Commitment & the Poetry of Ferlinghetti (1974)


Where better to start a discussion of 'commitment & the poetry of Ferlinghetti' than at the horse's mouth? Ferlinghetti (in a note that is worth quoting in full) unequivocally identifies himself as a committed writer:

…I am put down by Beat natives who say I cannot be beat and "committed" at the same time,…True, true, William Seward Burroughs said, "Only the dead and the junkie don't care - they are inscrutable." I'm neither. Man. And this is where all the tall droopy corn about the Beat Generation and it's being "existentialist" is a phony as a four-dollar piece of lettuce. Because Jean Paul Sartre cares and has always hollered that the writer especially should be committed. Engagement is one of his favorite dirty words. He would give the horse laugh to the idea of Disengagement and the Art  of the Beat Generation. Me too. And that Abominable Snowman of modern poetry, Allen Ginsberg, would probably say the same. Only the dead are disengaged. And the wiggly nihilism of the Beat hipster, if carried to its natural conclusion, actually means the death of the creative artist himself. While the "non-commitment" of the artist is itself a suicidal and deluded variation of nihilism.

(Fantasy, 7004, 1959)

When Ferlinghetti invokes Sartre to support his claim about commitment, he is probably referring to Qu'est-ce que c'est la Littérature, a locus classicus on the topic. Perhaps it is not too caviling to point out that Ferlinghetti is rather SartrePipe.jpg (19401 bytes)oversimplifying Sartre's argument in that monumental monograph. Sartre asserts that one cannot properly talk of committed poetry, onlycommitted prose. His reasoning is highly philosophical and involved, and to attempt to discuss it here would confuse rather than clarify the issue. Besides, it would be absurd to regard Sartre's words as an infallible ex cathedra Mosaic pronouncement. He has the bias of the prose-writer splitting semantic hairs. Surely the important thing is that many practicing poets talk of the possibility and desirability of commitment in poetry. The general point that Ferlinghetti is making is quite clear.

Adrian Mitchell, who is certainly committed and, as far as I'm concerned, a poet, in conversation with Frank Kermode (in the recent Radio 3 series 'Political Metaphors' reprinted in The Listener, 31 January 1974) also articulates an elementary but crucial point about commitment in poetry:

I think it's a political choice to opt out of politics, for a writer or anyone else. And since you're being manipulated by politicians all your life, simply to ignore it is just to play their game. I'm not saying everyone should be writing about politics all the time. But when you're confronted with it inescapably, and you see it, and then don't write about it, that's the cop out.

A writer's commitment can be measured by the way he responds to his situation. For a start, one can consider his choice of subject. In Adrian Mitchell's most recent volume Ride the Nightmare, there is a piece entitled 'Involvement' in which a writer, who witnesses a man being beaten up by two secret policemen, instead of coming to the rescue  or at least drawing attention to the fact in his writing, 'pisses off to write a poem about ants'. It would be fair to say that such a poet is uncommitted, because he fails to respond humanely to the overwhelming political, or to put it more simply, human reality of his environment. He is not telling the important truths that need to be told.

'He', as the subtitle ('to Allen Ginsberg') indicates, is a portrait of 'that Abominable Snowman* of modern poetry', whom, according to his note on commitment quoted above, Ferlinghetti considers to be a committed poet. Ferlinghetti describes Ginsberg as:

*(and what is Ferlinghetti himself but a kind of Yeti, elusive except for his poetic footprints!)

one of the prophets come back

to see to hear to file a revised report

on the present state

of the shrinking world

In so much as he obviously admires Ginsberg, one can assume that he also admire his poetic attitude towards reality and that the above is a fair description of what Ferlinghetti himself is trying to be and do as a poet.

Ferlinghetti sees the function of the poet as telling the truth about the world. He describes the poet as:

The super realist

                        who must perforce perceive

         taut truth

              (15, A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND)

Like a dog, he is a 'true observer' ('Autobiography', Ibid).

