Once, when maybe eight years old, I was inspired to write a poem. It came to me suddenly, clearly, almost divinely. Yes, the words flowed forth and were written swiftly with a No. 2 pencil in my childish, untamed script, no doubt complete with the same misspellings I still make unto this day.
When finished I held my great work and read it over with a sense of pride and accomplishment. There it was on paper, titled simply, The 4th of July. Unfortunately, whichever muse was on duty in the guidance of the poetry (and I use the world liberally), of eight-year-old girls living in the valley, must have taken a break and we really cannot blame them. As near as I can recall, my misguided, patriotic tribute to the birthday of our country and the glory of fireworks was a piece of pure cornball, insipid dribble, complete with pedantic rhyming words that might be found in a Dick and Jane primer; bright/night, blue/you, and the ever popular, sky/cry. I’m sure there was some wow finish, perhaps a rousing “Hip hip hurray, to this wonderful day!”
In my innocence or hubris, I was vastly pleased with my accomplishment and encouraged by my learned mother who loved me even more then she disliked bad poetry. I believe she even coddled me with the word, “publication. Bless her heart. I’m sure she preserved my effort and it may be in a box somewhere, but I have “not the fortitude or foolishness to hunt for it. Someday I may come upon it and I wonder, momentarily if perhaps, just maybe I’d find The 4th of July isn’t really as bad as I suspect. But then again, maybe it’s even worse.
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti just celebrated his one-hundredth birthday. In those hundred years I bet he wrote a few clinkers, but then a man who can stop your heart with writing the truth of a candy store on a rainy afternoon, where a cat walks among the licorice sticks, and girl with wet hair runs in, while outside the leaves are falling, is ever a poetic hero to me. He and his ilk, Beat writers, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Anne Waldman, Frank O’Hara, LeRoi Jones, and many talented others formed a group that broke static poetry boundaries.
Indeed, they knocked the ball out of the park, blew down the barn door, opened a window through which creative minds ran yelling, “School’s out for summer,” in their free jive and jazz-fueled style of writing and presentation. Many of them grace the collection, New American Poetry, edited by Donald Allen. My own copy is now lovingly battered and worn.
Ferlinghetti has a special place in my heart in that he, along with Gavin Newsome, was scheduled to speak at my son’s graduation from San Francisco State in 2014. When I heard the poet was going to be there, I was thrilled. The Father of City Lights Book Store, the man himself! Unfortunately, at the last minute he was unable to make it, because he was not well enough. Instead, he appeared on a large screen TV speaking from his home, but he might as well have been on the moon. As I tried to watch him, students began to swarm around in their graduation robes, talking to each other, taking a break, drinking cokes, and making jokes. I realized none of them knew Ferlinghetti or cared. But I did.
Then next day while walking along, Haight-Ashbury like tourists, my husband slipped into City Lights and bought me the last copy on the shelf of Coney Island of The Mind. I cherish it to this day. Oh, by the way, Gavin Newsome does have a really good head of hair.
Recently, my daughter, the fair Miranda, took a class at her college in Santa Cruz on The Beats. I was so enthused and amused to find myself discussing their work over the telephone with my own grown daughter, sharing opinions and comments like two literary intellectuals comparing early Kerouac to his later work.
“But why does Ginsberg keep using the word xxxx?” Miranda asked. “So often?”
“Well, it was a different time and it might have been a way of rebelling, or shocking, or just being free. And it’s a strong sounding word and he loved men.” Then I thought a moment and added, “He also uses the word angel a lot. Maybe that evens it out.”
When I think of the Beat poets, who didn’t always like the label, I can’t help but think how much their work was shaped by the cities in which they lived; the hills and beloved winos of San Francisco; the rush, rage, and rapture of New York; the way the light falls, sad and sweet in the early evening in Paris. They had all that and they used it, they used it to give us a world they somehow loved, gone mad, still evidenced in the bombed cities, given way to rubble, out of which a sunflower grew. All I got was the backyard swimming pools of the San Fernando Valley. And, oh yeah, the Sunset Strip in the late sixties. Which, I must say, with all that incredible music pouring out of clubs and out of open car windows into those warm California, incense-filled nights, made one feel a little like they were floating. Smiling and flashing the peace sign we were shining and going to change the world. As The Byrds sang, “I think that maybe I’m dreaming.” It was a very good dream. And, yes, it was poetry.
I have, over the years, continued to write poems. I like to believe I have risen above my early work (not hard to do), matured, ripened into the golden Gibboney. A few pieces of my work have actually been published, and I was even invited by the minx that is Ann Buxie, to read my poems at a Poetry By the Sea event in Malibu. Recently, attending poetry readings here in Topanga at the Loose Lips events at our Topanga Library, I’ve shared a few more poems. But upon first meeting coordinator and poet in her own right, Jean Colonomos, she asked me, “Are you a poet?”
The question floored me. Something in me wanted to scream, “Yes!” But I found myself sputtering and flummoxed as to how to answer. An actress, yes, a writer, yes, but a poet? Be still my heart.
I turn to The Beats themselves, who better, for some sage advice about poetry.
Frank O’Hara—You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, “Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep.”
Jack Kerouac—Never get drunk outside your own home. Tell the true story of the world in interior monolog. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself.
Allen Ginsberg—It’s the natural inspiration of the moment that keeps it moving, disparate thinks put down together, shorthand notations of visual imagery, juxtapositions of hydrogen juke-box abstract haikus sustain the mystery & put iron back into the line. Loose ghosts wailing for body.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti—If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit. The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.
To Ferlinghetti At One Hundred
Oh, Ferlinghetti, I long to go with you, traipsing through Tangier, the Pyrenees, the Pleiades,
A place called Minnesota, or your own Coney Island
Riding the roller coaster with breathless screams as it clickity-clacks higher and higher,
until poised at the top of the world Then rushing down with little time to laugh or cry, just grabbing on as it all passes by, too soon, too soon
Hip, hip, Hooray to this wonderful day!