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


All We Need is Love

"The Love Nut" is one of several excellent poems in the second half of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Wild Dreams of New Beginnings. Strangely enough I chose this one to discuss because it is probably the only poem in the book that really makes me uncomfortable and unsure whether I agree with its position or not..

The Love Nut

I go into the men’s room Springfield bus station
on the way back to Muhlenberg County
and see this nut in the mirror
Who let in this weirdo Who let in this creep?

He’s the kind writes I LOVE YOU on toilet walls and wants to embrace everybody in the lobby He writes his phone number inside a heart on the wall He’s some kinda pervert Mister Eros the Great Lover

He wants to run up to everybody in the waiting room and kiss them on the spot and say Why aren’t we friends and lovers Can I go home with you You got anything to drink or smoke Let’s you and me get together The time is now or sooner

He wants to take all the stray dogs and cats and people home with him and turn them on to making love all the time wherever

He wants to scatter poems from airplanes across the landscape He’s some kinda poetic nut Like he thinks he’s Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan rolled together with Charlie Chaplin thrown in

He wants to lip-read everybody’s thoughts and feelings and longings He’s a dangerous nut He’s gotta be insane He has no sense of sin

He wants to heat up all the dead-looking people the unhappylooking people in bus stations and airports He wants to heat up their beds He wants to open their bodies and heads

He’s some kinda airhead rolling stone lie don’t wanna be alone He may be queer on men

He’s the kind addresses everybody on buses making them laugh and look away and then look back again

He wants to get everyone to burst out laughing and sighing and crying and singing and dancing and kissing each other including old ladies and policemen

He’s gotta be mad He’s so glad to be alive he’s real strange He’s got the hots for humanity one at a time He wants to kiss your breasts he wants to lie still between them singing in a low voice

He wants everyone to lie down together and roll around together moaning and singing and having visions and orgasms He wants to come in you He wants you to come with him He wants us all to come together One hot world One heartbeat

He wants he wants us all to lie down together in Paradise in the Garden of Love in the Garden of Delights and couple together like a train a chain-reaction a chain-letter-of-love around the world on hot nights

He wants he wants he wants! He’s gotta be crazy Call the cops Take him away!

Though I’m not quite sure why, I like this poem because it makes me feel very uncomfortable. It’s as if it touches some truth about myself that I don’t really want to accept.

Even though Ginsberg’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in this poem, I’m absolutely convinced that the poem is, indeed, about him. Now, I admit I may feel this way because I’ve just immersed myself in his poems for a few days and I haven’t quite figured out why his message doesn’t appeal to me.

However, this description nearly perfectly fits the obituary notice that wood s lot quotes:

Ginsberg’s New York Times obituary, April 6, 1997

…as the narrator in Saul Bellow’s ”Him With His Foot in His Mouth” said of Mr. Ginsberg: ”Under all this self-revealing candor is purity of heart. And the only authentic living representative of American Transcendentalism is that fat-breasted, bald, bearded homosexual in smeared goggles, innocent in his uncleanness.” (…)

Unfortunately, I fit the description of the poem’s narrator a little closer than I would like to. I probably wouldn’t actually call the cops (the guy’s just a harmless nut, after all), but I’m sure I would want someone to "Take him away," if just away from me.

It’s embarassing to consider how much more accepting Ferlinghetti is than I am. I suddenly feel as if I am judging people by the Hemingway Code, or is it the Webster Code? I judge the old man by the same standards I would judge myself by. Since I would never behave this way, I don’t want him to behave this way around me.

Is it because I have so little faith in the power of LOVE? Is it because I think he has confused LOVE with sex? perverted sex, at that?

Sometimes it’s best not to feel too confident in our views or too comfortable with how we feel about others. It takes an excellent poem, though, to make us raise important questions about ourselves that we want to, or need to, answer.

Ferlinghetti ‘s Cat and Dog

The Cat

The cat
licks its paw and
lies down in
the bookshelf nook
can lie in a
sphinx position
without moving for so
many hours
and then turn her head
to me and
rise and stretch
and turn
her back to me and
lick her paw again as if
no real time had passed
It hasn’t
and she is the sphinx with
all the time in the world
in the desert of her time
The cat
knows where flies die
sees ghosts in motes of air
and shadows in sunbeams
She hears
the music of the spheres and
the hum in the wires of houses
and the hum of the universe
in interstellar spaces
prefers domestic places
and the hum of the heater

Simplicity itself and a pleasant poem for cat lovers who recognize the truth.

There may be some great deep meaning here that I miss, but even if I’ve missed it, I can say the poem succeeds with the images of the cat on the bookshelf in a sphinx position, unmoving. When she rises, turning her back to the writer “no real time has past” the cat knows that and the writer learns that too–emphasize the word real. ”she is the sphinx with all the time in the world in the desert of her time.”

“The cat knows where flies die sees ghosts in motes of air and shadows in sunbeams…” she knows the mysteries of the earth.

Then the point:
she hears…the hum in the wires of house and the hum of the universe…
but prefers domestic places and the hum of the heater.

Perhaps in a way humans have the knowledge of cats if we would admit it–we hear the music of the spheres…the hum of the universe and prefer the hum of the heater. Perhaps humans should learn to be satisfied with that–as satisfied as the cat.


The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself
and the things he sees
are his reality
Drunks in the doorways
Moons on trees
The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
Chickens in Chinatown windows
their heads a block away
The dog trots freely in the street
and the things he smells
smell something like himself
The dog trots freely in the street
past puddles and babies
cats and cigars
poolrooms and policemen
He doesn’t hate cops
He merely has no use for them
and he goes past them
and past the dead cows hung up whole
in front of the San Francisco Meat Market
He would rather eat a tender cow
than a tough policeman
though either might do
And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
and past Coit’s Tower
and past Congressman Doyle of the Unamerican Committee
He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower
but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
very depressing
very absurd
to a sad young dog like himself
to a serious dog like himself
But he has his own free world to live in
His own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled
Congressman Doyle is just another
fire hydrant
to him
The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog’s life to live
and to think about
and to reflect upon
touching and tasting and testing everything
investigating everything
without benefit of perjury
a real realist
with a real tale to tell
and a real tail to tell it with
a real live
barking democratic dog
engaged in real free enterprise
with something to say
about reality
and how to see it
and how to hear it
with his head cocked sideways
at streetcorners
as if he is just about to have
his picture taken
for Victor Records
listening for
His Master’s Voice
and looking
like a living questionmark
into the
great gramophone
of puzzling existence
with its wondrous hollow horn
which always seems
just about to spout forth
some Victorious answer
to everything

Ferlinghetti could have named this poem “Man” and described a human walking the streets, registering the sounds, but then man’s talent for jealousies and judgments would have clouded the senses. How long do you think we are capable of “trotting freely” in our streets without measuring ourselves against others, desiring a change in ourselves or in others? This is all very Zen like to me.

The dog’s perception of his world is purely sensory–just like ours, I add–We see things bigger than ourselves, smaller than ourselves, we smell things like ourselves, we are discouraged, depressed, saddened by leaders who do stupid things. and we fret and stew, analyze and mostly react in ways that are harmful to ourselves. We need to learn to trot free.

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.

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