Exquisite Corpse - Issue 4
HomeSearchSubmitCorpse CafeArchivesCorpse MallOur Gang
issue 4 home | ec chair | broken news | critical urgencies | burning bush
ficciones | secret agents | stage & screen | letters | gallery
Poetry As News
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Can Poetry Really Change the World?

What is the use of poetry these days? Isn't it  a romantic illusion to think that poetry can really change anything?  Isn't the poet really powerless in today's dog-eat-cat world of power-players, power-plays, and super-powers?
      Today in the United States, the poet has no real place or status. In Latin America and in some European and Middle Eastern countries, poets are still honored in society, but in North America what other city except San Francisco appoints a poet laureate every year? Even so, what power has he or she in the "real" world?  Even in the last century, when traditional values still held Western civilization together, a great poet like Matthew Arnold could  lament that a poet is nothing but "a beautiful ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain." (He was thinking of Shelley.)
       Still there are those, including myself, who  believe in  poets as the antennae of the race, as the conscience of society, or at least as Jack Kerouac said, "the great rememberer redeeming life from darkness." The greatest poets' greatest lines have entered  mass consciousness, and they are great precisely because they have continued to resonate in our lives today.
       One thinks of "poems of first instance" (as the poet Mary Oliver called them), those first experiences with poetry, usually encountered at an early age, that somehow affected one's whole life.  "In just the way that all first experiences," Oliver says, "Making their way across the still-forming landscapes of the mind, are likely to exist through an entire lifetime as the most important, most emotive, most influential experience of their own kind--in just this way, poems of the first instance are profound." ( Blue Pastures, p.94)
       Walt Whitman was the poet that first turned her on. And then there was William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Shelley and Wordsworth, Coleridge and Milton. And there was Keats:
       A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
       Its loveliness increases; it will never
       Pass into nothingness.....
And who's to say that so many lines of Shakespeare do not still resonate in us today, having entered our daily speech, even though we're no longer even aware of their origins?  So with passages by Wordsworth or Matthew Arnold or W.B. Yeats or T.S. Eliot or others more recent.
        But to go back to our beginnings, did not Homer and the Greek dramatists articulate the consciousness and the sensibility of the ancient Greeks, even as Ulysses' voyages defined the limits of their world?  And did not Dante in Italy, Cervantes in Spain, and Chaucer in England  almost simultaneously bring to consciousness a new world emerging from the Dark Ages?  And do not the first lines of Dante's Divine Comedy  still speak to us in the deepest part of our lives?:
      In the middle of the journey of our life
      I came to myself in a dark wood
      Where the straight way was lost....
      And so to 20th century authors like James Joyce whose hero, Stephen Dedalus, on the last page of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" sets out "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience" of his race.  Thus we arrive at the point at which the poet not only articulates the consciousness of his time but also becomes its conscience, and we come full circle to the poet's prophetic or vatic role, with contemporaries like Allen Ginsberg (who so many have attested changed their consciousness) and Bob Dylan (whose early songs were great surrealist poems) and the Beatles. Who's to say they did not change and enlarge the consciousness of millions of youth, which was then ingested by consumer society to become a part of Middle American culture?
        Thus we realize how the greatest poets not only change the way we see the world but also cause us to question our perception and interpretation of everyday reality.  And we realize that the greatest poetry  "subverts the dominant paradigm" ultimately challenges the status quo of the world, and transforms it into something new and strange
        Which leads me to the unavoidable conclusion that the poet must perforce be an "enemy of the state." I hasten to add, lest the FBI knock on my door in the morning, that I mean an enemy of the state of our civilization today. Our omnivorous industrial civilization has proved to be bad for earth and man, ecologically and medically speaking. Disastrous, in fact. Couple this with the institution of stringent restrictions on individual freedom to keep our imperialist military-industrial machine functioning, and you have a natural enemy for the poet who is by definition a free spirit, an untamed erotic spirit dedicated to truth and beauty.


What is Poetry?