But, of course, he can only tell the truth as he sees it. 'As a man is, so he sees', Blake says. The paradox of viewpoint is that one's stance is influenced by what one sees at thje same time as what one sees is influenced by one's stance. A stance may be arrived at gradually and unconsciously, but, when it has become conscious, one can declare one's bias, one's criterion. Ferlinghetti is quite explicit about his political position. He is a libertarian socialist, an anarchist in the entymological and historical sense:

…I am waiting

for the war to be fought

which will make the world safe

for anarchy

and I am waiting

for the final withering away

of all governments

…and I am waiting

for a way to be devised

to destroy all nationalisms

without killing anybody


Anything less than the ideal libertarian society which he imagines, he is bound to find fault with. The obvious gap between his ideal and present social reality expresses itself in his poetry as protest, criticism and revolt.

So, Ferlinghetti tries to write truthfully in his own terms about his situation. As an American, it is not surprising that most often he chooses to write about the American landscape and sensibility. Because he doesn't like much of what he sees, he is forced to cry out against it, like a Jeremiah, 'one of the prophets come back'. He says:

I am waiting for someone

to really discover America

and wail


and he is the 'someone' who is doing just that.

In a poem written as far back as the fifties, he anticipates the current concern over ecology by showing up the environmental desecration and false promises of a consumer society with its:

freeways fifty lanes wide

              on a concrete continent

                      spaced with bland billboards

  illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness

His apocalyptic images are worthy of Goya:

       …maimed citizens

                              in painted cars

  and they have strange licence plates

and engines

                   that devour America

('In Goya's Greatest Scenes', A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND)


In fact, he repeatedly draws attention to the environmental damage caused by capitalist enterprises:

I see where Walden Pond has ben drained

to make an amusement park

('AUTOBIOGRAPHy', op. cit.)

In the poem just quoted, the very literary persona makes an explicit political reference to that uncharacteristically violent anarchist 'John Most/ terror of the industrialist/ a bomb on his desk at all times'. Such an allusion suggests that F. is well-read in the theory and practice of his chosen ideology.

The same poem also contains implicit criticism of a money-mad materialistic society in its obviously ironic comparison of

the United States and the Promised Land

where every coin is marked

in God We Trust

but the dollar bills do not have it

being gods unto themselves

Ferlinghetti's poems are full of such discrete criticisms of various aspects of capitalist society, but he also takes a more general overview. 'The world is a beautiful place' describes (to use Ferlinghetti's words) 'the present state/ of the shrinking world'. Perhaps it isn't accidental that this, the most accomplished poem in the book (PICTURES OF THE GONE WORLD) is also the most overtly political. The uncompromising truthfulness of his observation is made cogent by a characteristic irony. He talks in unmistakably political terms:

The world is a beautiful place

                                                    to be born into

if you don't mind people dying

                                            all the time

             or maybe only starving

                                                some of the time

      which isn't half so bad

                                       if it isn't you

oh the world is a beautiful place

                                            to be born into

      if you don't much mind

                                        a few dead minds

             in the higher places

                                          or a bomb or two

                         now and then

                                             in your upturned faces

                 or other improprieties

                                        as our Name Brand society

                                 is prey to

                                      with its men of distinction

                     and its men of extinction

                                                        and its priests

                                    and other patrolmen

                                                  and its various segregations

   and congressional investigations

                                                  and other constipations

                           that our foolish flesh

                                                          is heir to

Ferlinghetti is savagely critical of these contingent social circumstances, and the implied alternative is obvious, particularly since he makes clear elsewhere the kind of society he wants. But perhaps I should mention, incidentally, that the poem is also generally about the human condition. Society can be changed, but even a dictatorship of the proleteriat could not expropriate expropriating Death, 'the smiling mortician'. Always in Ferlinghetti, there is an awareness of more basic (which is not to say more important ) human issues as well as the contingent and political.

