There’s a poem I think we should all read as soon as we can. It won’t take much time out of your otherwise very busy days of waiting/hoping for the world to jump back up on its axis and start spinning again.
You see, I’ve been thinking about Lawrence Ferlinghetti a lot lately, the poet who co-founded the famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco in the 1950s and was part of a very famous (at least in America) trial over the publication of Alan Ginsberg’s even more (in) famous poem Howl. Ferlinghetti is often considered a kind of godfather of the Beat movement, irrevocably associated with its poetry, though he resisted being grouped with the Beats.
But I didn’t know any of this when I first read through a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind in my late teens and fell in love with Ferlinghetti’s poems. I don’t even remember where I read the first poem or why or how I acquired the book.
For me, there is just my life before Ferlighetti’s Coney Island and life after. I didn’t know about him when I was in high school, but by the time I was 18 and finished with my first year of university, his words were part of my life. Poetry can be weird that way. So can the first year of university, evidently.
A Beat poem about waiting … that lingers
One poem in particular has held me in thrall for my entire adult life, and I find myself returning to it, quoting it, thinking about it regularly. It is called, I Am Waiting. Given the events and the many, many non-events, and the utter proliferation of un-events of 2020 and 2021, one hardly need know the poem to find that the title itself resonates. My new neighbours have cancelled their wedding twice, now. We all have one or 21 similar stories of non-un-events.
I Am Waiting is a list poem of all the many, varied things that the well-read narrator is waiting for, from the prosaic — “my case to come up”, “my number to be called” – to the sublime – “the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn / to catch each other up at last / and embrace” – and everything in between – “the Salvation Army to take over,” “the Last Supper to be served again / with a strange new appetizer”. The poem is liberally littered with literary, historical, and cultural references. In fact, almost everything is referencing something. And he riffs on it all to create hilarious, pointed, and sometimes surprising new images.
The crusty guy in the corner is waiting
It moves like a long monologue, and it has always felt both personal and grand to me. Each stanza is one long, unpunctuated sentence full of the repeated, short independent clause, “I am waiting”, and each new stanza opens with that as well.
This is the poem that broke into itsy little bits and pieces all my preconceived notions about what poetry was supposed to look like, sound like, act like, do to me. I was “bred and buttered” on the British Romantics: I was in love with Lord Byron.
Who was this Ferlinghetti? I imagined a crusty old guy with a few days’ growth of salt and pepper beard, old jeans, older jacket, oldest sweater, smoking a clove cigarette (different times) in some poorly-lit coffeehouse, just reeling off this gentle freestyle in a corner for the sole benefit of his mostly empty whisky glass. He was probably also waiting for the money to buy another shot, I thought.
We are all waiting
There is, among the many life-saving things about art, a sunrise, someone’s laugh, the smell of your favourite vacation, this single fact: sometimes, things just “get in us”, as they say in Blues music. Ferlinghetti’s poem “got in me” and it wouldn’t come out. Has there ever been any point in anyone’s life when we weren’t waiting for something? Something specific? Something esoteric? Something magical? Or just something, anything, to happen?
And what have any of us been doing for the last year and a half, almost, but waiting? We were waiting, and then maybe we weren’t, but then we were, again. And now we’re so close, but we may be waiting some more.
Awaiting a “rebirth of wonder”
The kicker in Ferlinghetti’s poem is that, while the verb tense and the long, long, unpunctuated sentences might make everything feel in some way hopeless, the poem feels dangerously, wildly hopeful to me. Not one thing that he is waiting for has an arrival date that is imminent. Those two lovers on Keats’ Grecian Urn will never catch up with each other. The Salvation Army is not planning a coup. The narrator is endlessly awaiting a great number of beautifully poetic, magical, occasionally very personal things.
But. Still! He is imagining these things coming to pass amidst a “new rebirth of wonder.” He tells us regularly that he is hoping for this rebirth. Surely, this is a condition of humanity, to always be hoping, regardless of the odds?
And we all sit here waiting for 19 July: to take a train without a mask; for our families to return from their scattered places across the country or the world and kiss with sloppy abandon; or for a pint in a heaving pub; to see our friends’ independent businesses claw their way back into profit; to sit and write at a café without “booking” a 45-minute slot; to see strangers smile spontaneously.
And we are all awaiting a rebirth, aren’t we? A rebirth, literally, of the economy. But also a rebirth of wonder. Isn’t that what our final emergence from the calamity of 2020 and 2021 will be? Could it possibly be anything short of a rebirth? It must be. We need it to be.
And then we stop waiting, just like that
But! What if we make it be so? What if we need to take a closer look at that narrator and his whisky glass. What if we need to stop waiting, even while in the final stages of whatever we are calling this neither open nor closed state (purgatory?).
Perhaps, as evocative as the narrator’s images are, he is just another Prufrock, too timid to eat a peach. We need to grab this crusty old guy (and ourselves) by his threadbare lapels and tell him to stop waiting “perpetually and forever”! Do something! Kickstart yourself and your own “renaissance of wonder”! The time is always already right now.
So, please go read Ferlinghetti’s poem. Look, I’ll even link it again. Don’t wait; just make it happen. We can all go and catch our fleeing lovers or let ourselves get caught. Go shake our laptops with “strains of unpremeditated art.” Find our own “green mornings” and haul back “youth’s dumb green fields” from the recesses of our minds.
Because now, right f***ing now, is the moment of our rebirth of wonder.