Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The City Lights Pocket Poet Anthology at 60: "like a huge bottle of kerosene"

"Don't use the telephone.
People are never ready to answer it.
Use poetry."
(Jack Kerouac to Edward Dahlberg)

The City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology (City Lights Books, 2015; originally published in 1997) is a neat little square brick of a book that reminds readers how words can (and did) spark a revolution, not just in poetry but in the culture as a whole. Jonathan Williams, the North Carolina publisher of the Jargon Society, said he turned down the original manuscript of "Howl" -- it would have sold 500 copies at his tiny press, he said, and that would have been the end of it. Literary history, it seems, had other plans.
Poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned 97 this year, and his City Lights Press continues to thrive. His little books were portable enough to be taken everywhere, freewheeling enough to include poets from William Carlos Williams to Andrei Voznesensky ("like a huge bottle of kerosene" -- words as Molotov cocktails), and, eventually, threatening enough to bring a challenge to American obscenity laws. In the bare-knuckle brawl of the commercialized internet, the idea of poetry as a force this powerful seems like a miracle.
It was. And although the movement soon acquired a name, the resulting beat generation wasn't as unified as either its detractors or supporters claimed. There certainly were urban scenes that attracted the disaffected and the romantic, the seekers of soul, and left-leaning artists who congregated in like-misery. Yet it's striking to see the variety of expression represented here, from the apparently spontaneous combustion of Ginsberg's "Howl," to Robert Duncan ("Sleep is a Deep and Many Voiced Flood"). There's Malcolm Lowry's near-painterly Joseph Conrad and "his coiled work:" Lowry's meditation on Conrad is far from the template of beat poetry or its hallmarks, but it's filled with the movement's twisting tension and energy, if not its imagery:

Yet some mariner's ferment in his blood
-- Though truant heat will hear the iron trevail
And song of ships that ride their easting down --
Sustains him to subdue or be subdued.
In sleep all night he grapples with a sail!
But words beyond the life of ships dream on.

From the beginning, Ferlinghetti writes in the introduction, his aim was "to publish across the board ... and not just publishing (that pitfall of the little press) just 'our gang.'" In a short span City Lights published Ponsot, Levertov, Corso, Ginsberg, Duncan. Beat's most enduring, emotional and romantic notion was that the personal was poetic, meeting injustice with righteous anger, confronting conformity with the individual vision. ("I have just realized that the stakes are myself / I have no other / ransom money, nothing to break or barter but my life," from Diane DiPrima's "Revolutionary Letter No. 1.") All of these ideas, today, are so familiar as to seem obvious, if not second-hand. But the best poems here share an immediacy and sharpness of observation that remains in the mind's eye, like Ferlinghetti's

the El
  with its flyhung fans
and its signs reading

Critics and readers have argued that the failure of beat poetry has been one of scale -- the personal somehow erasing the universal -- as if readers are waiting for a return of some idea of "the proper uses" of poetry. Yet there isn't a universal idea left untouched in the City Lights anthology. War and love and death and daily life have never been more topical, or dealt with more directly.

Near the end of an extremely important discourse
the great man of state stumbling
on a beautiful hollow phrase
falls over it
and undone with gaping mouth
shows his teeth
and the dental decay of his peaceful reasoning
exposes the nerve of war
the delicate question of money

(Jacques Prevert, "The Discourse on Peace," translated by Ferlinghetti)

More to the critics' point, beat poetry was an immediate reaction to the post-war politics of fear and annihilation; Kerouac's often-quoted observation, "first thought, best thought," was an acknowledgement that there may be no time left for second thoughts before the human slate gets wiped clean.
Consider the cold-war politics of the Cuban missile crisis against the Swiftian suggestion of Kerouac's "Poem" (1962): "I demand that the human race / cease multiplying its kind / and bow out / I advise it / And as punishment & reward / for making this plea I know / I'll be reborn / the last human / Everybody else dead and I'm / an old woman roaming the earth / groaning in caves / sleeping on mats ...."

Ferlinghetti at 90th birthday celebration, March 2009
(photo by Christina Koci Hernandez)

Ferlinghetti's selection is chronological, so that the poems can be read in their City Lights context; Corso and Kaufman, Patchen and Rexroth, plus a variety of poems by Yevtushenko and Garcia Lorca and Mayakovsky, frame a great deal of work by Ginsberg and Kerouac, of course. Any omissions are due to Ferlinghetti's own "ignorance, inattention, ill-timing, or bad luck," he slyly writes in the introduction -- fans will note this essential poem gone missing, or that one -- but there are surprises enough, though it's assumed that the anthology is meant for the general reader. And, wonder of wonders in this oversized and overstuffed age, it's a collection still compact enough to carry around with you.

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