      There are no doubt as many definitions of poetry as there are poems.  Perhaps more, since there are more poetry professors and critics than there are poets.  Perhaps there's a need in the new century for some new definitions. Or perhaps the golden oldies will hold up better than any.  Risking the derision of postmodern eggheads  I'll put some of my old ones and some of my new ones to the test of the 21st century:
      Poetry is news from the frontiers of consciousness.
      Poetry is what we would cry out upon awaking in a dark wood in the middle of the journey of our life.
      A poem is a mirror walking down a street full of visual delight.
      Poetry is the shook foil of the imagination. It should shine out and half blind you.
      Poetry is the sun streaming down in the meshes of morning.
      Poetry is white nights and mouths of desire.
      Poetry is made by dissolving halos in the ocean of sound.
      Poetry is the street talk of angels and devils.
      Poetry is a sofa full of blind singers who have put aside their canes.
      Poetry is the anarchy of the senses making sense.
      Poetry is the voice of the fourth person singular.
      Poetry is all things born with wings that sing.
      A poem should arise to ecstasy, somewhere between speech and song.
      Poetry is a voice of dissent against the waste of words and the mad plethora of print.
      Poetry is what exists between the lines.
      Poetry is made with the syllables of dreams.
      Poetry is far, far cries upon a beach at nightfall.
      Poetry is a lighthouse moving its megaphone over the sea.
      Poetry is a picture of Ma in her Woolworth bra looking out a window into a secret garden.
      Poetry is an Arab carrying colored rugs and birdcages through the streets of a great metropolis.
      A poem can be made of common household ingredients. It fits on a single page yet it can fill a world and fits in the pocket of a heart.
      Poetry is pillow-thought after intercourse.
      The poet is a street singer who rescues the alleycats of love.
      Poetry is the distillation of articulate animals calling to each other over a great gulf.
       Poetry is the dialogue of statues.
       Poetry is the sound of summer in the rain and of people laughing behind closed shutters down a narrow street.
       Poetry is the incomparable lyric intelligence brought to bear upon fifty-seven varieties of experience.
       Poetry is a high house echoing with all the voices that ever said anything crazy or wonderful.
       Poetry is a subversive raid upon the forgotten language of the collective unconscious.
       Poetry is a real canary in a coal mine, and we know why the caged bird sings.
       Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations.
       Poetry is the voice within the voice of the turtle.
       Poetry is the face behind the face of the race.
       Poetry is made of night thoughts. If it can tear itself away from illusion, it will not be disowned before the dawn.
       Poetry is made by evaporating the liquid laughter of youth.
       Poetry is a book of light at night.
       Poetry is the final gestalt of the imagination.
       Poetry should be emotion recollected in emotion.
       Words are living fossils. The poet should piece the live beast together and make it sing.
       A poet is only as great as his ear. Too bad if it is tin.
       The poet must be a subversive barbarian at the city gates, constantly questioning reality and reinventing it.
       Let the poet be a singing animal turned pimp for an anarchist king.
       The poet mixes drinks out of the insane liquors of the imagination and is perpetually surprised that no one staggers.
       The poet should be a dark barker before the tents of existence.
       Poetry is what can be heard at manholes echoing up Dante's fire escape.
       Poetry is what moths hum as they circle the flame.
       Poetry is the thrill of a lighted window at night.
       The poet must have wide-angle vision, each look a worldglance, and the concrete is most poetic.
       Poetry is not all heroin, horses, and Rimbaud.  It is also the whisper of elephants and the powerless prayers of airline passengers fastening their seatbelts for the final descent.
       Poetry is the real subject of great prose.
       Each poem should be a momentary madness, and the unreal is realist.
Like a bowl of roses, a poem should not have to be explained.
       A poem is its own Coney Island of the mind, its own circus of the soul, its own Far Rockaway of the heart.
       Poetry should still be an insurgent knock on the door of the unknown.

Why Is So Much Modern Poetry Really Prose?

