In the age of iPods, text messages, and YouTube, it is difficult to imagine poetry as a serious cultural and political force. Poetry, a once fertile field that nurtured dissent, confrontation, and utopian visions, has become gentrified. Subtle, ironic, self-obsessed, and understated, today’s poet is a master craftsperson, constructing clever word puzzles that touch on many themes, but the liberation of the spirit is not one of them. In Poetry as Insurgent Art, long time rabble rouser, publisher, and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti throws out a challenge to modern day poets: “Wake up, the world’s on fire.”
Where are Whitman’s wild children,
where the great voices speaking out
with a sense of sweetness and
where the great new vision
the great world-view
the high prophetic song
of the immense earth
and all that sing in it
And our relation to it—
to the street of the world once more.
Poetry as Insurgent Art is a kick in the pants to all those who read and write poetry sitting down. There’s no time for sitting, Ferlinghetti assures us, there is work to be done. Who better to lead the charge than the poets?
The poet by definition
is the bearer
of Eros and love and
thus the natural-born non-violent
enemy of the State
Ferlinghetti believes that the poet, like the artist, has a cultural role to play and a responsibility to an ideal outside of him or herself. In this way, Ferlinghetti views the poet as a sort of humanist shaman, dealing spiritual truths from the bottom of the deck in a cosmic hand of poker. But his poet does not flee from political commitment, but rather, she skips eagerly, jump rope in hand, to
disturb the sleep of those who
do not wish to be disturbed in the
pursuit of happiness.
In contrast, many of today’s poets lack the fire capable of transcending the roar of the day. Poets have become, if not complicit in the status quo, at the least numb to it. Where is the energy in modern poetry? The magnificent leaps of the imagination? The passion that is born of the urgency of youth? Where is the faith, not in one’s self and one’s work, but in the power of words? Where are the declarations, manifestos, and epic statements of purpose? Where are the rope ladders to the castles in the clouds? Ferlinghetti declares, channeling his friend Allen Ginsberg:
We have seen the best minds of our
destroyed by boredom at poetry
Poetry isn’t a secret society
It isn’t a temple either
Secret words & chants won’t do any
Ferlinghetti’s poet-warrior moves freely among all classes of people. She speaks simply, so that others may hear what it is she has to say. Communication a goal, not a liability, Ferling- hetti’s poet does not hide behind fuzzy metaphors or within the pages of the Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism. Rather, she stands up and “lets them have it.”
In Poetry as Insurgent Art, Lawrence Ferlinghetti makes a point to avoid cleverness, irony, and the jaded slouch Generations X,Y, and Z have cultivated to perfection. Instead he hoots and hollers and laughs a bit as he thumbs his nose at the digital age. Though his voice echoes the assumptions and commitments of an earlier time, Ferlinghetti’s definition of poetry retains its edge and his challenge deserves serious consideration.
James Seckington is the primary caregiver to his young children.