If any man alive can be still held responsible for the Beat movement and/or the poetry renaissance of the ’50s and ’60s, it is San Francisco poet and City Lights Booksellers & Publishers co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He was there from the very beginning, helping to create a scene in the Italian North Beach neighborhood that reverberates to this day.
It was the publishing arm of City Lights that propelled East Coast writers such as Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso, as well as San Franciscans like Kenneth Rexroth and Ferlinghetti himself, into the national spotlight. The landmark Howl obscenity trial, sparked after San Francisco police seized the City Lights paperback, won more notoriety for what Ginsburg, et al, were up to than any lame spot-the-beatnik tours could have ever brought to bear.
The bibliographical note to this slim volume, Ferlinghetti’s own Ars Poetica, marks it as an on-going work in progress starting as a KPFA broadcast in the late ’50s. The main body of Poetry as Insurgent Art reads almost like a collection of daily affirmations, ranging from practical advice to writers—If you call yourself a poet, don’t just sit there. Poetry is not a sedentary occupation, not a “take your seat” practice. Stand up and let them have it—to more philosophical and sensual musings such as—Be a dark barker before the tents of existence—and—Instead of trying to escape reality, plunge into the flesh of the world.
Some of Ferlinghetti’s aphorisms seem antithetical to a movement that worshiped the idea of Jack Kerouac spontaneously writing On the Road on a continuous roll of teletype paper. Advice like—Cultivate dissidence and critical thinking. First thought may be worst thought—seems to place him outside of the spur-of-the-moment crowd.
Of course, Ferlinghetti always argued that he was never a “Beat,” but was rather a bohemian, sort of a proto-Beat, if you will. In her 2004 book, Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge, Laren Stover breaks down the evolution of bohemianism into five branches: Nouveau, Gypsy, Beat, Zen, and Dandy, any number and combination of which can still be found slouching around the City wherever hipsters congregate, leading to possibly my favorite of his bits of wisdom—Stash your sell-phone and be here now.
The book veers into more abstract attempts to answer the burning question of What is Poetry? some of which bear the brand of the modern world, such as—Poems are e-mails from the unknown beyond cyberspace. ’Erm, … why do I get the feeling that one may not make the cut in a future edition? Others are timeless—It is private solitude made public—psychedelic—Poetry is Van Gogh’s ear echoing with all the blood of the world—religious—It is the street talk of angels and devils—It is made by dissolving halos in oceans of sound—and political—The idea of poetry as an arm of class war disturbs the sleep of those who do not wish to be disturbed in the pursuit of happiness.
It takes him a while to get around to it, but toward the end of the book lies possibly the best definition of poetry I have ever read—Poetry is making something out of nothing, and it can be about nothing and still mean something. Ferlinghetti certainly knows what he’s talking about, and we’re truly lucky to still have him around.