Saturday, February 23, 2008

Poem of the Day: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was one of the original Beat Poets. He was the co-founder of the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, which also evolved into a publishing house for new poets. In 1956, Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg's seminal book of poems, "Howl". Ferlinghetti was arrested on charges of obscenity after selling the book to undercover police. After a long trial, the judge decided "Howl" was not obscene, and Ferlinghetti was acquitted.

The poem "Are There Not Still Fireflies" was written by Ferlinghetti in response to the 9/11 attacks.

Think of the form the poem takes- one long question- and the idea of positive/negative as far as what there is and is not.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

"Are There Not Still Fireflies"

Are there not still fireflies
Are there not still four-leaf clovers
Is not our land still beautiful
our fields not full of armed enemies
our cities never bombed
by foreign invaders
never occupied
by iron armies
speaking iron tongues
Are not our warriors still valiant
ready to defend us
Are not our senators
still wearing fine togas
Are we not still a great people
in the greatest country in all the world
Is this not still a free country
Are not our fields still ours
our gardens still full of flowers
our ships with full cargoes
Why then do some still fear
the barbarians coming
coming coming
in their huddled masses
(What is that sound that fills the ear
drumming drumming?)
Is not Rome still Rome
Is not Los Angeles still Los Angeles
Are these not the last days of the Roman Empire
Is not beauty still beauty
And truth still truth
Are there not still poets
Are there not still lovers
Are there not still mothers
sisters and brothers
Is there not still a full moon
once a month
Are there not still fireflies
Are there not still stars at night
Can we not still see them
in bowl of night
signalling to us
our manifest destiny?"


megan said...

Hello:) One line in this poem struck me a bit strangely.

"Are these not the last days of the Roman Empire"

Ferlinghetti's string of questions nudges us towards concluding that the 9/11 attacks do not undermine the strength and greatness of our country, that we are foolish to fear invaders knocking at our gates. When he asks, "Is not beauty still beauty / And truth still truth," he wants us to say "Yes, they haven't changed. 9/11 was not the end of the world." Each question is phrased with some sort of negative word to suggest that its positive statement is true.

But if you extend that logic to the question about the Roman Empire, you're forced to conclude that, in fact, these are the last days of the Roman Empire, that 9/11 does signal decay in American society. (We know that Rome symbolizes our country because American senators are depicted as wearing togas.)

So maybe that little incongruence is purposeful. Maybe Ferlinghetti is saying that our country is indeed in decline but is still beautiful, safe, and prosperous--as Rome remained for a while, during its long ruination. And even if our society has past its prime, that's okay. It's part the inevitable cycle of the rise and fall of empires, a cycle which might at first compromise beauty, truth, family, fireflies, four-leaf clovers, etc. but will later nourish them when the next great society rolls around. Fireflies flicker on and off. (Reminds me of that dead groundhog poem on the practice AP.)

The "manifest destiny" of our country and all countries is not eternal expansion, but the stars, (i.e. death and replacement), meaning life goes on after America's gone:) But I wonder what L.F. says about the hopes of our entire species's continuation!

Byrne's English12AP said...

Nice, Megan!

I like Ferlinghetti's use of a rhetorical questions as a framework for his poetry. Upon first reading this, I felt that he was reminding us that even though we had lived through a terrible tragedy, we still have small things to be grateful for.

The "Roman Empire" one is the only question that is possibly debatable.I don't know if the poet uses this to respond to GW Bush, or as an overall critique of American politics.

{I just got a mental image of fireflies flickering around that dead groundhog...]