Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I really enjoyed watching the Lawrence Ferlinghetti interview from Democracy Now! today, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Although Ferlinghetti describes himself as an “anarchist-pacifist,” to me he seemed like a relatively normal guy in his mid 80s. As we discussed in class, however, the eccentric side of the poet definitely came out when he started describing the “teacups full of flesh” he found in Nagasaki as a young soldier after the 1945 bombing. I think his age kind of came through there, too, because it seemed to me like even the journalist was trying to cut him off, but he really wanted to talk about it, making sure to reinforce the words “teacup” and “flesh” repeatedly. Obviously this does make for one disturbing image, but I think that its gruesomeness is actually what makes it so darkly effective, poetically as well as politically. In a way this reminds me of the World War I painter Otto Dix, who also used really grotesque images to convey his ultimately “anarchist-pacifist” intent. (I studied Dix in my art class last week.) As Ferlinghetti himself stated, the negative power driving these images was enough to make him an “instant pacifist.” Come to think of it, Howl, the Allen Ginsberg poem that landed Lawrence Ferlinghetti in an obscenity trial, is also full of really stark, in-your-face images that occasionally depict what some might call a different kind of “obscenity.” Understandably, the mainstream literary audience is probably still uncomfortable with explicit descriptions of either wartime atrocities or homosexuality, explaining why Ferlinghetti felt the need to create the paperback “underground press” at City Lights in San Francisco. Too bad he didn’t “get a chance” to publish On the Road, though.

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