       It's not news that a good deal of contemporary poetry is actually a kind of prose masquerading in the typography of poetry. Just check out any anthology of modern American verse since the Second World War, and it will be obvious. It would seem that "the voice that is great within us" (as one collection is called) sounds in us most often today in a prose voice, although in poetic form. This is not to say it is prosaic or has no depth or passion. It is often very well-written, lovely, lively prose--prose that can stand without the crutches of punctuation, whose syntax is so clear it can be written all over the page, in open forms and open fields.
       How did this curious state of affairs come about, and how come no one ever mentions it? Perhaps because there has been a kind of considerate silence between poets and friends, between poets and editors. No one wants to commit the original sin of saying flat-out that someone's poetry is prose in poetic typography. A poet's friends will never tell him, and the poet's editors will seldom say it--the dumbest conspiracy of silence in the history of letters.
       However, it may be simply that, as sociologists have said, America lost its innocence with the Second World War. And with it went a lot of our lyricism, including rhyme and lilting meters. Or perhaps it began much earlier. A hundred years or so ago when all the machines began to hum almost, as it were, in unison, our speech certainly began to be affected by their absolute staccato. City poetry especially began to echo it. Walt Whitman was a holdover, singing the song of himself. And Carl Sandburg a holdover, singing his sagas. And Vachel Lindsay, singing his chants. And Wallace Stevens with his harmonious "fictive music" on the blue guitar. And Langston Hughes, echoing the hot beat of Harlem. And Allen Ginsberg, chanting his mantras, singing William Blake.
       Ezra Pound once decanted his opinion that only in times of decadence does poetry separate itself from music. But his own Cantos can't possibly be sung. And you would have a hard time singing T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock." Poetry was caught up in the linotype's hot slug and now in the so cold type of the computer. No song among the typists, no song in our concrete architecture, our concrete minimalist music. Like minimal art, modern poetry minimalizes emotion in favor of understated irony and implied intensity. And Joe Public stands back mystified.
       But isn't this the perfect poetry for technocratic man who seemingly has no use for the subjective in his life--the subjective which is constantly under attack in our televised consumer culture? And what of the rest of us who don't love technocracy and would rather nurture the subjective in our consciousness?
       Still, there is light on the horizon. The times they are changing, and one would hope for a revival of truly lyric verse, aspiring to poetic highs somewhere between speech and song. And that doesn't mean they're going to rhyme moon with June. There are wild new voices with a keen edge--lyric teen poetry slammers and jazz poets and rhyming rappers at open mikes, especially Third World and indigenous poets, who are breaking out of the cool. They have been returning to the original oral tradition of poetry--the tradition which the poetry revolution of the 50s revived, especially in San Francisco, with the emphasis on poetry as an insurgent oral message. The printing press made the word so silent, but new poets are returning to the roots when poetry was passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. And the mouth did sing.
       The fly in the wine is that a lot of rap and spoken-word poetry today makes it when it is performed aloud, but doesn't make it on the printed page. There are of course some big exceptions. Bob Dylan is a bard whose early songs are really long surrealist poems that make it on the page, without guitar. Allen Ginsberg's late poetry, on the other hand, suffered from the fact that he was a genius performer who could read the phone book and make it sound like a great epic (See his last "Blues") but it fell flat when printed.
       Perhaps that doesn't really matter, if the primary aim is to turn the audience on, to get it high, to liberate it, to enlighten it, or inspire it, or revolutionize it. And nevermind printing it or inscribing it in stone.
       It is the bird singing that makes us happy.

Publications Available at http://www.citylights.com:

(New Directions Publishers)
ISBN: 0-0112-1273-4 0-0112-1252-1

(New Directions Publishers)

issue 4 home | ec chair | broken news | critical urgencies | burning bush
ficciones | secret agents | stage & screen | letters | gallery

corpse home | search | submit | corpse cafe | archives | corpse mall | our gang
Exquisite Corpse Mailing List Subscribe Unsubscribe

©1999-2002 Exquisite Corpse - If you experience difficulties with this site, please contact the webmistress.