Lawrence Ferlinghetti Gets Introspective
October 20, 1966, Vol. XII, No. 1
Ferlinghetti: No Place To Go But In-Dia
By Ross Wetzsteon
Last Saturday night, at the midnight performance, Fug drummer Ken Weaver suddenly spotted a long-absent face in the front row, jumped up, leapt off the stage, and bear-hugged everybody's favorite, the pair tumbling backwards into the audience.
"Starting from San Francisco":
"Here I go again
crossing the country in coach
back to my old
all night Eastward..."
But no more lone wandering for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, publisher, owner of San Francisco's City Lights Bookshop, a shy and beaming man, genial and caustic, good-natured and canny ("everybody thinks he's Irish," Kenneth Rexroth once wrote).
Maybe the widest read contemporary American poet (his "Coney Island of the Mind" has sold twice as many copies as "Howl"), Ferlinghetti crossed the country through Michigan, a poetry reading for nearly 1000 at Michigan State University, with several hundred turned away; Eastward to a week as poet-in-residence at Trinity College in Connecticut, $1000 for five days, "but I really had to work for it"; and in New York fell into Fug-hug and a poetry-reading this Wednesday at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bouwerie.
Ferlinghetti turned down an invitation to read his poetry at the YMHA. "That's the dull uptown scene, the wrapping up the poet scene, like the latest exhibit at the Guggenheim.
"I have a thing about New York audiences anyway. Maybe it's because I never made it here. I would never have opened a bookstore in New York, for instance -- it's too avaricious and competitive."
He seemed baffled by Allen Ginsberg's Town Hall audience Saturday night. "They didn't come to have a ball. They just sat there on their butts, waiting to have something proved. All right, let's see what you can do."
Balding, bearded, shoeless, he pulled up a chair for his feet and sat back in a couch with his hands behind his head.
"There's an enormous difference between audiences in the East and West. It's not a turned on audience here, they have this 'critical detachment,' not at all like the Fillmore Auditorium with strobes swamping the audience in pulsating light. A poetry audience should be loose and free and exhilarated."
..."Where is the last frontier now? Did the frontier come to an end on the beaches of Big Sur? The West is still open but there is no place to go. There's a whole sub-culture out there looking for a place to jump off Westward again. But there's no more West without going East again" -- and Ferlinghetti means East in both senses, both a turning back and a continuing search for a Passage to India, the westward movement ending in the East.
"There's no place to go but in. In-dian. With a hyphen. In-hyphen-dian." Pleased with the pun, he pauses to think about it, then laughs with that same shy delight. "I don't think anyone's ever made that play on words before.
"Anyway, you can see it in Indian music -- that in-wardness. The submergence of the ego, the flow, the selflessness rather than the egotism of Western music."
..."There are two men inside a poet," he goes on. "The lyric, love-and-ecstasy-seeking man, and running alongside him, the political lout who keeps trying to horn in. A poet would much rather follow his love, but this creep keeps busting in and you have to stop and give him a few cuffs, beat him up, lay him out, before you can go on.
"I get mad so I write a blast, but essentially it's a drag, you get dragged down to the level of that creep infringing on you, this huge monster trying to devour you.
"So there's nowhere to go but in -- I keep coming back to that, don't I? -- this glass or metal monster consuming the earth so we have to dig in, In with a capital I, to turn to the Orient. In a way it's like the Becks' 'Frankenstein,' trying to lead lyric lives and build ecstasy inside the head of this monster, fighting him from inside his head"....
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]