Nine times I kissed my lover in her sleep … the sixth, in sweet despair
Their wider scope,
Limitless Empire o’er the world of thought,
Help my desires to press
Beyond all stars toward God and Heaven and Hope;
And in the world-amazing chase is wrought
Somehow — all Happiness.
Aleister Crowley, “Dreams” in Mysteries
His pulses pause
For his despair ineffable.
Aleister Crowley, Song of Charicles in the Tale of Archais, Part I
This 1950s poetry collection is the most famous writing by Ferlinghetti, who was also lauded as an activist, publisher, bookseller, and painter. It has three principal sections: the title piece, “Oral Messages,” and poems from “Pictures of the Gone World.”
The title of the book and its first section was taken “out of context” from Henry Miller’s Into the Night Life. Ferlinghetti said that it was to describe the carnivalesque aspect of his own subjective experience in composing the poems. But a different and credible reading is to see the US society that the poet engages in his verse as a mental amusement park: corralling minds into circuitous rides that exhilarate, games that impoverish, and technology that dazzles and mystifies. Still, the weight of these poems often rests not in social criticism but in aesthetic contemplation, libidinal impulse, epistemic anxiety, and similar dilemmas.
The second section of the book is “Oral Messages,” seven longer poems composed for recitation with “jazz accompaniment” (48), and to incorporate experimentation and spontaneity. Although this mode is a paragon of Beat Generation performance, and Ferlinghetti did publish prominent Beat authors, he rejected the “Beat” label for his own work. My favorite of these poems is “Junkman’s Obbligato,” which urges downward economic mobility in order to champion life and freedom. But a close second is the diffident brag of “Autobiography” (“I am the man. / I was there. / I suffered / somewhat.”) succumbing irregularly to atypical end rhyme.
The final thirteen poems are selected from a volume “Pictures of the Gone World” that Ferlinghetti had written just three years previously. These are similar to some of those in the first section (briefer, and like them individually numbered rather than titled), and they tend toward a narrower and more intimate sensibility–even though the eleventh has the great wide scope of the world as the place for life and death.
Ferlinghetti offers some unflinching anti-Christian blasphemy in the fifth “Coney Island” poem (15-6), but the “Oral Messages” seem to exhibit sincere apocalyptic anticipation (“I Am Waiting”) and a hope of obscure divine palingenesis (“Christ Climbed Down”).
Despite Ferlinghetti’s use of popular culture and accessible idiom, his texts are still in dialog with the canons of elite art and literature. The first poem of the book orients to the painting of Goya to reflect on “maimed citizens in painted cars” (10), and the second one alludes to Homer’s Odyssey to indict “American demi-Democracy” (12). Later verses cite Hieronymus Bosch, Morris Graves, Franz Kafka, Dante, Chagall, Proust, and others. The poet fulminates against the enclosure of culture by experts and institutions in poem 9 of “Pictures of the Gone World,” but he had an M.A. in English literature and a Ph.D. in comparative literature, and the consequences of this training are everywhere visible in his poems.
Twenty-first century readers may occasionally struggle with a dated allusion or two in these pages (nothing too arcane for a ‘net search to remedy, though). Ironically, it is the “popular” and contemporary references from the 1950s that are more likely to have passed into obscurity. On the whole, the verses have aged well and still have a sense of immediacy sixty-four years later.
When I was in high school, a critical aside comparing Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus to Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo brought me haphazardly to a public library copy of Reed’s first poetry collection Conjure, which excited me to the point of photocopying nearly a third of it — after resisting the temptation to steal it outright. For about twenty years thereafter, Reed’s work motivated myriad unrewarded searches on my part among the poetry shelves in used bookshops across the country. In 2006, the volume of Reed’s New and Collected Poems 1964-2006 supplied me with the full contents of Conjure, as well as the interim volumes Chattanooga, A Secretary to the Spirits, and Points of View, and a further collection of poetry more extensive than any two of the earlier books combined.
Conjure still includes several of my all-time-favorite short poems: “There’s a Whale in my Thigh,” “The Piping Down of God,” and “Dragon’s Blood.” According to the author’s micro-vita appended to this volume, “Beware: Do Not Read This Poem” is also an all-time-favorite of literature instructors. Perhaps the best and most representative poem of this earliest set is the exquisite “I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra,” a houngan’s brag rebuking Christian tyranny with a mixture of Wild West and ancient Egyptian imagery.
The later materials continue in the same vein, with a tiny bit less anger and a little more sorrow, but Reed’s sense of humor is undiminished. Although he no longer foregrounds the blazon of his school of Neo HooDooism, his methods and aims seem quite consistent with what came before. In the later work, his awareness of the (already much-realized) possibility that his poems would serve as musical lyrics more often leads Reed to use repetitive chorus forms and traditional structures, but even in the early pieces, there is a vivid aural sensibility that constantly tempts to reader to declaim them aloud for the benefit of their full force.
Reed insists that his poetry is not theological in its aims, despite its use of various non-Christian and counter-Christian tropes and images: “The key lesson that I do take from Yoruba religion is from the parable in which a traveler finds himself in a strange country, away from his gods, and the only god that he can depend upon is his own mind” (xix). But he makes no such disclaimers regarding politics. A political piece among the more recent work that I found especially striking as an expression of its own time was the 2001 “America United” (362-372). And one that read with eerie irony in the light of current events (police violence in late October 2011) was “Let Oakland Be a City of Civility” from 1999 (341-345).
After the recent poems, the book concludes with an opera libretto Gethsemane Park, and a prose narrative “Snake War” based on a translation of an excerpt from Fungawa’s Igbo Olodumare (The Forest of God). The former is a sort of Godspell-like displacement of gospel events into the modern American city, in which Jesus is not a human hero but a discorporate orisha.
In an untitled verse from 1992, Reed wrote: “Ever get the / Feeling that your past / Is a hunter who knows the / Woods better than you” (327). In fact I do, and this four-decades-plus collection goes a way toward demonstrating why Reed might as well.
The keystone of this arch of misery
Is set by the unfaltering hands
Of Fate. How desperate the anarchy
Wrought in one hour!
The fickle sands
Run through the glass, and all the light is gone.
Aleister Crowley, The Mother’s Tragedy
The secret of the Lord is set with him
That wonders at His majesty: his praise
Wells from no trembler’s misery: his hymn
Swells the exultant day’s.
His psalm wings upward, and reflected down
Even in Hell makes music and renown.
Aleister Crowley, The Temple of The Holy Ghost, The Mountain Christ
He riddled me — ah, God! I see it now!
The bloody winepress? The ascending sun?
Thy dawning beauty and thine evil bed!
The double meaning! I had evil thoughts
When I pronounced it — else had She Herself,
Hathoör or Mary, risen. Misery!
Incessant mystery of the search for Truth!
Aleister Crowley, Tannhäuser
Horribly useless, this business called life. What does it all matter, when love is gone? And who can hold love? Oh, misery! misery! And still so many years to live. To live alone.
Helen Woljeska, Nocturne