San Francisco has appointed Lawrence Ferlinghetti the city's first Poet Laureate. The following is the text of his inaugural address delivered at the San Francisco Public Library on Tuesday, October 13th, 1998
POETRY & CITY CULTURE
I certainly was surprised to be named Poet Laureate of this far-out city on the left side of the world, and I gratefully accept, for as I told the Mayor, "How could I refuse?" I'd rather be Poet Laureate of San Francisco than anywhere because this city has always been a poetic center, a frontier for free poetic life, with perhaps more poets and more poetry readers than any city in the world.
But we are in danger of losing it. In fact, we are in danger of losing much more than that. All that made this City so unique in the first place seems to be going down the tube at an alarming rate.
This week's Bay Guardian has the results of a survey that "reveals a city undergoing a radical transformation -- from a diverse metropolis that welcomed immigrants and refugees from around the world to a homogeneous, wealthy enclave."
The gap between the rich and the poor in San Francisco increased more than forty percent in just two years recently. "San Francisco may soon become the first fully gentrified city in America, the urban equivalent of a gated bedroom community", says Daniel Zoll in the Guardian. "Now it's becoming almost impossible for a lot of the people who have made this such a world-class city -- people who have been the heart and soul of the city for decades -- from the fishers and pasta makers and blue-collar workers to the jazz musicians to the beat poets to the hippies to the punks and so many others -- to exist here anymore. And when you've lost that part of the city, you've lost San Francisco."
And Richard Walker, head of geography at UC Berkeley has said, "It means a one-dimensional city, a more conservative city -- one that will no longer be a fount of social innovation and rebellion from below. Just another American city, a corporate city -- a fate it has resisted for generations."
When I arrived in the City in l950, I came overland by train and took ferry from the Oakland mole to the Ferry Building. And San Francisco looked like some Mediterranean port -- a small white city, with mostly white buildings -- a little like Tunis seen from seaward. I thought perhaps it was Atlantis, risen from the sea. I certainly saw North Beach especially as a poetic place, as poetic as some quartiers in Paris,as any place in old Europa, as poetic as any place great poets and painters had found inspiration. And this was the first poem I wrote here...a North Beach scene:
Away above a harborful
of caulkless houses
among the charley noble chimneypots
of a rooftop rigged with clotheslines
a woman pastes up sails
upon the wind
hanging out her morning sheets
with wooden pins
O lovely mammal
her nearly naked breasts
throw taut shadows
as she stretches up
to hang at last the last of her
so white washed sins
but it is wetly amorous
and winds itself about her
clinging to her skin
So caught with arms upraised
she tosses back her head
in voiceless laughter
and in choiceless gesture then
shakes out gold hair
while in the reachless seascape spaces
between the blown white shrouds
stand out the bright steamers
to kingdom come
But this past weekend North Beach looked like a theme-park, literally overrun by tourists, and kitsch was king.
What happened to it? What makes for a free poetic life? What destroys the poetry of a city?
Automobiles destroy it, and they destroy more than the poetry. All over America, all over Europe in fact, cities and towns are under assault by the automobile, are being literally destroyed by car culture. But cities are gradually learning that they don't have to let it happen to them. Witness our beautiful new Embarcadero! And in San Francisco right now we have another chance to stop Autogeddon from happening here. Just a few blocks from here, the ugly Central Freeway can be brought down for good if you vote for Proposition E on the November ballot.
And for another destroyer of poetry and peace, how about those killing machines, the Navy's Blue Angels, who have just carried out their annual attack on the City? But the poetic life requires Peace not War. The poetic life of the City, our subjective life, the subjective life of the individual is constantly under attack by all the forces of materialist civilization, by all the forces of our military-industrial perplex, and we don't need these warplanes designed to kill and ludicrously misnamed the Blue Angels. They dive upon our city every year, in an frightening militarist and nationalist display of pure male testosterone. I've seen old Vietnam ladies in Washington Square diving under the benches! Do we really need to be reminded yearly how our planes have bombed Third World countries back to the Stone Age? In San Francisco, of all places, do we really need "bombs bursting in air to prove that our flag is still there"? What would Saint Francis say? Perhaps the City could disinvite them next year.
I could go on until I'm singing to your snores, but I'll mention just one more destroyer: Chain stores, or chain gangs. Corporate chainstores wipe out long-established independents, killing off local color, local traditions, and -- in the case of bookstores -- literary history. I've been to other great cities on poetry tours and found not a single independent bookstore left in neighborhoods where chain gangs have moved in. It's an old story by now, but it's time to revise a lot of old stories! If so much of this City's population doesn't want chain stores, as the Bay Guardian suggests, why can't the City government take a united stand against them? ......But to get to the positive side of things, I have quite a wish-list for the City. I've proposed that North Beach, with its long literary history including Mark Twain, Jack London, Ina Coolbrith, William Saroyan, and many others including Beat writers, be officially protected as a "historic district", in the manner of the French Quarter in New Orleans, and thus shielded from commercial destruction such as was suffered by the classic old Montgomery Block building, the most famous literary and artistic structure in the West until it was replaced by the Transamerica Pyramid. I do hope someone will pick up this ball and run with it.
