Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who will be turning 94 later this month, can still be said to have enormous influence on poetry and the culture at large. His book A Coney Island of the Mind has sold over a million copies to date. His City Lights press published not only Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, but also seminal work by Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Denise Levertov, Philip Lamantia, Frank O’Hara, and more. The bookstore that he co-founded, City Lights in San Francisco’s North Beach, continues to be a mecca for travelers from all over. He is also a serious and powerful painter. Recently, three generations of poets (Garrett Caples, my editor at City Lights; Julie Rogers, my wife; and I) visited Ferlinghetti in his second-floor apartment in San Francisco. We sat in his light-filled kitchen and talked about everything from his latest collection, Time of Useful Consciousness (a sequel to his 2004 book Americus, Book I), to Kenneth Rexroth and his 1950s soirees.
What I value among other things in Time of Useful Consciousness is its rich context, its deep pile of references. I also find it a cri de coeur.
It’s my generation’s consciousness, the consciousness of the generation that grew up under the influence of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, particularly Eliot, and books like Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. These were important books for my generation. I’m talking about writers or poets who came of age during the Second World War. My book is full with steals from poets and writers. I have a list of credits for all the steals from various poets in the book, but I decided not to use them.
Book I of Americus [Times of Useful Consciousness is subtitled Americus, Book II] included over five pages of notes, crediting multiple sources. This time around, I queried New Directions to see if their lawyers had any objections to my not crediting sources, since all the quotes seemed to fall well within the “fair use” clause. ... Since there was no objection, the notes were omitted. Scholars would have to test their own footnoted memories.
You know, when I get those steals, I know what you’re talking about.
But the generations after you have no idea.
I imagine less and less, but it has to do too with the nature of reading. … You said that you were feeling that you had to end with joy, some point of hope, and go back to Whitman’s barbaric yawp, the “yes” of Molly Bloom, because it was getting darker and darker. … Are you disappointed in how things turned out?
The book becomes darker and darker as the narrative thickens and you get toward the end, and then it gets to page 86 and I suddenly say, “Enough! Enough!” Up till then it’s really the whole world ending, about to blow up. I could have been even more specific. For instance, the latest, most advanced climate scientists are saying it’s quite possible the human race won’t outlast this century. In other words, the ecological tipping point is just a few years away.
Popular culture is too intent on high-tech unreality to have any transforming, emotional force in the real world. … You know, there’s a poem by Cavafy called “Waiting for the Barbarians.” The Greek senate is waiting for the barbarians to arrive in Athens, the barbarians are at the gates, they’re at the borders, but they never arrive.
At the end of my book, it’s waiting for the barbarians. I have a poem very near the end, after I say “Enough, enough! Enough of this doomsday,” this “loud lament of the disconsolate chimera,” which is a steal from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. For some optimism: “Are there not still fireflies / Are there not still four-leaf clovers / Is not our land still beautiful…”
You know, in practically every television ad, someone is doing something with an electronic device. In the sixties, one of the slogans was “Be Here Now.” Now with email and iPhone and ePhone, whatever phone, it should be “Be Somewhere Else Now.”
Back to [my] book, Time of Useful Consciousness, I should have added to the final notes … that this book is very much affected by techniques Dos Passos uses in USA. He has “The Camera Eye,” which roams across the country. And another technique: “Newsreel,” where he reproduces newsreel headlines. I did that a lot in Book I of Americus and somewhat in this book, especially in the Chicago section, where I’m using this Dos Passos technique because Dos Passos’s novel was really the great novel for its period. It summarized and synthesized the consciousness in America for his time, which I try to do in a much more reduced scale in this book.
Since we’re talking about the impact of technology, those Dos Passos devices were reflecting technology’s impact too—the world of radio sound bites, headlines, movies—to create a texture of culture reflecting that impact.
Americus, Book I began in Europe and ended with the assassination of Kennedy in New York. This book picks up at that point. Historically speaking, my generation was dubbed “the greatest generation” by some TV journalist. So this is the greatest generation. We win the war, we come home, but often not for long. A lot of us didn’t stay home; we took off.
It was still “Go west, young man!” in 1945. I had that in the back of my mind. My mother was still alive in Baltimore and my brothers wanted me to stay there, but I had to go west. It was as if the whole continent tilted westward. But it took until the early 1950s for the whole new scene, all these disparate elements from all over the country, to coalesce into a new culture. It happened in San Francisco, not New York. So many things started here, like Fillmore Auditorium. The first light show was at the Longshoreman’s Hall down here. Then it went east. Then it went…
Then it went to England and became the Beatles. And the Beatles spelled their name “B E A T.” Then you have the electronic revolution in Silicon Valley. That began here and went all over the world. Everything came, this whole new culture coalesced in the ’50s. We were really lucky to be here at the cusp of when it all happened.
And my narrative arrives in San Francisco in Canto VIII: “San Francisco! the radiant city, / with an island climate and an island consciousness / not really a part of the United States / a kind of off-shore colony.” That’s the feeling I had when I arrived here. It’s sort of like Naples, where the people consider themselves Neapolitans first and then Italians. “A kind of off-shore colony…” This is the part I got from Kenneth Rexroth: “Settled by adventurers prospectors drifters / fishermen…” Kenneth Rexroth was fond of saying that the city was founded by a bunch of drifters, drunks, adventurers, con men, and ladies of virtue. And the bourgeoisie moved in later and put up curtains.
I did want to ask about Rexroth.
