Ferlinghetti Dreams of a New Beginning

I had never heard of Lawrence Ferlinghetti before my journey to discover the Beats, a movement I somehow missed in earlier literary travels. After reading several Beat poets, though, at times it’s difficult to see why Ferlinghetti is grouped with the Beats at all. In terms of style they seem to have very little in common, though each at times slips into some Whitmanesque lines.

In fact, in a recent interview Ferlinghetti said he didn’t consider himself a Beat poet. He was quoted as saying, “You know he [Ginsberg] used to say, ‘First thought, best thought?’ I’d say, ‘First thought, worse thought.’ We went about writing entirely differently. But he was my friend.”

There are, though, several reasons why he is associated with the Beats. As co-founder of City Lights Press he published the Beats when it was risky to do so. Second, he was clearly a friend of the Beats, and his ideas are often similar. "My poetics are different but my politics are in solidarity," he’s quoted as saying. "The Beats cleared the way for everybody else. Anti-materialist, anti-war, the first articulation of ecological consciousness: All of that was the Beats.”

The poems I’m discussing today come from Wild Dreams of a New Beginning, poems published from 1974-1979. I found a number of poems that I liked in the section of Wild Dreams of a New Beginning called Who Are We Now? My favorite poems, though, are two where he considers the paintings of two famous painters. (If you click on the titles of the poems they will take you to online shots of related paintings.)

Monet’s Lilies Shuddering

Monet never knew
he was painting his ‘Lilies’ for
a lady from the Chicago Art Institute
who went to France and filmed
today’s lilies
by the’Bridge at Giverny’
a leaf afloat among them
the film of which now flickers
at the entrance to his framed visions
with a Debussy piano soundtrack
flooding with a new fluorescence (fleur-essence?)
the rooms and rooms
of waterlilies

Monet caught a Cloud in a Pond
in 1903
and got a first glimpse
of its lilies
and for twenty years returned
again and again to paint them
which now gives us the impression
that he floated thru life on them
and their reflections
which he also didn’t know
we would have occasion
to reflect upon

Anymore than he could know
that John Cage would be playing a
‘Cello with Melody-driven Electronics’
tonight at the University of Chicago
And making those Lilies shudder and shed
black light

There seems little in this poem that needs elucidation, at least not nearly as much as the world “elucidation,” and I like that. However, the idea that Monet “floated thru life on them and their reflections,” suggesting that there is something mystical itself about the source of the art is an appealing idea. How shameful, then, that people exploit these mystical forces, thus demeaning the forces and the artist that first perceived them.

I was perhaps even more inspired by Ferlinghetti’s poem “The ‘Moving Waters’ of Gustav Klimt” because I had never heard of Klimt before, or at least I didn’t remember him. I do, however, like the Art Decco movement, and I enjoyed his paintings once I found them.

The ‘Moving Waters’ of Gustav Klimt

Who are they then
these women in this painting
seen so, deeply long ago
Models he slept with
or lovers or others
he came upon
catching them as they were
back then
dreamt sleepers
on moving waters
eyes wide open
purple hair streaming
over alabaster bodies
in lavender currents
Dark skein of hair blown back
from a darkened face
an arm flung out
a mouth half open
a hand
cupping its own breast
rapt dreamers
or stoned realists
drifting motionless
lost sisters or
with themselves or others
pale bodies wrapt
in the night of women
lapt in light
in ground swells of
dreamt desire
dreamt delight
Still strangers to us
yet not
in that first night
in which we lose ourselves

And know each other

Again, this poem, like many of Ferlinghetti’s poems, doesn’t seem to need much interpretation, but he is still able to take us beyond the paintings themselves and add another dimension to them. We understand, for a moment, that we, like the subjects of the paintings, are caught up in that moment when we are “Still strangers to us/yet not/ strangers/ in that first night/ in which we lose ourselves/ And know each other.”

Ferlinghetti has the ability to focus the reader’s attention on a subject clearly and precisely, so that the reader sees it more clearly, or for the first time, in a new light.