Time of Useful Consciousness, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, New Directions, 96pp, £14.50 (hardback)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry has outsold his contemporaries. And he, at ninety-three, has outlived everyone. He has written so memorably of his hopes for the future. His radical idealism is in no way diminished but reignited by his outrage at the way things are going. That vision of a better world does not preclude a celebration of the past. Ferlinghetti writes in the American grain of the patriotic dissenter for whom the frontier is not to be conquered but to be revered. He writes in the spirit of Whitman and Melville and Twain and, of course, his friends the Beats, although his voice is his own. He writes of his mentors:
But all of them, singing or silent, reading between the lines
reading between the lives of America
Opening the book at random (always a useful first step), I read the poet quoting a poem of his from way back, a poem I remember well:
Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass.
Kids chase him through screen door summers.
In a few well-chosen words poverty in the midst of plenty, that scourge of America’s dream of good living, is brought to life, a life that we can see as we read of it . . . Johnny Nolan, a latter-day Huck Finn, runs through the twentieth-century and beyond. It may be the quintessential Ferlinghetti poem, the one to begin with, the poem that gives access to the poet’s sense of direction.
And where, for Ferlinghetti, are things going? Westward of course. In 1900 the frontier was closed, but later the dust bowl Okies made for the coast. Then there was the post-war migration. Ferlinghetti made San Francisco his home. At first it was a university job, then a drift into books to be sold, published and written. The writing and the painting (an example of the poet’s art adorns the cover) helped create the aura of City Lights as a centre of the spirit of San Francisco, that great experiment in discovering what is worth discovering.
For a poet the essence of the discovery is poetry, the finest words spoken. Poetry as Insurgent Art (2007) was Ferlinghetti’s most recent work, a fierce polemic for poetry as a form distinct from prose by its intensity both of technique and purpose. Between the rhythm and the image is the sequestered spirit that breathes life and meaning into the arrangement of words: ‘Poetry is news from the growing edge on the far frontiers of consciousness.’ Or, as he says in this new book, ‘It is the dawn after dreaming.’ Between the lives of America is the distance between declaring the war and striving for peace.
The incandescent energy of this sonorous protest may inspire its readers to acts of outrageous creativity. Allen Ginsberg once observed that originally to protest was to testify in favour, not against. Language may adapt to circumstance, but the genesis of protest’s positive meaning must be kept in mind. A poet is a maker, someone who does something useful. Time of useful consciousness, according to the author, is an aeronautical term to denote the brief period when a pilot’s oxygen fails and his subsequent collapse. We have only a limited time to put things right.
The sense of an ending has to be taken seriously. The human species is likely to survive. Our capacity to adapt, even to thrive, despite terrible adversity is awesome and, some would say, God-given. But a failure to accept certain truths about our situation does us no credit. This is Ferlinghetti’s case rolled out in what may be termed a benign fury that encompasses a treasury of feelings for good or ill about his native land. Flying over the Mid-West he notes how the tracks of the pioneers’ wagons are visible still. And he records his shame at the treatment of the tribes who welcomed and aided the white settlers. He remembers the Depression, the wars, and the great sweeps of intolerance that belied the democratic vision of America.
The techniques employed vary in tempo and timbre. In this long work there are necessary and welcome changes of mood. There are scherzo passages, then chants and invocations, followed by lyrical passages and quiet moments of reflection in exquisite prose. The purpose behind the words, the spirit of the book, unifies the parts into an accomplished whole. There is, mercifully, not a hint of nostalgia. The immediacy with which Ferlinghetti describes the past is so vibrant. It is the past relived, and not so much remembered as recreated. Experience and observations are filtered into metaphor. Striking phrases are woven into a pattern of meanings that demand our attention. They charm or cajole or enchant, according to the poet’s need and the moment’s urgency.
Accomplished as this work it is not written in a late style. It is not so much a summing up as a wake-up call. If the energy alarms us at times that is the poet’s intention. If Johnny Nolan does not know he is being written about that is an indictment of a culture that has made art too precious. Reaching out is never easy, but Ferlinghetti is determined. The million copies and more sold of A Coney Island of the Mind testify in part to the achievement of his goals.
The other testimony is the work itself:
Trains in the book of night! across the great divides
across the inter-mountain country over the purple plains
over the thirsty deltas
winding down at last
to the glowing Golden Gate . . .
San Francisco is, of course, Ferlinghetti’s chosen territory, the distant place he has made home. What appealed, he writes, is the difference. It is not so much a city as an island, a great experiment in living, in exploring the ways communities and individuals can negotiate their diverse and energising needs and wishes:
San Francisco! The radiant city,
with an island climate and an island consciousness . . . a kind of offshore colony
settled by adventurers prospectors drifters
Creating order out of chaos is Ferlinghetti’s declared aim. His poetics are not the spontaneous, wild energy of the Beats, but a measured and honed craftsmanship. It is no less passionate in its call to the intuitive energies of American life.
The poet is also the enterprising activist. He has encouraged others to create and to act creatively. The important thing to remember is that San Francisco is an experiment that works. It welcomes dissent. It acknowledges the unusual as potentially the new way of looking. Sometimes the reflection distorts the truth. But when the words are true, and the music is harmonious, and the images shine in memory – all the things that happen in this book – then we have a precious resource that will live and live.