Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Time of Useful Consciousness
Interview with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW-FM (89.9), “Bookworm,”
We always like to return to Whitman one of the poets with whom Sri Aurobindo’s concludes his Future Poetry. Fittingly Ferlinghetti on his journey to the West concludes by invoking Whitman whose oracular voice echoes through the bohemians and the beats from the east village to north beach, it is here given over in what will surely be one of last great exhalations from a founding member of that generation (al)
Here are some westward excerpts from Ferlinghetti’s Time of Useful Consciousness:
In the hinter nation
that stretches westward from Manhatten
autumn finds the people restless
Across iron cities
cement plains and silted rivers
(first western fonder)
And down into it
down into middle America
So that sailing westward
from the crenellated old world
of over age Camembert Europe
millions washing up on virgin shores
bright with promise
Heading west a state of mind
moving west by myriad rutted routes
where a man can stake as much land
as he can ride across before sundown
foraging the far horizon
for the ultimate Eldorado
including dust bowl Okies and Tom Joad
trampling down his Grapes of Wrath with words
“Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat
I’ll be there.
Whenever there’s a cop beating ‘up a guy, I’ll be there…..”
“Go West young man
and grow up with a country!”
The great trek west
a sea of people on the move…..
Doldrums dreams hallucinations
Conscience and consciousness
of a new born nation
half-mibled in sleep
And Huck Finn Tom Sawyer’s hero
leading the only free life
and on the last page of Huckleberry Finn
their hero Huck disappears forever
from their horizon
but lives on in the West
in a thousand photocopies
like Neal Cassady becoming Kerouac’s Huck
And though the Kali yuga threatens to thwart our journey West fortunately Ferlinghetii has grown tired of the desperate situation and sends in two redeemers Smoky the Bear and Walt Whitman come to deliver us, for in the face of the forest fires of the Kali Yuga (al)
Dark Mind dark soul dark age
A man made of steel
on a horse of gold
and the horse hitched to a parries wagon
The forest fires of the Kali Yuga
about to consume us….
and Smoky the Bear
in his broad Park Rangerr hat
in his raging fury
to save the planet earth
still swings his vajra-shovel
to douse the fires of greed and war
and still chants his great enlightened mantra
But who hears it
as it echoes in the wilderness?
Walt Whitman you should be living at this hour!
Optimist of humanity en masse
Old graybeard—Old Walt
stepping off Brooklyn Ferry
into heart of America
You who contained multitudes
You who heard America singing
You who sounded your barbaric yawp
over roofs of the world
You who said”I’ll whimper up no more”
Out of the closet endlessly rocking
You who struck up for a New World.
“Solitary singing in the West”
Whereaway now, dear poet, dear lover, eternal yea-sayer?
Time of Useful Consciousness by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Reviewed by Gabino Iglesias
When you think of a 93-year-old poet, maybe vivaciousness, constant movement, and strength are not the first words that come to mind. However, that vibrant combination is exactly what poet, publisher, and activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s new book, Time of Useful Consciousness, exudes.
The poems in Time of Useful Consciousness are a celebration of America and Americana, but one that keeps its finger pointed at the country’s absurdities, flaws and racism. Westward motion and dreams that don’t wilt despite the presence of great truths are the fuel that Ferlinghetti uses to drag readers through the entire nation at breakneck speed. From Route 66 to seedy Las Vegas and from Iowa to rest of the states kissed by the Mississippi, the “jugular vein of America,” the poet manages to cram the stories and history of the 20th century into less than 100 pages. The densely-packed fragments are eloquent narratives that go beyond their length and somehow summarize the crucial points in U.S. history:
After World War II
it was as if the whole continent tilted westward
and the population shifted with it
and it took almost a decade
for all the elements of a changed America
to come together
in a radically new post-war culture
And it happened in San Francisco
Just like a John Coltrane melody or one of Dave Foster Wallace’s seemingly interminable sentences, Ferlinghetti’s poems rush forward with a self-generated kinetic force that makes the stream-of-consciousness writing flow with the ease of your own thoughts. The result is a collection in which this country’s cultural fabric can be seen taking shape in fast-forward.
Along with events, important people are also present here. Ayn Rand, Muhammad Ali, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Hunter S. Thompson, Mark Twain, and Timothy Leary are just some of the figures who find themselves in Ferlinghetti’s work. However, people are not always named. Instead, the poet elegantly and seamlessly interweaves borrowed phrases, titles, and quotes into his work. The resulting tributes are sweet literary morsels that reward the attentive reader.
Good poetry paints a picture, but only great poetry can paint a picture that draws you in. In Time of Useful Consciousness, Ferlinghetti achieves this with almost every poem:
Outside, a light rain descends on the city, silencing everything.
It is as if silence itself were contained in the soft rain. Umbrellas
blossom in it. There is a hush along the boulevards as it comes
down. At the Chicago Art Institute silent couples under black um-
brellas stroll out of Caillebotte’s Paris and out onto the boulevard.
They disappear in the rain sweeping in off Lake Michigan. The city
sits silent, rooted, stretched like a huge octopus on the shores of the
lake, its myriad eyes blinking, speechless. Its tentacles railroads…
Beautiful, poignant, and full of sharp honesty, the poems in this collection cut to the heart of what we are. This is a festive narrative, but one that leaves no space for deceit or unfair historical revisions. Time of Useful Consciousness is Ferlinghetti at his best; a definite must-read for anyone who cares about meaningful poetry.
Time of Useful Consciousness
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
90 pp., $14.41 print / $94.50 deluxe edition
Gabino Iglesias is a writer and journalist currently living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in The New York Times, the Austin Post, Business Today, San Antonio Magazine, Bizarro Central, Paragraph Line, Surreal Grotesque, CultureMap Austin, Divergent Magazine, MicroHorror, El Nuevo Dia and a few anthologies. He’s also a book reviewer for HorrorTalk, Horrorphilia, Zouch Magazine, Buzzy Mag, Verbicide, the Lovecraft eZine and most recently joined Black Heart Magazine as its new Poetry Editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.