How to Paint Sunlight

I enjoyed reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s latest volume of poetry How to Paint Sunlight. As the title might suggest, most of the poems in this volume touch on the positive side of life. The long poem that opens the volume “Instructions to Painters and Poets” is an excellent poem that uses the paint’s canvas and paints as a metaphor of the artist’s attempt to create “the lighted life on earth,” a “brave new world.” This emphasis on light is the dominant motif in the work. The rest of the poems, like “Blind Poet,” touch on the negative aspects of life, on those things Ferlinghetti feels are preventing the light from coming though.

The poem “The Light of Birds” is representative of the positive poems in this volume:

The Light of Birds

I early learned to love birds
the light of birds the kingdom of birds
in the high treetops
stricken with light
living their separate
weightless lives
Light years they lived
apart from us
flashing in sunlight
high above Bronx River Parkway
or high on Hudson’s Palisades
they flew about
light as leaves
(and they were as leaves
except in the fall
when they did not fall)
calling to each other
over and over
in the upper air
or lost in the sky
as they soared up there
way up behind the reservoir
where we came as kids
chattering like birds
on a Sunday at sundown
and played in the falling light
and heard for the first time
the distant muffled caws
of our own night

Ferlinghetti’s description of the birds he learned to love is both straightforward and striking. The birds are both literally and figuratively “light years” apart from the children playing below. The children’s lives are weighted down by their circumstances, while the birds seemed to the children to have “weightless lives. The poem concisely conveys the kind of optimism that almost all young children feel, no matter what their financial situation. The last lines present an interesting twist to this poem that seems to be lacking in some of Ferlinghetti’s other poems: the moment when the boys go up up to the reservoir at the fall of light, and hear “for the first time the distant muffled caws of our own night.”

“Blind Poet” is one of the poems in the book that looks at what is wrong in American society, and, just as in real life, there is plenty that is wrong with America in Ferlinghetti’s book:

Blind Poet

I am your blind poet and painter
I am contemplating my navel
I see my own insides
I see my own mind
full of fantastic phrases and images
I am painting the landscape of my soul
and the soul of mankind
as I see it
I am giving it a voice
I am singing folk songs
about the workers
I am singing about the downtrodden masses
and the rich on their fat asses
I am the painter who feels
with his fingers
I am the blind seeing-eye poet
I see what you can’t see
I eat well and drink well
and dream of great epics
I am your postmodern pastmodern multi-media artist
I am the most avant of the avant
I’m site-specific and totally conceptual
Even the greatest critics have been baffled
by my profundity
I once knew Andy Warhol
I’ve slept with you know whom
And I’m a fast-speaking man
I am your deconstructed language poet
your far-out poet
full of ecstasies and visions
your wandering workshop poet
your university poet
with tenure
your buddhist quietest poet
I go on poetry reading tours
where everything is paid for
I hear everything
and it’s grist to my mill
I use it all
to make great sound poetry
or great concrete poetry
that no one can see through
Life is a real dream
and I am dreaming it
And I’ve got it all in my head
the Song of Humanity
and the Song of Inhumanity
I’ll paint you a profound picture
an action painting
a gestural painting
nothing but pure gesture
I’ll write you a far-out song
of common people
If I take off my mask
I’ll see the real world
for the first time
But I won’t take it off
It fits too well
It’s a perfect fit
It’s too comfortable
And I’ve got my career to think of
my life to think of
We only live once
and living well is the best revenge
Get your own blindfold
You can’t have mine
You’ll have to face the world without it
And anyway I’m too young to die
I’m an American
and Americans don’t die
We’re the conquerors
We’re the new roman emperors
We’re conquering the world
with global capitalism
I can see it but you can’t see it
It’s the Invisible Empire
And democracy is capitalism
No more poor people
No more Huddled Masses
in our empire
The rising tide lifts all boats!
No more people starving and dying
No more hunger and torture and death
So get smart, get with it
Hang my painting!
Publish my poem!

It takes a few moments to realize the sarcasm in the poem because I, at least, took the title as literal, not figurative. The phrase “contemplating my navel” should have been a giveaway, but considering the close connection between the Beats and Buddhism, I wasn’t sure right away where the poem was going. In fact, being the liberal that I am, I sort of appreciated the phrase “I am singing about the downtrodden masses/ and the rich on their fat asses.” By the time I got to the lines “I am your postmodern pastmodern multi-media artist/ I am the most avant of the avant/ I’m site-specific and totally conceptual,” however, I was pretty much convinced that the poem was sarcastic and that Ferlinghetti was describing the kind of poets who have helped to undermine the real revolution that the Beats had hoped for. There are so many types of poets condemned in the poem that it’s not quite clear which poets are good poets, but it’s obvious that the poem is a cry for honesty and for poets who can see the world without a “blindfold.”

Although Ferlinghetti claims not to be a Beat poet, the themes in this book — the emphasis on the potential of the “light,” on transcendentalism, if you will, and the opposite emphasis on the decadence of society are — are precisely the themes one expects to find in Beat poetry. However, the images, at least the images used to present the positive side of life, are pure Ferlinghetti.

For my taste, the poems tend a little too much towards a black-and-white view of the world, and lack the shades of gray that I often find coloring the portraits of my own past. Personally, as a child I was as apt to want to shoot those birds down with my B.B. gun as I was to admire their ability to soar to heights I could only dream of. It is only as I have grown older and found it more and more difficult to simply rise from the couch after an expedition that I have gained an appreciation for the lightness of birds and their abilty to soar.

Sources on the Web:

Blue Neon Alley

Literary Kicks

Perspectives in American Lit

Seattle PI article