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More Light

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s wide-angle vision.

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My former wife was the inspiration for Against the Chalk Cliffs. The cliffs are above the beach in Bolinas, California, where we used to hang out while still living in North Beach, San Francisco. The cliffs are not really chalk but I felt that “chalk” in the title gave a sense of fragility and vulnerability to the subject. I felt she was fragile. I painted it in my first San Francisco studio at 9 Mission Street and the Embarcadero (the Audiffred Building). I inherited the studio from Hassel Smith, the figurative painter who had turned to the non-objective. There were other painters of the San Francisco figurative movement on the same floor, including Frank Lobdell. It was a marvelous studio, a big third-floor loft looking out on the Bay. There was no heat except for a small pot-bellied stove, and there was no electricity above the ground floor. (Just like Paris—which I had just left.) The rent was $29 a month. There was an Alcoholics Anonymous “Seven Seas Club” on the second floor, and during the Great Waterfront Strike of the thirties labor leaders (Harry Lundgren or Harry Bridges) also had their offices there.

“All I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house,” said Edward Hopper (or words to that effect), and there have been legions of poets and filmmakers obsessed with light. I would side with the irrational visionary romantic who says light came first, and darkness but a fleeting shadow to be swept away with more light. (“More light!” cried the great poet, dying.) Poets and painters are the natural bearers of it, and all I ever wanted to do was paint light on the walls of life.

I never wanted to be a poet. It chose me, I didn’t choose it. One becomes a poet almost against one’s will, certainly against one’s better judgment. I wanted to be a painter but from the age of ten onward these damn poems kept coming. Perhaps one of these days they will leave me alone and I can get back to painting.

Door to the Sea, a very large painting, is loosely based on Willem de Kooning’s Door to the River. It started out as a totally non-objective painting, but human figures crept in. Growing up in New York, I naturally identified with the New York Abstract Expressionists who were my contemporaries, and I originally tried to paint like de Kooning and Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell, but I really didn’t have at all the same vision, since the human figure (man or woman) always seemed to surge forth. I expressed this conflict later in a painting called Triumph of the New York School, a large canvas with black linear forms superimposed upon humans. I make a distinction between “non-objective” and “abstract.” A non-objective painting is not an “abstract” of an actual object or scene. It is a new creation, having no referent outside of itself. Thus “Abstract Expressionists” is a misnomer, but that is how they came to be known, due to a certain critic’s sloppy semantics.

The kind sun of Impressionism makes poems out of light and shade. The broken light of Abstract Expressionism makes poems out of chaos.

Images appear and disappear in poetry and painting, out of a dark void and into it again, messengers of light and rain, raising their bright flickered lamps and vanishing in an instant. Yet they can be glimpsed long enough to save them as shadows on a wall in Plato’s cave.

The title Manhattan Transit is adapted from the John Dos Passos book. It too was painted at 9 Mission Street. In those days, before Gesso came on the market, painters sized their raw canvas with rabbit skin glue. I heated the pot of glue on the coal stove. This is one of three or four abstract paintings I did in the fifties, at a time when I really didn’t know how to draw. It was an easy way out. (How many other aspiring painters did the same!)

Through art, create order out of the chaos of living.

The drawings in charcoal were based on one-minute poses by studio models, generally called “gestural drawings,” and they were done in the eighties and nineties in my studio in the Hunters Point Shipyard, San Francisco. To the original drawing, in each case, I later added another face or body, in an attempt to give it a bit of ambiguity or mystery. Not that there isn’t mystery enough in any nude body, male or female.

What is any particular body doing on earth anyway, and what is its mysterious existence? Besides that, there is what used to be called “the mystery of Woman,” a romantic concept that endowed her with an illusive inscrutable allure, both sexual and spiritual. Then the feminist revolution brought Woman down from her pedestal. Yet the body itself remains the same.

Have wide-angle vision, each look a world glance. Express the vast clarity of the outside world, the sun that sees us all, the moon that strews its shadows on us, quiet garden ponds, willows where the hidden thrush sings, dusk falling along the river run, and the great spaces that open out upon the sea...high tide and the heron’s call....And the people, the people, yes, all around the earth, speaking Babel tongues. Give voice to them all.

Oh Pocahontas, Pocahontas! is meant to express my compassion for this Native American maiden and all she suffered at the hands of white admirers and exploiters. This painting has nothing to do with historical accuracy. The images of Pocahontas in this painting are remembered pictures in a children’s book I must have read when I was about ten. All these years I carried this little tableau around, ready to be flashed upon my brainpan whenever. Such still snapshots make up our memory and when cast upon a canvas years later come alive again with all their original intensity (if the painter is great enough to capture it).

Lovers is another very large painting, of probably the most beautiful model we ever had in my studio, a very young woman with red hair, perhaps modeling for the first time. There was a freshness and purity about her. I later added the head of a bearded, slightly older man, perhaps imagining what was in her future.

Poetry the shortest distance between two humans.

Art is not Chance. Chance is not art, except by chance.

The sunshine of poetry casts shadows. Paint them too.

Paint like a fiend awake, obsessed. What is important in a painting is its fascinating, mysterious manifestations of life. So tell me what life is to you in your painting. Be an enthusiast. Get excited. Don’t just sit there. Excite the imagination.

This Is Not a Man is an obvious play on Ceci n’est pas une pipe in the painting by René Magritte. However, the painting has nothing to do with the French. The real story goes back to the forties when one of my brothers was the assistant warden at Sing Sing prison up the Hudson in New York. He had to witness all the executions in the horrible old wooden chair with its electric cables, thick leather straps for arms and legs, and a heavy hood for the head. It was a gruesome sight even with no man in it. After my brother died, among his papers was found a black-and-white photo of a man in the chair about to be fried. On the back of the photo, written in pencil, were the instructions to the executioner: “Attach electrodes to head and legs,” etc. I silk-screened the photo onto a canvas and then painted on it. It was used in a worldwide anti-capital-punishment campaign and is still available for such use. But the barbarism continues. Onward Christian Soldiers! Kill or be killed! In two thousand and twelve years of Christianity we have managed to retain our most savage instincts.

What I have in mind is art as the locus for fathoming man’s fate.

“I have beaten out my exile” has always been one of my favorite quotes of EP—a final word on his long expatriation. So much living went into that one line of poetry! It is perhaps almost as strong a life-statement as Dante’s “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood.” My abstract study of Pound’s head is based upon a similarly abstract drawing by Gaudier-Brzeska on the cover of the New Directions edition of Pound’s Perso. Besides the original which I still possess, there are three copies, slightly smaller than the original—one at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, one at New Directions in New York, and one owned by Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz in northern Italy. I visited her almost ten years ago. Understandably she could have been upset by my raucous critique of Pound in Americus: Book i, but evidently she is pleased with my painted portrait. She is a valiant defender of her father, of course.

The art has to make it on its own, without explanations, and it’s the same for poetry. If the poem or the painting has to be explained, then it’s a failure in communication.

More from this issue

This poem originally appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Poetry magazine


  • As poet, playwright, publisher, and activist, Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped to spark the San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1950s and the subsequent “Beat” movement. Like the Beats, Ferlinghetti felt strongly that art should be accessible to all people, not just a handful of highly educated intellectuals. His career has been...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

More Light

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s wide-angle vision.


  • As poet, playwright, publisher, and activist, Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped to spark the San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1950s and the subsequent “Beat” movement. Like the Beats, Ferlinghetti felt strongly that art should be accessible to all people, not just a handful of highly educated intellectuals. His career has been...

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