Sunday, April 2, 2017

Three Old White Guys—Whitman, Sandburg and Ferlinghetti

Books buy old white guys, mostly dead.


Three white guys.  I know, patriarchy and privilege, unfertile ground and perhaps totally inappropriate for the poetry of resistance called for in 2017.  But, hey, these particular guys were pretty damn good at what they did.  And what they often did was speak the language of revolt and speak up for the oppressed.  Give ‘em a chance.  I promise they won’t disappoint.  And there will be plenty of non-white, non-male, non-dead versifiers to follow.  Trust me.
Walt Whitman.
First up is good ol’ Walt Whitman, the gay bearded wild man who liberated American poetry from the strait jackets of British and European convention, thumbed his nose and gentility and decorum, and embraced the hurly-burly of the ordinary and the common people.  A revolutionary from the split ends of that unkempt beard to the toes dirty from the tramp of the road.  In all of his exuberance and egotism, he was still the grandfather and godfather of all of us.
To A Foil’d European Revolutionaire
Courage yet! my brother or my sister!
Keep on! Liberty is to be subserv’d, whatever occurs;
That is nothing, that is quell’d by one or two failures, or any
number of failures,
Or by the indifference or ingratitude of the people, or by any
unfaithfulness,
Or the show of the tushes of power, soldiers, cannon, penal statutes.

Revolt! and still revolt! revolt!
What we believe in waits latent forever through all the continents,
and all the islands and archipelagos of the sea;
What we believe in invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness
and light, is positive and composed, knows no discouragement,
Waiting patiently, waiting its time.

(Not songs of loyalty alone are these,
But songs of insurrection also;
For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel, the world over,
And he going with me leaves peace and routine behind him,
And stakes his life, to be lost at any moment.)


Revolt! and the downfall of tyrants!
The battle rages with many a loud alarm, and frequent advance and retreat,
The infidel triumphs—or \ supposes he triumphs,
Then the prison, scaffold, garrote, hand-cuffs, iron necklace and
anklet, lead-balls, do their work,
The named and unnamed heroes pass to other spheres,
The great speakers and writers are exiled—they lie sick in distant lands,
The cause is asleep—the  strongest throats are still, choked with
their own blood,
The young men droop their eyelashes toward the ground when they meet;
—But  for all this, liberty has not gone out of the place, nor the
infidel enter’d into full possession.

When liberty goes out of a place, it is not the first to go, nor the
second or third to go,
It waits for all the rest to go—it is the last.

When there are no more memories of heroes and martyrs,
And when all life, and all the souls of men and women are discharged
from any part of the earth,
Then only shall liberty, or the idea of liberty, be discharged from
that part of the earth,
And the infidel come into full possession.


Then courage! European revolter! revoltress!
For, till all ceases, neither must you cease.

I do not know what you are for, (I do not know what I am for myself,
nor what anything is for,)
But I will search carefully for it even in being foil’d,
In defeat, poverty, misconception, imprisonment—for they too are great.

Revolt! and the bullet for tyrants!
Did we think victory great?
So it is—But now it seems to me, when it cannot be help’d, that
defeat is great,
And that death and dismay are great.
—Walt Whitman
                      Carl Sandburg                                                                                                 
Next we have the poet of the people, Socialist, Universalist, and bard Carl Sandburg.  What can you say about Carl?  His poetry was simple, direct, and in the voice of the people.  He took not guff and knew just whose hands were in whose pockets.
Black Horizons
Black horizons, come up.
Black horizons, kiss me.
That is all; so many lies; killing so cheap;
babies so cheap; blood, people so cheap; and
land high, land dear; a speck of the earth
costs; a suck at the tit of Mother Dirt so
clean and strong, it costs; fences, papers,
sheriffs; fences, laws, guns; and so many
stars and so few hours to dream; such a big
song and so little a footing to stand and
sing; take a look; wars to come; red rivers
to cross.
Black horizons, come up.
Black horizons, kiss me.
—Carl Sandburg
Cahoots
Play it across the table.
What if we steal this city blind?
If they want any thing let ‘em nail it down.

Harness bulls, dicks, front office men,
And the high goats up on the bench,
Ain’t they all in cahoots?
Ain’t it fifty-fifty all down the line,
Petemen, dips, boosters, stick-ups and guns—
        what’s to hinder?

        Go fifty-fifty.
If they nail you call in a mouthpiece.
Fix it, you gazump, you slant-head, fix it.
        Feed ‘em. . . .

Nothin’ ever sticks to my fingers, nah, nah,
        nothin’ like that,
But there ain’t no law we got to wear mittens—
        huh—is there?
Mittens, that’s a good one—mittens!
There oughta be a law everybody wear mittens.
            —Carl Sandburg

Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Bookstore.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive, thank the Deity of your Choice or simple kismet.  He turned 97 years old a week or so ago and is still padding around his City Lights Bookstore in in San Francisco’s North Beach and occasionally committing verse.  He doesn’t travel much anymore but he still reads some in the Bay Area especially for a good cause or if some of the surviving Beats who he nurtured will be in attendance. His 1958 masterpiece is one of the greatest American volumes of verse ever printed, right up there with Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, or his pal Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. 
Last week on his birthday my great Facebook friend Marina Jason posted a poem from that slender collection which I shared and which went nearly viral.  Written more than 50 years ago, it could have been penned yesterday.  Timeless power.  Here is the poem.

Pity the Nation
After Khalil Gibran

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
And whose shepherds mislead them
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars
Whose sages are silenced
And whose bigots haunt the airwaves
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
Except to praise conquerers
And acclaim the bully as hero
And aims to rule the world
By force and by torture
Pity the nation that knows
No other language but its own
And no other culture but its own
Pity the nation whose breath is money
And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed
Pity the nation oh pity the people
who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!

—Lawrence Ferlinghetti


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