On Thursday, November 2, beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti made a rare public appearance at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. His books include, A Coney Island of the Mind, A Far Rockaway of the Heart, How to Paint Sunlight and Americus, Book I. Although one might think that a poet may not draw in a huge crowd, many fans of all ages greeted Ferlinghetti with an enthusiastic response, standing up and clapping their hands as soon as this man of many words walked onto the stage.
Ferlinghetti, standing tall but still remaining sweetly humble with his voice soft and low, asked the question, “Is poetry becoming irrelevant in these strange, apocalyptic days?” Based on the audience’s response, it appears the answer is “No.” Although poetry is not as widely popular as it was in the 1960’s, it still fills a niche for many contemporary audiences.
Still, the question remains intriguing, and a bit sad, coming from a man of Ferlinghetti’s background. He was introduced earlier in the evening by the dean of the College of Creative Studies, Bruce Tiffney, and then by College of Creative Studies literature professor John Wilson, who listed a few of the poet’s many achievements. In 1953, Ferlinghetti opened City Lights in San Francisco, the first all-paperback bookstore in the United States, which he still owns today. He was the first person to publish Allen Ginsberg’s – and his own – work, and in 1998 he was appointed the first Poet Laureate of San Francisco.
When Ferlinghetti speaks, it is with such rhythm that it is hard to determine what is speech and what is poetry. Ferlinghetti read from both his earlier and later works, which became more politically charged with time. While many of the works in A Coney Island of the Mind centered on New York culture, Ferlinghetti also explored political issues in a less obvious form. For instance, in Ferlinghetti’s “Dog,” he writes about, “a real live barking democratic dog / engaged in real free enterprise with something to say about ontology / something to say / about reality.”
In later works, Ferlinghetti directly addresses political issues, especially those centered around 9/11, as he questions how the Wright Brothers’ invention of the airplane could become so “wrong.” He even accentuated his later, post-9/11 poems with background music from a simple boombox, which softly played the melody of the “The Star-Spangled Banner” and, later, the sounds of nature – an indicator of what the audience will soon be missing if the trend of present events continues into the future.
Let’s return to Ferlinghetti’s earlier question: “Is poetry becoming irrelevant in these strange, apocalyptic days?” At the end of Ferlinghetti’s reading, audience members immediately stood up and showed their support with a seemingly endless wave of applause. Afterward, they quickly flocked to the stage for a book signing, in a line that extended nearly the entire length of the theater. Perhaps this enthusiastic audience response is an answer to Ferlinghetti’s question.