Notes on Ferlinghetti and Celan
    Jack Foley
Though Lawrence Ferlinghetti ranges widely, there are kinds of poetry which he does not write. Lines like these from Paul Celan, with their extraordinarily "private," puzzling intensity, deliberately pushing into areas of the mind where there is nothing but mystery, cannot be found in Ferlinghetti's work:

Stumme Herbstgerüche. Die
Sternblume, ungeknickt, ging
zwischen Heimat und Abgrund durch
dein Gedächtnis.
Eine fremde Verlorenheit war
gestalthaft zugegen, du hättest

Dumb [i.e., mute, silent] Autumn smells [odors]. The
marguerite ["starflower"], unbroken, passed
between home and chasm through
your memory.
A strange lostness was
palpably present, almost
you would
have lived.
(Poems of Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger)

Celan's poem hovers on the edge of presence and absence, between "home" and "chasm." It centers in the beautiful, haunting word, "Verlorenheit" ("lostness"). Here, language deliberately plays against its own public nature. There are no unfamiliar words, no fragmentation of language--yet the juxtaposition of phrases suggests a "meaning" which always just eludes us. The whiteness of the page in which the poem appears--Robert Bly's "snowy field"--is important as well. One remembers Mallarmé's remark about Poe: "The intellectual framework of the poem hides--and exists--in the space that isolates the strophes in the white of the paper: significant silence no less beautiful to create than the verse." God is dead in this poem yet it deliberately opens us to the possibility of another "world." It is as if we are listening to a language we almost understand. "The question is no longer one of narrating, or teaching, or describing, but of suggesting," writes Guy Michaud in Mallarmé: "Only suggestion permits the passage from one world to another."And, perhaps even more importantly, he adds, "Everything sacred which wishes to remain so is enveloped in mystery." Celan's poem is a reminder, from within the public world, of the vast possibilities of subjectivity, of the fact that the "sacred" exists prior to its public manifestations.

Ferlinghetti, on the other hand, remains, in his own phrase, a poet of "the splendid life of the world" ("Endless Life")--a life which is always vanishing. The questions his work raises, however, are by no means trivial ones.

Is poetry like painting, a visual art? Is it like music, an oral/aural art? Is the poet a public figure, and, if so, what kind of a public figure? How is it possible to create a space for art in a country where art is notoriously devalued ("In two hundred years of freedom / we have invented / the permanent alienation of the subjective / almost every truly creative being / alienated & expatriated / in his own country"--"Adieu ā Charlot")? What is the relationship between books and "the media"? How does one create an audience for poetry? What is the relationship of our ethnic identities to our "American" selves? These are not dead issues but living perplexities, questions which any conscious poet continues to ask at this moment. Ferlinghetti's work helps to create a powerful "space" in which some kind of clarification of these issues may be possible. At an exhibition of his paintings, he remarked, "I hope nobody gets the idea that just because it's more institutional...that I don't have some subversive intent, or that Eros is at rest." To be sure, Ferlinghetti's vision is of the sort we call "Romantic." But, as Robert Creeley suggests in Echoes, the problems the Romantics posited are still with us-we are all "Romantics": "whatsover [is] 'Rome' [is] home."

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's great strength is a kind of "clarity"--an insistence on the public nature of consciousness; Paul Celan's is a kind of "obscurity"--an insistence that consciousness exists prior to its public manifestations. They are both mirrors.

Jack Foley is the recipient of the Artists Embassy Literary/Cultural Award 1998-2000. He has hosted a show of interviews and poetry presentations on Berkeley radio station KPFA for the past fourteen years. His latest poetry books include "Gershwin" and "Adrift," which was nominated for a Bay Area Book Reviewers' Award.

The notes for this essay were made in connection with Jack Foley's paper, "'The Splendid Life of the World': Lawrence Ferlinghetti's These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems 1955-1993. The paper was published first in Poetry Flash and then in Foley's book, O Powerful Western Star


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