(I wrote this on 25 March, 2019, but never posted it. Lawrence Ferlinghetti died yesterday, and I’ve been thinking of this short piece today. This is more about my father than it is about Ferlinghetti, but I always think of Ferlinghetti and my father together — because of their shared birthdays, I think, which, I concede, is silly. But in that peculiar way that artists choose their own predecessors, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of my ancestors, and indeed, one of the earliest and most profound.)
On Poetry and Bullshit
Lawrence Ferlinghetti just turned 100 yesterday, on what would have been my father’s 95th birthday, and I find myself thinking about where I started as a writer and as a person.
I began writing poetry as a teenager but I didn’t take it very seriously until a teacher showed me some of Ferlinghetti’s poems outside of class. Many other poets have since accreted in the subsequent three decades, of course, but Ferlinghetti’s influence — along with Cummings, Stevens, Plath, Bishop, Rilke — is batholithic.
Initially, I thought I’d be a novelist, producing “large, loose, baggy monsters.” But I discovered that with poetry, I could build something in an hour or a week (or, okay fine, a month or more) and then build something else, and so on, until I had collected enough tiles for a mosaic that could — in theory — rival any doorstop.
Indeed, Durs Grünbein, in The Vocation of Poetry, says: “I might even go so far as to say that poetry is in large part born from the desire to start over as often as possible.”
From my father I learned that the opposite of the truth isn’t a lie but, rather, bullshit. Both “truths” and “lies” are equally committed to a coherent vision of the universe and they often serve the same sort of purpose; a person might tell the truth or a lie for surprisingly similar reasons. But bullshit is faithless. It’s incoherent, and it has no integrity.
So the Statue of Liberty can wield a sword instead of a torch in Kafka’s Amerika, and Ben Franklin can be a DJ at a rave in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Both false and true at the same time — but not bullshit.
My father learned the power and poison of bullshit in the Dutch Resistance as a teenager. After the war, he went to law school in the Netherlands — not because he wanted to be a lawyer, but because he wanted to be a writer. Then he gave up everything to move to the US to marry my mother. Then law school — again — for a second law degree. He worked in publishing; then in the crucible of a massive law firm; then taught; then founded his own firm. He did many different things, and started over many times. But it was always about language, about learning how to use it with humility and respect; to fight against bullshit and chaos. And countless stories at the dinner table, all coming together as one big story. A hedgehog who talked like a fox.
One small thing, then another small thing, then another. Steering by compass, from tree to tree, post to post — all the way across a continent, a lifetime, one poem at a time. Always seeking clarity and integration, attending to what’s there, and how it all fits together. And if you are seeking several destinations, all on a circuit, a seasonal cycle, following a rhythm, a flow — then you never really arrive and you never really depart. You continue.
The third series didn’t last. After an extremely promising first few days, I discovered the source text was problematic; I kept landing on passages that needed way too much massaging to render them usable. So I’ve settled on a different text and it’s been so much better. I even did five in one sitting the other day, just for kicks, which caught me up on the days I’d missed while looking for a new text.
I had to remind myself of a similar stumble before the second series, where I cast about for over two weeks, trying out three or four different source texts to see if they’d work. Something that looks like it’s going to be great can often present problems that make the chance operation more cumbersome or annoying than it’s worth.
Maybe I’ll talk about what I’ve found to be good and poor source texts some time.
Also, there’s something I’m trying to do differently this time. The poems in the earlier series each stood very much on their own. They all felt like they belonged together, of course, by virtue of the source texts setting the tone, so to speak; but they were each quite self-contained, at least to my ear. This time, I’m holding the idea that they are stanzas in a longer work.
Are they all by the same “speaker”? Are they parts of an ongoing dialogue of some kind? Not sure. If I continue my habit of not looking back at earlier days’ poems, then there won’t necessarily be any explicit through-line from one poem to the next any more than in the earlier series, since it will be yet another exquisite corpse, of sorts. But sometimes, simply “holding an idea” can be enough to alter the trajectory. We’ll see whether that’s true for this project or not.
San Francisco Note 2
The ambiguity of this climate,
this plotless city, this finger
in the air. One of the last places
in the world where today is
not yet tomorrow. New York
can have tomorrow, Sydney can
have tomorrow. We will crouch
on the sand dunes and watch yesterday
invent itself. And in this
silent hallway, every lived moment,
remembered and forgotten, rises
toward the ceiling, and spreads out over
the city. I can see it everywhere
I have gone. I am cold
even in this persistent sun.
I started my third chance operation series yesterday. As with the first two, I’m drawing five words at random from a predetermined list, then I’m using a source text to choose a line at random.
The first series ran for about forty days and the second for a bit over fifty days, which felt right for each of them. But I plan on running this series for at least three months, to generate as many as ninety or a hundred poems, from which I can select and winnow. This time, I want as many options as possible: I want the luxury to cut ruthlessly and still have something left over after the carnage.
I plan on doing it daily, but I did two today, so I’ve already written three. I also intend to not look back at the pieces until I’ve written at least 50 or 60, but I went back and copied out these first three poems since I had left them in something of a mess. And… something is happening. Something is clicking. I may even have a title for the project already.
A poem of mine, “Polly,” was published this morning at Autumn Sky Poetry Daily.
I was especially pleased that the editor commented on my use of enjambment, since this was a deliberate and essential aspect, along with the mildly twisted syntax, of the poem’s halting flow. I wanted to create a music that both sang and stumbled, like the faltering breath of a fading life and of the survivor who mourns.
(But I am just a little concerned that people who like “Polly” may be startled by my other poems — like those Edina moms buying the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me after hearing “Skyway” on WLOL as they carpooled their kids to hockey practice.)
Hitchhiking on Hennepin
A heavy plane with Northwest’s red
tail drops toward the airport, grinding
over the lakes. Remaindered Rexroth
for sale at Magers & Quinn and Corso dead
in Bloomington. And here he comes
walking south facing north, thumb
up and out. Bags ponderous
against his hip. Nighthawks overhead,
frantic, their wings daggered and flitting.
I could insinuate the scene’s essential
seasonality but I don’t have that kind
of time. It is 5:30pm on May 3rd.
San Francisco Note 11
the fear is my fear
is that I’m living wrong
the wrong friends or no
friends staying in when I
should be out prowling for
the satori of San Francisco
or Minneapolis or Charlottesville ordering
in when I should be
making reservations living someone else’s
life or mine as seen
from some judgmental fool’s point
of view but I am
not a wrong cloud or
a mistaken leaf I am
not a flawed fiction coaxed
from someone’s discarded notebook so
I go on and form
my letters as I choose
and drink this borrowed wine
no one is friendless who
stays free in strange cities
and poetry is always free
All that’s left.
- Williams, p 224.
- One may defend such a portrait by saying that it condemns the act implicitly, in the very portrayal. But that’s moralizing, posing a peculiar and weak form of propaganda.
- It is no longer a poem.
- Mair, p 3.
- Whether by choice or by compulsion.
- Chan, pp 60, 54.
- We know all about “moments” and we think we know a few good tricks on how to capture and extend them. But we don’t stop the car. We drive on.
- Cage, p 93.
- Longinus, p 301.