Constantly risking absurdity
Constantly risking absurdity and death whenever he performs above the heads of his audience the poet like an acrobat climbs on rime to a high wire of his own making and balancing on eyebeams above a sea of faces paces his way to the other side of day performing entrechats and sleight-of-foot tricks and other high theatrics and all without mistaking any thing for what it may not be
For he’s the super realist who must perforce perceive taut truth before the taking of each stance or step in his supposed advance toward that still higher perch where Beauty stands and waits with gravity to start her death-defying leap
And he a little charleychaplin man who may or may not catch her fair eternal form spreadeagled in the empty air of existence. e.e. cummings
Ferlinghetti was born in New York in 1919. He earned a doctoral degree in poetry at the Sorbonne University, Paris, with a thesis entitled “The City as Symbol in Modern Poetry”. After Paris he moved to San Francisco and in the 1950’s became one of a group of poets known as the Beat Poets. He and Peter Martin started a magazine called “City Lights”, named after a Charlie Chaplin film, and as a side venture opened a bookstore on the floor below their offices. Today the City Lights Bookstore is one of the best known bookstores in the United States.
Ferlinghetti began to publish books as well, notably the Pocket Poets Series. In the early 1960’s, Ferlinghetti owned a rustic cabin in Big Sur. Ferlinghetti appears in the book as the sensible Lorenzo Monsanto.
Ferlinghetti’s own poems are simple, speak plainly and have become tremendously popular with a wide range of readers.
As with many other poets, Ferlinghetti concerns himself in this poem with the business of writing poetry. The first thing that strikes the reader about the poem is the odd arrangement of the lines. When we realise that in the poem Ferlinghetti is comparing the art of the poet with that of the acrobat, the structure becomes clear. The lines mimic the backwards and forwards swinging of an acrobat high above the heads of an audience.
The second thing that we notice is that there is no time to take a breath or to pause. The poem just goes on an on, and the reader has to nurse his breath right to the end. That’s because the whole poem consists of just one sentence. What makes this a real tour de force, is that the long sentence is absolutely grammatically correct, is perfectly structured and balanced, and at the end we feel satisfied – as well as amused and delighted by the cleverness of it.
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Lines 1 – 5 The first four lines appear to tell us that an acrobat constantly risks being regarded as absurd if the tricks he tries to perform do not succeed and if he crashes down into the safety net. Not only does the acrobat risk making a fool of himself, but he also risks killing himself, particularly if he is not using a safety net. By the time we reach the end of the fifth line, we still believe we are reading about an acrobat.
Line 6 – 10 Only in the sixth line do we discover that the poet is writing about a poet as well, and the first thing we wonder is how the poet could be risking death. If we re-read the first four lines in the light of this new knowledge, the words “above the heads of his audience” (lines 4 – 5) assume a new meaning. It is very easy for a poet to become so obscure that he writes above the heads of his readers, metaphorically speaking.
Like the acrobat, the poet climbs, but does so by