The Cool Eye Stride 1993 ISBN 1 873012 49 7
"I never doubt Ferlinghetti. He's a master, a mentor, a mensch. I trust his work the same way I trust even the strongest stuff of Burroughs, or Beckett or Picasso. I'd follow 'em anywhere." [Ken Kesey]
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind is one of the world's best selling poetry books, with over a million copies sold since first publication in 1958. Ferlinghetti, founder of San Francisco's City Lights Bookshop and Press, continues to edit its magazine City Lights Journal. He is author of numerous poetry collections from Pictures of the Gone World (1955) to Endless Life: Selected Poems (New Directions, 1981). He has also published the novels Her and Love in the Days of Rage, plays, political satires and travel books, and translated the poems of Jacques Prévert. Well known too as a painter, Ferlinghetti has been called "one of our ageless radicals and true bards" (Booklist, USA).
Among the most recent of Alexis Lykiard's many books are two highly-praised poetry collections Living Jazz (Tenormen Press, 1991) and Beautiful is Enough (Westwords, 1992). His translations from French include works by Lautréamont, Aragon, Apollinaire, Alfred Jarry's extraordinary novel Days And Nights (Atlas, 1989) and Surrealist Games (Redstone Press, 1991).
'Most of us here have bought a City Lights book,' Alexis Lykiard says, as he introduces Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the beginning of this public interview, and it's part of his explanation to the audience of Ferlinghetti's importance to the post-1945 literary scene. Readers of this magazine won't need to be told the details of his activities as poet, novelist, painter, editor, publisher, and promoter of the Beats, but the fact that he is, as Lykiard puts it, 'a multi-faceted man’, means that a conversation with him is likely to range over a variety of subjects. And if you add Ferlinghetti's political interests to his other activities, it's possible to see how they all add up to something beyond a mere desire to succeed in conventional terms. There is nothing more boring than listening to a writer concerned only with his own career. Ferlinghetti looks out on a wider world.
It's in this wider world that he sees a series of contradictions that he is concerned about. Talking about the role of the poet in society, he says that 'poetry, art in general, has to be subversive', and he questions the situation where the 'supposedly dissident presses and dissident writers' have been "taking every grant they could get from the US government.' The interview moves on to other things, but it's noticeable that Ferlinghetti returns to the theme of the role of the writer, and suggests that the trouble with a lot of them is that 'they're far too well-fed.' I don't think he's suggesting that starving might be good for a writer, but I do think he's proposing that they can be too comfortable.
But Ferlinghetti also discusses the principles of poetry, pointing out that, in his view, 'most modern poetry is prose. Essentially. You have the typography of poetry, but it's generally very finely written, sometimes witty, very finely written prose in the typography of poetry.' He adds that he doesn't necessarily see this as a problem, though not everyone can produce interesting work in that way. And he questions the kind of poetry which is 'the graph of your consciousness, unedited, first thought best thought.' As he stresses, this is fine for Allen Ginsberg who has a 'pack-rat mind, and anything that comes out of that mind is going to be interesting,' but if you get people 'whose minds aren't particularly interesting, then what comes out is also pretty uninteresting.'
Elsewhere, he touches the nature of success, and the disastrous effect it had on someone like Jack Kerouac, and he briefly talks about his early involvements with the Beats. He additionally has some interesting things to say about his novels. Her and Love in the Days of Rage. He's astute on how a thing is said, but adds, 'it's really what you're saying that counts.'
This is a fascinating document and, in addition to the 1988 dialogue which forms the bulk of the book, it contains excerpts from a 1991 interview, and some poems by Ferlinghetti.
[Jim Burns The Kerouac Connection 25 Autumn 1993]