He was a thinker-poet. I went to his early Friday night soirees when I first arrived in town. Kirby, my wife at that time, had a friend who went to Swarthmore College. She was a poet. Her name was Holly Beye, and she knew the Rexroths. Holly took us to one of the Rexroths’ soirees. Must have been in 1953.
250 Scott Street, which is the old Fillmore [district]. The Fillmore there was totally black, and this apartment was an old, rambling apartment above Jack’s Record Cellar. A really big old flat, totally furnished with apple boxes up to the ceiling full of books, most of which he’d gotten as review copies.
Rexroth had enormous influence in those days, with his books program on the early KPFA. I went to the Friday night soirees and was so bowled over I didn’t dare open my mouth for about a year. Rexroth was a polymath with an encyclopedic memory, and I learned so much from him. He was a far greater poet, translator, teacher, and cultural force than Ezra Pound in an earlier generation, and he was the first to tell you so.
He reminds me of Robert Duncan, another one of these amazing talkers. He’d just go off and continue on into the night.
The best was when Robert Duncan got together with Philip Lamantia. The two of them were fantastic talkers. It was always associations, associative talking, surrealist talking, so one word in one sentence could send Philip Lamantia off in another direction, all about kabbalah, and then a phrase and something he said then would send them off. Robert, when he got excited, his voice would get higher while Rexroth’s would lower. Well, I should have given Rexroth a little more credit in this book. I was a totally unknown poet. He chose me to read with him at the Cellar with the Jazz Cellar Quartet in 1958, when he did those Fantasy records, Poetry in the Cellar.
Garrett Caples enters the conversation: The question I kept coming back to was [this]: there’s a lot of the sense of what is lost about America—a lot of bad things in terms of the racial politics, especially. The book is eloquent about what’s gone, but there seems a certain one-sidedness to it; there isn’t much to suggest anything…
Caples: Positive. Whereas there has been some progress made on the social relation front. It may be easier to be gay or a minority in this culture now. Or another way to put it: is the book too nostalgic?
Too nostalgic? Do you consider lines like “Internet gamblers and dot-com billionaires / coked up in stretch limos” to be nostalgic? Or “Man too stupid or too greedy / to save himself from eco-catastrophe”? The narrative finally gets down to “Enough! Enough!” And then it tries to be positive and optimistic at the end. It ends up appealing to Walt Whitman, who was the great eternal optimist. And you notice that the fourth line from the end of the book [is] “Out of the closet endlessly rocking.”
Meltzer: There’s lots of that in the book—punning, wordplay, references—a sense of joy in your work, which is a great blessing. Fun and puns.
I could have gone on from there, as to where democracy ends up, with the elite still in control—the 1 percent and the 99 percent. I had this theme going through from the beginning, steering toward democracy, from the Greeks up to today. I could have gone on from there in saying there were good things that come out of the American experiment, but I was not writing an academic paper.
Meltzer: You cite a lot of them.
I could have gone into a lot of things like acceptance of homosexuality, or the equality of women, but then it becomes a sociological tract.
Caples: I’ve got another question; you have a passage about Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger and Johnny Cash: “the popular poets of America…” I feel this is a line you’ve been pushing a bit, that there’s a lot of lost musicality in a lot of contemporary poetry. But it seems like an unfair comparison. I mean, poets are poets and songwriters are songwriters, you know? What’s the point of comparing poets to folk musicians, ultimately? They’re two different…
The folk musicians are the real poets, the real popular poets of America. The poets that are printed in books, how many people read them compared to the vast audience of the folksinger? A lot of the folksingers’ poems are greater than the printed poems! Dylan’s early songs were long surrealist poems. They were wonderful poems on their own. You could say the same of some of the Woody Guthrie lines… The printing press made poetry so silent. Before the printing press, poets spoke and sang aloud! They didn’t depend on the book. The Beats were the first poets since Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay to make performance aloud more important than the printed version. The oral message came first.
Caples: But still at the same time it seems like there are folksingers and there are poets. Poets aren’t folksingers, so why hold them to the standard of a folksinger in that sense? Of course, a folksinger is going to be more popular than a poet.
Why not hold them to the same standards as folksingers? Or do you want to keep them forever in their cubbyholes?
Caples: But if you ask me, this is a very musical book, and it doesn’t matter that it’s printed on the page. You get to the second or third page and you just go. And the syntax, you don’t even know where you are and you’re just moving there musically. “The one with the eye of the horse / the one with the light in his eye…” This is a very musical book.
Of course, I took that from Bob Dylan’s “Jack of Hearts.”
Caples: But it almost seems to me that it’s kind of needlessly beating up on poetry.
It needs to be beat up! It’s not saying enough. It’s somewhere on cloud nine. Have you read any of the poems in The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books lately? They don’t know what to do with poetry these days.
Meltzer: Why is poetry stuck in that zone?
Maybe because too much of it doesn’t make any sense to anybody. Just a small group digs it, despite the welter of poetry books published today, probably more today than any time in history…. My present book, Time of Useful Consciousness, probably won’t get a single major review. I expect that. The messages are not what the dominant culture wants to hear.
Meltzer: Hasn’t that always been the case, even in the ’20s and ’30s? Some poets were popular, like Sandburg, and at the same time, there were poets who weren’t revered. … Yet poetry has always been of the people, by the people, and for the people… In the oral tradition, that’s how news was conveyed, that’s how history was conveyed. That was the responsibility of the poet. Have many of the poets become irresponsible? And to whom should they be responsible?
He has to be responsible to himself.
Does he have any other obligations?
Well, yeah, he has the obligation to say something important, say something that would be important to other people, not to his own belly button.
Julie Rogers: Quote that, and the lint therein.