Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
New Directions, 2017; 144 pp
Reviewed by Edward A. Dougherty
Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems gathers up 61 poems from his 12 collections to demonstrate in one volume why he is such an important American poet.
Already a fixture in American poetry because of his work as publisher of City Lights Books and co-founder of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, Ferlinghetti’s place in history is secure as one of the pillars of the Beat movement (having stood trial for obscenity for publishing Allan Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems). But he also was at the crossroads of the larger San Francisco Renaissance with Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen, which tangentially fostered the New York School (at least by City Lights publishing Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems) and the Black Mountain School through the cross-pollinating influence of Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan.
Though some poems suffer the datedness of pop culture references and the slang of the day (take heed ye hipsters, eager for the open mic!), these poems hold up. Just try reading “I Am Waiting” to a live audience, and feel how the refrains organize the whole while building up a rhythm. You’ll also feel how the mixture of lyrical with commonplace speech harmonize at times and jolt us at others, but mostly you’ll hear how true so many lines ring. And this is what endures in good poetry, like the idea of waiting for “a rebirth of wonder,” and “for someone / to really discover America,” and “for forest and animals / to reclaim the earth as theirs,” and “for lovers and weepers / to lie down again / in a rebirth of wonder.”
From the start, Ferlinghetti says he sought “an algebra of lyricism / which I am still deciphering.” And that lyricism includes the erotic, humorous, visionary, and political. Throughout this collection, his poems reflect West Coast aesthetics—a deep antipathy to establishment modes and seats of power, a celebration of the earth and the earthy, and a lightness of heart that enjoys the bizarre, surreal, and silly. In the poem “Dog,” his character is a Whitmanesqe canine who “trots freely in the street / past puddles and babies / cats and cigars / poolrooms and policemen,” but then Ferlinghetti drops in the zinger that reveals how outsider status works: “He doesn’t hate cops / He merely has no use for them.” That poem appeared in his 1958 collection, but it still speaks for so many anarchists and LGBTQ and anti-capitalists and environmentalists.
His deep connection to artwork and artists (having studied painting in Paris after finishing his Master’s thesis on John Ruskin and J.M.W. Turner) weaves though his allusions, as is the long poetic conversation. His lines echo and parody famous lines, like “do not go naked into that good night.” This collection includes his tribute to Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, as the Jack of Hearts, the poet-artist “who lays it out / who tell it as it is / the one who wears no watch / but who tells the time too truly.”
This is a great compact collection for up and coming poets who find they watch more poetry on YouTube than read it, and for tried and true poets who have forgotten how to hear the jazz of poetry, and for anyone who wants to feel their rebellious American heart beat a little stronger.