Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The Last Beat

By Blake de Pastino

APRIL 13, 1998: 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Far Rockaway of the Heart

In the lobby of the Havana Libre Hilton in 1959, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda leaned over to a youngish, bearded freak sitting next to him and confessed, "I love your wide-open poetry." What Neruda meant by this, the freak later decided, was that his poetry was the work of clear-eyed rebellion, a democratic kind of writing that "rose over the rooftops/and tenement boneyards" of America and descended upon the people whom poets haven't spoken to since the days of Walt Whitman. No small praise, that, and accurate, too. Because the freak in question was a young Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the work that Neruda vouchsafed such approval for was his book A Coney Island of the Mind, which would become--along with Allen Ginsberg's Howl--the bible of the Beat Generation.

Nearly 40 years later, far from Cuba's revolutionary shores, Lawrence Ferlinghetti remembers that encounter in a poem called simply "#13" in his follow-up to that impressive early work. Aptly titled A Far Rockaway of the Heart, it's the first new collection of poetry that Ferlinghetti has written in more than a decade, and it's Ferlinghetti's first attempt to complement the book that made him famous. But perhaps more importantly, it's the work of a man who is today, for all practical purposes, the last of the big-name Beatniks.

Since the passing of Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, Ferlinghetti has been shouldered with that weighty distinction--being among the final producing artists of that divey generation. But if you come to Far Rockaway thinking of Kerouac and Cassady, you might end up shelving it with disappointment, because Lawrence Ferlinghetti isn't--and by his own admission, never quite was--a Beat in the usual sense. Instead, A Far Rockaway of the Heart is further proof of Ferlinghetti's unique ability to be two poets at once--to be both radical and traditional, a firebrand and an academic. Even if it's not what you might expect from The Last Beat, Far Rockaway still seems like the best of both worlds.

There are 101 works of verse here, all produced during what the author called "a poetry seizure" that lasted more than a year. Each piece is brief and is written in that frank, staccato style that Ferlinghetti practically invented, the undulating cadence that makes each poem cry out to be spoken aloud. There are few better examples than the title poem, in which he taps out the final lines: "I still would love to find again/that lost locality/Where I might catch once more/a Sunday subway for/some Far Rockaway of the Heart." And here you can also see what made him Beat: his simplicity of language, his dirty urban roots, even his touch of cynicism for what the world has become. Yes, there's plenty of establishment-bashing in these pages, with Ferlinghetti decrying the mechanized terror of "Autogeddon" in one poem, describing the collapse "of Wall Street Mainstreet USA" in another. There's no confusing his mistrust of corporate America ("because money doesn't really 'trickle-down'") or his attempt to write to "the people," so that they can be part of "the wide open society" that the Beats once dreamed about, and which Neruda seemed to allude to.

But what seems so satisfying about his verse is that it doesn't stop there. Educated New Yorker that he is, Ferlinghetti actually spends less time being radical than he does admiring the great radicals of the past. After a while, Far Rockaway seems less like a call to arms than a lesson in the classics. He writes a long paean to Hieronymus Bosch, whom he calls the original counterculture guru, creator of "the secret psychedelic posters for/the liberated orgies of his time." He composes an ode to Rodin. And there's hardly a poet in the past hundred years that Ferlinghetti doesn't show some debt to, even when he tries to deride them. Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman and Samuel Beckett all have poems devoted to them, with Ferlinghetti mimicking their styles and famous lines. And at any given moment, it's hard to tell whether he's mocking them or paying homage to them, which means it's probably a little of both.

In the end, little in Far Rockaway matches the impact of the poet's earlier work, and maybe that's because Ferlinghetti, his readers and the rest of the world have all changed since that day in the Cuba Libre Hotel. But he still has a verve that's hard to hear in most poets writing today, and as long as Ferlinghetti is around, we can still say with comfort that the Beat goes on. (New Directions, cloth, $21.95)

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Books: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Weekly Alibi . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch