I just finished reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s latest book Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010 (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015, $35). Usually I am a fast reader, but this book took me a long time to absorb. I snorted it, but in small gulps, savoring it over many days. It provided me with Ferlinghetti oxygen.
Ninety-six-year-old Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a man of many parts — poet, painter, publisher, essayist, social activist, traveler. But what makes him unique is that he is a man totally without equivocation. He tells it as he believes it is. And in that last sentence, “believes” is a very important word. Ferlinghetti believes with conviction. Not all of us do.
And isn’t it wondrous to live in this world (where equivocation is a daily blood sport) and to discover a person — in this case, our country’s greatest living poet — who does not equivocate? A person who means what he says and says what he means? And that is precisely what makes Writing Across the Landscape such compelling reading.
The book reveals Ferlinghetti’s unwavering strength of purpose. It consists primarily of unpublished, handwritten journals and notebooks written on the spot by the peripatetic author. There are challenging, frequently poetic accounts of his travels from 1960 to 2010, many of them to poetry festivals or readings of his work. There are vivid impressions of Mexico, Haiti, North Africa, revolutionary Cuba, Franco’s Spain, Soviet Russia, and Nicaragua under the Sandinistas. And numerous visits to France and Italy, central to his continuing search for his roots and origins.
Along the way, he catches up with Pablo Neruda, Ezra Pound, Ernesto Cardenal, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Andrei Vosnesensky — a literary milieu far beyond those literary giants of the Beat Generation with which he has always been closely identified.
THE UNEXPECTED TWIST
Ferlinghetti is an acute observer, always with an unexpected twist. In July 1983 he journeyed to Marrakesh where he said he considered himself a “space traveler in a time warp.” There he observed:
Sometimes it is better not to know anything about a country when you visit it. Especially it is important not to know its language or languages. Thus every sound, striking the ear like a small bell or animal cry, without any associative meaning, takes on the immediate quality of poetry, it’s the quality of pure color in painting, with the percussive effect of pure sound in a void. … Herein lies the true fascination of travel, not in the confirmation or contradiction of what we have been led to expect by the perusal of history or the learning of local languages, not by the recognition of native customs in their similarity or dissimilarity to our own. …
A MONUMENTAL EFFORT
Or consider this from a chapter called the “Mouth of Truth” that he wrote in his diary in August–September 1983:
The ‘world leaders’ going through their insane unintentially comic routines, gesticulating, saluting, shaking hands, bowing, smiling, making absurd speeches with the utmost seriousness, as if they really believed it would make any difference under the cosmic eye. If the sun moved a little nearer or a little farther away we would all die. That’s the only reality.
Monumental is not a word a writer tosses about haphazardly. I usually avoid it. But I wish to invoke it now. Ferlinghetti’s new book, set for release this month, is truly monumental effort.
A WORLD UNGRASPABLE
And don’t jump to the conclusion that this wunderkind has shot his final bolt with this book and will now stop writing and bask in the weak San Francisco sun. He’s already hard at work on a novel.
“Is the novel set in San Francisco?” I asked.
“No, it’s set in the world,” he said.
Of course it is. He has traveled the world and found it incomplete.
In a September 2006 entry he wrote: “Ah life, why are you so ungraspable? Even as we reach out — Fleeting! Evanescent! Gone as we blink like blind fools!”