporary US-culture. Riveting stuff!

Two of my older favourites, rather well-known in this country because of their long-standing association with the London Review of Books, have also been publishing new work recently. The first of them, Frederick Seidel (born St Louis 1936!), especially appeals because his texts are irreverent, grumpy, sinister, funny, sarcastic, and often politically less than correct, a virtuoso technician of words with a sharp scalpel against the arteries of current pseudo-culture and ogre-politics. Check out his 2016 poem ‘Trump for President’ published first in the LRB 29, 2016.  Seidel is a city-jungle poet. His two last collections give evidence again of his deep attachment to New York: Widening Income Inequality, 2017, and Peaches Goes it Alone, 2019, are Seidel’s ‘late style’ monuments. Also search out perhaps ‘Karl’, ‘In memory of Karl Miller’, erstwhile editor of the LRB and friend of Seidel’s (first published New York Review of Books, November 20, 2014, also collected): a love letter from an American cosmopolitan writer to London as a hub of urban culture. Last month Faber published the latest selection of what Seidel deems fit for posterity: Frederick Seidel New Selected Poems, 2021. –  The second of the old guard close to my heart is August Kleinzahler (born 1949, New Jersey), more gentle than Seidel, and as accomplished and wide-ranging in themes and forms, perhaps with a more narrative scope. His latest collection Snow Approaching on the Hudson came out this year, and cuts to the chase of the situation.  The eponymous poem I found very touching. It chimes as a commentary on the current virus misery, a Covid winter-journey of the freezing mind.

Meanwhile, thankfully things have come to a head on the politics front, for the moment at least, or so it seems, with American fascism defeated on 21 January.  Can poetry save the world from evil and affliction? American poetry had certainly done its bit in the battle against populism as a form of public deception  and fascist dictatorship. A month after Bidens’s inauguration Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away, on 22 February, at the ripe age of 101. 

Ferlinghetti used poetry as a political weapon. As a publisher and in his own poetry he fought political authoritarianism. He advocated enlightenment values, breaking a lance for liberty, equality, justice, globally and at home, reason, internationalism, and, in true Californian spirit, free love, boundless imagination and expansion of the mind.  With  the slaying of the Trump dragon he lived to enjoy a small victory in his lifelong, nearly 70 year-fight against bigotry, obfuscation, dictatorship, war-mongering and media terror.  

A few more thoughts on this large figure of post-war poetry might suffice. Ferlinghetti entered the arena 1955 with a first collection called Pictures of the Gone World, published by City Lights Books Press, the printing-press side of the bookshop he founded in San Francisco in 1953.  The independent bookstore-publication model he had transplanted to San Francisco from good old Modernist Paris, Europe, where in 1919  Shakespeare & Company, was set up by the American Sylvia Beach: from Paris to San Francisco with love – a transatlantic shuttle that worked in both directions. Like Shakespeare & Company for new experiments in Modernist writing, City Lights Books turned into a laboratory for new forms and styles of post-modern writing, a locus/focus for the Beat Generation. And like the Parisian motherlode, before it was closed down by the Fascists in 1941, the San Franciscan franchise provided (they both still do; Shakespeare & Company re-emerged after the war! Go visit!) networking space and independent printing opportunities for artists and writers, with an agenda of broadening cultural and political horizons of readers, writers and small-gig audiences at readings and concerts. The publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 by City Lights Books press was as momentous for the burgeoning revival of post-modern American poetry as the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 by Shakespeare & Company for the elevation of the Modernist project on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ferlinghetti’s poetry always was political, in all senses of the word. Thus he flipped the notion of populism on his head in his Populist Manifestos, published 1976, when he demanded of poetry to get out there and go populist (First Manifesto):

‘Poets, come out of your closets,
Open your windows, open your doors,
You have been holed up for too long
in your closed worlds…’

In the Second Manifesto he asks the

‘Sons of Whitman sons of Poe
Sons of Lorca and Rimbaud
or their dark daughters, 
poets of another breath
poets of another vision
Who among you still speaks of revolution
Who among you still unscrews
the locks from the doors
in this revisionist decade?
“You are president of your own body America”’,

He here quotes a Mexican poet with a statement that he throws as a wake-up call at his North American poetic fellow travellers to start the fight for a political re-envisioning of a progressive America. I detect echoes here of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s dictum (in Defence of Poetry, 1821) that ‘poets are the legislators of the world’.

Ferlinghetti’s sees poetry as an ‘insurgent art’ (title of a poem of 2007), but he can also speak with a tender and intimate poetic voice, privately political, as in much of his work, notably in the aforementioned A Coney Island of the Mind, for example

A Coney Island of the Mind #20
The Pennycandystore beyond the El
is where I first
                       fell in love
                                        with unreality
Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among
                                              the licorice sticks
                         and tootsie rolls
            and Oh Boy Gum
Outside the leaves were falling as they died
A wind had blown away the sun
A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room
Outside the leaves were falling
                                  and they cried
                                                       Too soon! too soon!