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Reviews 79 Endless Life: Selected Poems. By Lawrence Ferlinghetti. (New York: New Directions, 1981. 215 pages, $14.95.) Lawrence Ferlinghetti, according to his FBI file, is a “Beatnik Rabble Rouser.” Now I never thought that the Freedom of Information Act would advance literary studies, but after reading Endless Life, Ferlinghetti’s own selection of his poetry from eight books and work in progress, I am reminded of the important conjunction between his poetry and the state. At home in the West Coast anarcho-pacifist tradition of Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen, Ferlinghetti has written over the last quarter century a public poetry to challenge the guardians of the political and social status quo for the souls of his fellow citizens. A rebel rather than a revolutionary, Ferlinghetti has been generous in his support to the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, Cesar Chavez’drive to organize farm workers, and a range of battles to head off eco-catastrophe. Just as important, Ferlinghetti has insisted that dissident poets and publishers must keep clear of all ties to the state, whether grant money or Library of Congress readings, to preserve the integrity of the critical voice in American writing. But Ferlinghetti is more than a political conscience warning his brother and sister poets of unw itting collaboration and guilt by complicity. He is the self-described “Director of Alienation” seeking to coalesce a “collective subjective” of all of us — the “rabble” component of the FBI’s equation — who take seriously the Beat generation’s resistance to official culture and mores. This “collective subjective,” as Ferlinghetti’s “Adieu a Chariot (Second Populist Manifesto)’’ makes clear, comes from the “Little Man in each of us” — Ferlinghetti’s identification with Charley Chaplin, the tramp drifting beneath city lights (“blinking in the neon”), entangled in the gears of the modern age. “It’s not me It’s Them out of step,” Ferlinghetti’s “Director of Alienation’’ says, “I came in looking for an angel.” Which is hard to find these days, and at some expense to the poet. “Constantly risking absurdity” is the way Ferlinghetti characterizes his mission and the vulner­ ability of the poet, an acrobat “balancing on eyebeams.” The task, Fer­ linghetti says in the first “Populist Manifesto,” is not to apotheosize alienation in the self-referential, arcane, or occult salvation of “bedroom visionaries and closet agitpropagators.” It is to direct that alienation to good use, in order to “speak out / with a new wide-open poetry / with a new commonsensual ‘public surface’.” Like the French poet Jacques Prevert whose work he translated, Ferlinghetti is most of all a see-er, not a seer, whose call to “open your minds & eyes / with the old visual delight’’ is counterposed to the private sensibilities of the poetic schools and critics: “Poetry still falls from the skies.” So, the critics have never been particularly kind to Ferlinghetti, most often dismissing him as either sentimental or the literary entrepreneur of the Beat generation — judgments both inadequate and wide of the mark. In reverse order, it needs to be said that Ferlinghetti’s City Lights publishing 80 Western American Literature company is not simply a Beat clearinghouse but, along with Robert Bly, has been instrumental in presenting new writing of many strains from many countries to the poetry public. (Read the roster of Pocket Poets.) And then it needs to be said, as the Europeans have always recognized, that Ferlinghetti is a force in American poetry, a revisionist evaluation I think this collection will promote. His poems are strong and clear and deeply felt, inspired by the angel of lucidity. (Read “The Old Italians Dying,” his tribute to San Francisco’s North Beach.) Sentimentality, finally, is a bad rap, often pinned on poets whose work sells well, as Ferlinghetti’s has, blaming the poet for his audience. Kenneth Rexroth’s judgment of the man and his work is a better one. “Many contemporary poets,” Rexroth writes, “perhaps the most significant ones, have simply left the society, deserted it as doomed, or already dead. Ferlinghetti is very much inside it. He feels its evils as directed against him; as they say, he takes it personally.” Ferlinghetti has risked the “absurdity” of...


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pp. 79-80
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