And I've already proposed that a small wooden house on Treasure Island or in the Presidio be made a Poet's Cottage where future laureates might live or work and conduct poetry events or even an annual city poetry festival. The Mayor and the important journal Poetry Flash are already behind it, so I hope it will happen...
And since we are in the Main Library, let's remember that the center of literate culture in cities has always centered in the great libraries as well as in the great independent bookstores. This Library should have l0 million dollars a year to spend on books, more than twice as much as presently allotted. It also needs more space, since evidently this new state-of-the-computer postmodern masterpiece doesn't have as much shelf space as the Old Library next door -- that classical Carnegie-style library with its great turn-of the-century murals -- and I believe the people made a great mistake in passing the Proposition to remove the building from the library system. It might not be too late to reclaim it as a Library Annex, even though the Proposition to get rid of it has already been partially implemented. All it would take is another Proposition on the ballot to retrieve it, just as the Central Freeway Proposition may soon very well succeed in reversing an earlier misguided vote.
Other outrageous things on my wish-list include: One -- give bicycles and pedestrians absolute priority over automobiles, and close much of the original inner city to cars, including Upper Grant Avenue. Two -- make the City a center for low-power alternative radio and TV, with tax breaks for the broadcasters. Three -- uncover our city's creeks and rivers again and open up the riparian corridors to the Bay. Five -- Paint the Golden Gate Bridge golden. Six -- tilt Coit Tower -- think what it did for Pisa!
And speaking of the literary culture of the city, I'd like to announce that City Lights is just now attempting to create a non-profit foundation so that City Lights may continue through the next century as a literary center and poetic presence in the City. For such a foundation, we need help. Philanthropic literary angels are invited to descend upon us!
"Poets, come out of your closets,
Open your windows, open your doors,
You have been holed -- up too long
in your closed worlds....
No time now for the artist to hide
above, beyond, behind the scenes,
indifferent, paring his fingernails,
refining himself out of existence.
No time now for our little literary games,
for our paranoias and hypochondrias,
no time now for fear & loathing,
time now only for light & love.
We have seen the best minds of our generation
destroyed by boredom at poetry readings....etc.....etc....
What I had in mind in the l970s in this "Populist Manifesto" was for poets to stop mumbling in their beards to private audiences and say something important to the world. A few years ago I gave a talk in Michael McClure's class at the California College of Arts & Crafts, the title of which was "Why don't you paint something important?" (There was a graffitto on the wall that said "You're so minimal".) Anyway, it was an attempt to pry the artists, like the poets, out of the their hermetic worlds.
Parenthetically, I must say that my manifesto called forth such a cacaphony of bad poetry that some editors felt like chanting,"Poets, go back in your closets!"
The manifesto was a not very original Whitmanian call for a universal poetry, with what I call "public surface" -- a poetry with a very accessible commonsensual surface that can be understood by most everyone without a very literary education. But of course, if it was to rise above the level of journalism, it must have other subjective and/or subversive levels.
Well, I'm still on the same kick.
Most poets today still exist in a kind of poetry ghetto. They get pittances for published poems, compared to prose writers, even in mass media periodicals, if they manage to get in at all. And poetry readings don't begin to pay the rent for most.
What to do about it? How to get out of the poetry ghetto? The answer is obvious. Write poems that say something supremely original and supremely important, which everyone aches to hear, poetry that cries out to be heard, poetry that's news. And is it naive to think that even the mass media might print it or air it, if it were a new kind of news? Perhaps the poets would still be ignored by our dominant culture, because they're saying just what our materialist, technofilliac world doesn't want to hear. And the messenger with the unwelcome message will continue to be killed?
I would like to propose a regular monthly column in a daily newspaper with the title "Poetry As News". It would begin with great poems of the past that still are news. I think right off of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach":
Ah love let us be true
to one another!
For we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night...
......I think also of course of Whitman's "I Hear America Singing", of poems by Homer, Shakespeare, W.B.Yeats, Cavafy, Pablo Neruda,Marianne Moore, e.e.cummings, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, and Adrienne Rich. I think of Bob Dylan's early songs and of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine", of "The Great Paramita Sutra", and perhaps of the latest rap poetry at the Newyorican Cafe on the Lower East Side. And I think of the French poet Jacques Prevert whom I translated when I was a student in France:
The Discourse on Peace
Near the end of an extremely important discourse
the great man of state
tumbling on a beautiful hollow phrase
falls over it
and undone with gaping mouth
shows his teeth
and the dental decay of his peaceful reasoning
exposes the nerve of war
the delicate question of money
I put my cap in the cage
and went out with the bird on my head
one no longer salutes
asked the commanding officer
one no longer salutes
replied the bird
excuse me I thought one saluted
said the commanding officer
You are fully excused everybody makes mistakes
said the bird
Above and beyond all this, poetic intuition and the intuitions of great poetry still remain our best medium for fathoming man's fate. In this vein, here are some proposed subjects for poets to ponder:
Why is it dark at night, why is there darkness at night?
Is every orgasm a little death, or a little birth?
Is death male or female or neither?
La vida es sueno? Is life literally a dream? And, if so, when will we truly awake?