You Should Read This: Poetry As Insurgent Art by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Abstract image resembling a shadow over dots

You must decide if bird cries are cries of ecstasy or cries of despair, by which you will know if you are a tragic or a lyric poet. -Lawrence Ferlinghetti

One of the distinctions that I sometimes hear people making is “regular” Sf and “literary” SF, usually with some baggage about the literary SF being art. I say, if you’re making something you don’t really interact with for food, shelter, or clothing (and even then, in some cases), you are probably making art.

Word-wrangling is art, no matter whether it is used for the lowest purposes or the most exalted, and the artist who relaxes and enjoys it learns to use artful techniques for the entertainment or edification of her/his readers. And they may, in that process, create something lasting.

At the same time, a dose of art in whatever form — visual, music, verbal — can shake things loose in our heads to the point where better and more interesting words fall out. This is why you should read books like Poetry as Insurgent Art.

Here’s Ferlinghetti himself on the notion of rejecting poetry, aka all that artsy stuff.

Don’t let them tell you poetry is bullshit.

Don’t let them tell you poetry is for the birds.

Have a good laugh at those who tell you poets are misfits or potential terrorists and a danger to the state.

Don’t let them tell you poetry is a neurosis that some people never outgrow.

Laugh at those who tell you poetry is all written by the Holy Ghost and you’re just a ghost-writer.

Don’t ever believe poetry is irrelevant in dark times.

If you’ve ever been inside Ciy Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, you’ve walked the same floorboards as Ferlinghetti, who co-founded the store with Peter Martin in 1953. He and Shig Murao, the manager, were arrested in 1956 on obscenity charges for selling copies of Allan Ginsberg’s Howl.

Why should you read this? I tell you what. I’ll let Ferlinghetti speak for himself by quoting the beginning of Poetry as Insurgent Art.

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age? What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it. (A voice in the wilderness!)

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerers with words.

If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.

Ferlinghetti should be read as a subversive act:

The idea of poetry as an arm of class war disturbs the sleep of those who do not wish to be disturbed in the pursuit of happiness.

The poet by definition is the bearer of Eros and love and freedom and thus the natural-born non-violent enemy of any police state.

Read this for the sake of poetry, “the last lighthouse in rising seas.”

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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