Monday, May 11, 2009

Considerations of Cliche: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poetry as Insurgent Art [I am signaling you through the flames] by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words....

Got this from, which continues to send me daily poems ... for them, I guess, Poetry Month is about 40 days long. I remember enjoying Ferlinghetti's early stuff, but this is, mildly speaking, not him at his best. The best line -- the only line worth retaining, to my view -- is the first one. The rest is -- if I may press on -- a bunch of tired cliches, name-dropping and irrelevancy. "The North Pole is not where it used to be" -- how does that contribute? "Manifest Destiny is no longer no longer manifest" -- I'm inclined to shout "Horray!"-- creepy, imperialist doctrine to begin with. "Civilization self-destructs." Absolute Deadsville. Was it George Bernard Shaw who said civilization was a good idea, we should try it some time? "Nemesis is knocking at the door." This is a little better. I might keep this one, if I were him. But I want to say, come on, more flames -- is there any fire here? Only stale rhetorical questions, tiresome qualifying phrases, the hollow pronouncement at the end... well, this poem fails to conquer me, let alone the conquerors. Although I do appreciate the sentiment. Somewhat.

The interesting thing about this poem is that it shows Ferlinghetti is still writing -- lame drafts, at least -- and that because he has (and deservedly so, I might add) a much-beloved name, thought it was worthy to send to all and sundry.

The use of cliche interests me. There are a bunch of so-called "plain-language" poets -- I can think of not a few that appear quite frequently on our local scene, and I'm sure they are to be found on every scene, stalwarts who seem to have have little trouble breaking into print, or even printing book after book -- who appear to actually relish the "howling winds" and "driving rains" in their poems. As long as their heart and politics are in the so-called "right place", this kind of stuff is considered fit to publish. To a reader like me, it's plainly speaking, unacceptable. (Normally, if it hadn't been Ferlinghetti, I wouldn't have read past "Civilization self-destructs.") But at times, cliches actually work -- their common touch actually touches. This does interest me.

It seems to me that a poem has to have a certain "zinger quotient" of linguistic freshness to sustain a dead or half-alive metaphor -- even though most of the time dead metaphor or tired phrase will automatically second- or third-rate a poem. It could be an unusual concept or slant, a formal mastery or otherwise saving grace. When examples come up, I'll explore this. Indeed, I've already found one. But tomorrow.

1 comment:

Stephen Morrissey said...


I think a respect for one's poet elders is not a bad thing. Ferlinghetti was among the early Beats, published Ginsberg, Corso, Kerouac, and many others, and continues to publish poetry books. He's also a distinguised poet himself, who has influenced many many poets. I don't know if his newer poems are cliched or what, but I'd be careful about criticizing someone who has done as much as he has done. I'd let it go re. Ferlinghteii. I'd pass on being critical of him. I'd remember what he has done for poetry and if I didn't like the newer poems I'd let it go. Nothing personal, Brian, but there it is.

Best wishes,