Indeed, many of Ferlinghetti's poems have no political content. He is also concerned with 'Beauty' with a capital B (see 'Constantly risking absurdity' in A CONEY ISLAND….), and even writes simple, lyrical lovesongs like 'Dove Sta Amore' and 'Come Lie with Me and Be my Love' (the latter a feeble variation on Marlowe's poem containing unnecessary archaisms and hackneyed words guaranteed to raise certain automatic emotional responses). But unlike love poems by, say, Sorley Maclean, they lack any additional political meaning, and could be considered as a failure in Ferlinghetti's commitment. Nor are such lapses made excusable by aesthetic compensations, as Ferlinghetti's best poetry tends to be his most committed.

Of course, that is not to say that all of Ferlinghetti's committed poetry is his best. Some of the political poems leave much to be desired as literary artifacts. Take, for instance, a poem whose popularity can be measured by the fact that it has found its way into the selection of Ferlinghetti's work in the Penguin Modern Poets series. I refer to 'Underwear', superficially a most entertaining and amusing piece. It could be cited as an example of how Ferlinghetti turns even the most unlikely subject-matter to political ends. In Ferlinghetti's hands, underwear lends itself to reflections (albeit lighthearted) on politics. For instance, the problem of ethnic minorities is raised and the essential identity of all humanity despite apparent differences is asserted:

Everyone wears

some kind of underwear

Even Indians

wear underwear

Even Cubans

wear underwear

The 'colour' problem is referred to, with characteristic ironic understatement:

Negroes often wear

white underwear

which may lead to trouble

There is also some satire (and savage at that) against specific individuals:

The Governor of Louisiana

wears underwear

I saw him on TV

he must have had tight underwear

he squirmed a lot


If the poem is not to become merely a political tract, merely propaganda, the political poet has to provide an adequate poetic context for his statements on politics. Ferlinghetti hopes that crude joking will make acceptable explicit and hard-hitting criticism of the political system:

You have seen the three-color pictures

with crotches encircled

to show the areas of extra strength

and three-way stretch

promising full freedom of action

Don't be deceived

It's all based on the the two-party system

which doesn't allow much freedom of of choice

the way things are set up


Take foundation garments for instance

They are really fascist forms

of underground government

making people believe

something but the truth

telling you what you can or can't do


The fact that one can extract direct statements like these suggests that the politica have not been sufficiently internalized. While wholly sympathizing with the politics, I must censure their expression. As far as I'm concerned the right message gets across, but does it follow that I should admire the form of a sledgehammer? The poverty of imagination in the poem is betrayed by the use of literary quotations out of context for comic effect. The device is too easy and amounts to little more than a cheap joke at someone else's expense. The poem consists of mediocre jokes (admittedly making sound political points) loosely strung together and lacks any real coherence and development.

'Underwear' is an example of a political poem which may work as propaganda but fails on the aesthetic level (incidentally, I think that many of Adrian Mitchell's poems come into this category). But it would not be fair to say that this is representative of Ferlinghetti. Rather than overstress the dangers inherent in the idea of committed poetry (for instance, its tendency to become merely propaganda and to confine itself to the surface of life - Ferlinghetti talks of 'the poet's eye… seeing… the surface of the round world', 3, A CONEY ISLAND…) and dwell on faults in execution, it would be more productive to emphasise that there can also be poems that are both committed and 'good' poems.

In my opinion, one such poem is 'One Thousand Fearful Words for Fidel Castro'. The title reveals the political content of the of the poem. AS usual, Fidel_CastroSignedSmall.jpg (17609 bytes)Ferlinghetti uses irony to make political points, as in the reference to 'the great disinterested news services' (again one notices his preoccupation with telling the truth). As if to emphasise that this is a political poem, there is an actual quotation from a political tract, one of the most famous ones, Jefferson's eloquent 'Declaration of Independence' - Ferlinghetti is obviously comparing Cuban and American independence. The prose of the original is divided into lines of verse (a practice used by Hugh MacDiarmid, himself a poet committed to the Left):

when in the course of human events

it becomes necessary for one people

  to dissolve the political bonds

which have connected them with another

This quotation, which might have been incongruous or clumsy, is skillfully woven into the texture of the poem, by later echoes and ironic playing on the words:

we'll dissolve you first, Fidel

 you'll be dissolved in history

  we've got the solvent


  when in the course of human events

it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve

  the bonds of Internation Tel & Tel

     and United Fruit

The phrase 'in the course of human events', used six times in the poem, is almost a refrain serving to tie the poem together. Its value is different each time it is repeated. The cliché is reanimated by its context.

