Breakfast of Champions 3/24: Happy Birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti
One of the country's most accomplished artists turns 89 today. Join me in celebrating his work, right after we catalog what's popped up on the site over the weekend:
DAILY DISH: WHAT'S NEW AROUND THE SITE
A new slideshow documents Muja Messiah's MPLS Massacre show, featuring Dody Phi, I Self Divine, M.anifest, Maria Isa and more.
Guntzel also speaks on John McCain's backtracking on Jerry Falwell. I've been thinking a lot lately about the double standard in the media about associations like this, and might post on it later.
Paul Demko has the latest in the security guards' labor struggle for health care.
Born in 1919, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a firsthand participant in watershed events of the 20th century, artistic and otherwise. He's a writer and publisher, of course, but has meant so much more to the artistic community, the country and the world.
A free speech pioneer, Ferlinghetti and his City Lights Press famously faced legal sanction for publishing Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." A Navy veteran of World War II, he saw the devastation wrought on Nagasaki mere weeks after the atomic bombing -- an event that cemented his status as a lifelong pacifist.
Ferlinghetti is deservedly most famous for poetry, but he's also an accomplished painter and experimental playwright. A man older than Jack Kerouac, but a man who well outlived his friend the college athlete by going to the gym every day while Kerouac was drinking. (A fictionalized version of Ferlinghetti also appears in Kerouac's novel Big Sur.) Also, you have love a nearly-90 man who coined the phrase (and still sports a button proclaiming) "Fuck art, let's dance."
At the end of the day, though, Ferlinghetti is a poet, and a damn fine one. Works like "Junkman's Obbligato" are at once bohemian products of their era and keen expressions of timeless ideas:
Empty our pockets
Missing all our appointments
And turning up unshaven
Old cigarette papers
stuck to our pants
leaves in our hair.
Let us not
worry about the payments
Let them come
and take it away
whatever it was
we were paying for.
And us with it.
A healthy chunk of Ferlinghetti's work is meant to be read accompanied by jazz, as a sort of oral message punctuated with music. This is true of his most famous work, "I am Waiting", from the classic A Coney Island of the Mind. Celebrating the natural world -- and the magical, surreal everyday experience of the common individual -- the poems lead us through screen doors, into candy stores and past pastoral landscapes of unreality.
Writers often say that they write to explain the world to themselves, to make sense of their own lives. Ferlinghetti is way ahead of most of us, and has been for years. This passage from his poem "Autobiography" is one of my favorites:
and I have read somewhere
the Meaning of Existence
yet have forgotten
just exactly where.
But I am the man
And I’ll be there.
Published in 1958, that poem turns 50 this year. Part manifesto and part mantra, it sets up a fair blueprint for the artistic life: fumbling for the lost meaning of existence, the artist finds meaning in the practice -- and comfort in knowing that the journey itself is worth it.
Fuck art, let's dance. Happy birthday, Ferlinghetti.