I took this photo with my cell phone yesterday evening at City Lights Book Store, which is why the immense Lawrence Ferlinghetti is so faraway and tiny in the frame. It was standing room only as he sat at a table with his bottle of chilled San Pellegrino, reading excerpts from Poetry as Insurgent Art, just recently released by New Directions Publishing.
This was not a poetry reading, and this not a book of poetry; he was quite clear on this point. Rather, I see it as a book of aphorisms, pithy sayings, glimmers of inspiration on the why's and how's of poetry. It's clear too that he gives nods and derives from forefather poets and contemporaries. "I know why the caged bird sings," he says at one point, obviously referencing Maya Angelou.
At this point in Ferlinghetti's life and career, I think he's earned the right to collect his thoughts in such a lovely hardcover volume, reminiscent to me of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, is some respects, for placing writing, and the power to write, back in the hands of poets. This seems to be a part of the insurgency. He is quite testy about critics and intellectuals who fail to discuss the "insurgent" part of the poetry and of the art. He criticized Publishers Weekly and the UC Berkeley "intellectuals" for glossing over this point more than apparent in the book's title: insurgency is rebellion. It's also more than apparent in the book's contents —
Beginning with epigraphs including one from Subcomandante Marcos: "We apologize for the inconvenience, but this is a revolution." And into his text proper: "The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it." "Question 'God' and his buddies on earth." "Challenge capitalism masquerading as democracy." And so forth. Do we have to ask why so few have dared to discuss insurgency in this work.
And so absolute is his belief in poetry, art, and rebellion, it came across to me in last night's discussion that he meant all poetry. So I had to ask if he really believed that the state of American poetry is one of rebellion. No, of course not, he responded, and that's the problem. So then I ought to have asked, how can this realistically change. Others asked about the existence of Poetry of the State, which would sound like the opposite of Poetry of Insurgency.
Still others asked for his advice on taking advice as a poet with work in process. To this last question he responded that there is nothing like a great teacher, and that we should take all the advice that we can. This, while he has also written: "Can you imagine Shelley in a poetry workshop?" But I really can; I see Shelley and his fellow Romantics workshopping one another's work over opium and absinthe and wife-swapping, perhaps brawling over what was trite, cliché, cheap, and easy.