Unlike in 'Underwear', here literary quotation (this time from Walt Whitman, another political poet) is used not for trivial comic effect but seriously, so as to capture reverberative power from the original context.

Ideas are developed poetically through the imagery. 'Mike's place' is at once real and symbolic, it provides a setting and a framework for Ferlinghetti's meditation. Concrete details of his surroundings, objects and people, serve as a convenient springboard for his political reflections. So, for instance, pinball machines take on an emblematic quality:

In the back of Mike's the pinball machines

     shudder and leap from the floor

     when Cuban Charlie shakes them

       and tries to work his will

on one named 'Independence Sweepstakes'

Each pinball wandered lonely as a man

        siphons thru and sinks

  no matter how he twists and turns

  A billiardball falls in a felt pocket

  like a peasant in a green landscape

You're whirling around in your little hole


           and you'll soon sink

      in the course of human events

The metaphor is unforced and convincing and its connotations of machine-like process and game entirely apt. It is not decorative but organic.

A sense of urgency and tragic inevitability is conveyed by the terse directness of repeated phrases which sound like a knell throughout he poem:

I see no solution

                 It's going to be a tragedy

I see no way out

I see no answer

I see no way out

And later:

I see no way out

     no escape


It's going to be

  a big evil tragedyimg_ferlinghetti_01.jpg (40997 bytes)

The colloquial vigour of lines like 'He didn't get it in Cuba, baby' suggest a speaking voice, and the reiterated 'Fidel' of the latter part of the poem gives the impression that the words are being addressed to him personally and that we merely happen to overhear.

I started by discussing subject-matter and have been led on to style. Committed poetry tends to be distinctive stylistically, because it involves a particular attitude to its audience. Aiming at direct communication it is logical for it to be oral.

Looking at Ferlinghetti's poems on the page, the line-breaks suggest that they must be read aloud in a certain way - 'stepping' the lines is a device he Vladimir_mayakovskySmall.jpg (10300 bytes)probably derived from Mayakovsky. His direct colloquial style is ideal for oral delivery. For instance, a poem like 'Sometimes during Eternity' (in A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND) can only really come alive in performance, since it depends for its effect on the idiomatic accent of the speaking voice. Ferlinghetti actually refers to a 'poetry recital' in one of his poems ('Heaven' in PICTUIRES OF THE ONE WORLD), though in thPlakat_mayakovski.jpg (14803 bytes)at poem the poet is out of harmony with his audience. The direct contact with an audience possible at a reading is obviously important to Ferlinghetti. The printed-page poet in ivory-tower isolation tends to be less politically committed than a poet who goes out to communicate as directly as possible with as large an audience as possible. As Mayakovsky said, 'the work of the revolutionary poet does not stop at the book…'. 'Meeting, speeches, front-line limericks, one-day agit-prop playlets, the living radio-voice and the slogan flashing by on trams' are all legitimate weapons for the truly committed poet.

Ferlinghetti has tried to extend the area of the poet's activity in his experimental readings. For instance, in A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND, he transcribes poems which were:

Conceived specifically for jazz accompaniment and as such should be considered as spontaneously spoken "oral messages" rather than as poems written for the printed page.

These "oral messages", from some of which I have quoted in this essay, are mainly political in content.

Where Ferlinghetti's experiments lead him will be interesting to discover, but he is certainly heading in a direction away from the usual province of literary criticism. (This was written in 1974.) That's the problem: in discussing political poems, one is apt to talk as much about politics as about poetry. And strict academic detachment requires one to avoid value-judgements about the former while making them about the latter, though in practice the two may be difficult to separate. Moreover, perhaps it is impossible to like the poems without also liking the politics.




Gone West

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