Friday, November 27, 2020

New article in the James Joyce Quarterly on Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Front cover of JJQ volume 57.3-4. Cover art by David Nowlan.

I am excited to have a new piece that was published in the latest edition of the James Joyce Quarterly. This piece is a book review of the newest book from the legendary American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a fascinating and entertaining text called Little Boy: A Novel. The full article is behind a subscription wall, but you can read the first half of it here

Here's the opening paragraph: 

The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned one hundred years old in 2019. To mark the occasion, he published Little Boy: A Novel, a compulsively readable feast for the mind stuffed into a breezy 192-page text. Though calling itself a novel, it is hardly fiction. The book reads more like a memoir written as an epic poem in a lyrical thought-stream prose style devoid of plot, bereft of punctuation, laced with literary criticism, and seared with socio-political commentary. It is a novel in the truest sense of the word: Ferlinghetti made something new.

If you're wondering why this review of Ferlinghetti's latest book was in the James Joyce Quarterly, it's because Little Boy is a sort of homage to Joyce. You can find Ferlinghetti quoting from Finnegans Wake and Ulysses from his earliest published works like A Coney Island of the Mind (1958). He continued to bring Joyce into his poetry for decades and Little Boy is a sort of culmination or capstone of Ferlinghetti's career, an epic poem in the form of a stream-of-consciousness in which he quotes and imitates Joyce frequently (among countless other literary allusions). Over at my "Finnegans, Wake!" blog I shared a post with a bunch of examples of Ferlinghetti alluding to Joyce throughout Little Boy: A Novel.

Besides the prominent Joycean element, the reason I wrote the review is because I absolutely loved Little Boy: A Novel. It has to be one of the best books I've ever read. Little Boy is both moving and laugh-out-loud funny, the language is incredibly rich and engrossing with sentences that go on for pages and build up momentum, mixing lyricism and mysticism with memoir, literary criticism with social commentary, the author's earliest memories and experiences with his observations on modern society while sitting inside a cafe in San Francisco. There are reflections on several famous literary figures Ferlinghetti was friends with like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, etc. Ferlinghetti has had a very rich century of existence---he commanded a sub chaser in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day in 1944, he went to Nagasaki in 1945 after the atomic bomb dropped and was so horrified he became a staunch pacifist and activist for the rest of his life. In 1953 he founded City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and went on to publish Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems which led to him going to jail for obscenity charges. He's published dozens of books of poetry, novels, and plays and is also a talented painter.

In January I randomly picked up A Coney Island of the Mind from my bookshelf and started reading it. I had discovered the book back in 2018 on a trip to the Bay Area where the title had caught my eye as I perused the bookshelf of a friend I was visiting. Didn't know anything about it at the time, but having grown up in NYC and played hockey at Abe Stark Arena in Coney Island for many years, the title of that dog-eared slim volume intrigued me. So when I later visited City Lights bookstore on the same trip, I picked up a brand new copy of A Coney Island of the Mind. At the time I didn't know was Ferlinghetti's most famous book and that I was standing in Ferlinghetti's own bookstore purchasing it. Once I finally started reading it earlier this year, I got hooked immediately. 

For the next few months I read and re-read several books by Ferlinghetti, my favorite being the second volume of his epic poem on the history of America called Time of Useful Consciousness (published in 2012, the title is derived from an aeronautical term denoting the time between when one loses oxygen and when one passes out, the brief time in which some life-saving action is possible). Then I picked up his newest book, Little Boy: A Novel (2019), and it just blew me away. While I haven't read every single one of Ferlinghetti's books yet, I have read most of them now and I can say with some certainty that Little Boy is his greatest work. A perfect distillation of all the knowledge and experience he's acquired over a century of existence neatly packed into a relatively short book. The structure is economical because there are no chapter breaks and after the first 15 pages or so there are even very few sentence breaks. The text becomes a rushing river of poetic prose. The language is full of informal dialects, street talk, puns, and idioms. Ferlinghetti is a (now) 101-year-old poet who has owned a bookstore for more than six decades so his knowledge of literature is virtually unsurpassed among those walking the earth. He's also an old New Yorker with a great sense of humor. This creates an irresistibly rich and entertaining gestalt that never seems to leave anything out. 

I enjoyed it so much that when I finished reading Little Boy: A Novel, I immediately turned back to the first page and started reading it again. Then I finished it a second time and immediately read it again a third time. Reading books has been my main hobby for a while now and I can't recall having that kind of experience where I read one book cover-to-cover three times in a row. 

Trying to summarize why I love this book so much, I come up this: as a NY native, I relate to Ferlinghetti with all his memories of Yonkers where he was born (and where I played many hockey games at an outdoor rink where I once scored a hat trick); I relate to Ferlinghetti's obsession with Joyce, especially Finnegans Wake; the informal, playful language he uses makes him a joy to read; there's so much to learn from his literary allusions and stories; he also loves baseball and refers to it frequently in this book; Ferlinghetti views the world thru the eye of a mystic; with all of his experience, knowledge, and wisdom, he is exactly the person whose perspective I am hoping to learn from as he comments, in longwinded jeremiads, on our current political and environmental predicaments. 

The review I wrote for JJQ was restricted by a word count so I had to keep it short and here I am going on about this book and I've barely touched on its most moving element as a memoir. Besides all the cultural-political-social commentary and piles of literary allusions, the core of Little Boy is about the little boy Lawrence Ferlinghetti who had a difficult upbringing which impacted him the rest of his life. His father died shortly before he was born. His mother couldn't handle another child and ended up in a mental hospital so she gave the baby to her sister. Ferlinghetti was raised by his Aunt Emilie and learned to speak French. For a while they lived with a wealthy family who his aunt was working for until suddenly she just left with no explanation, never to be seen again, and young Lawrence grew up without any real family around. As the book carries on we get more insight into the imprint of his childhood in which he never received real love or affection.

There are so many passages in this book that I've starred, underlined, and annotated and I'm tempted to quote from it at length. As I describe in the JJQ review, the style of this book is totally unconventional. Sentences span several pages with no punctuation and he jumps from one thing to the next and back again. I will share a long section here from pgs 93-96 where you can get an idea of how this book works. Note: A big block of unbroken text ensues. Not always easy to follow, but always richly rewarding to read.  This selection begins immediately after Ferlinghetti quotes from an unusually profound Levi's advertisement he saw in San Francisco one recent summer: 

And who was that speaking if not Whitman or every common man on earth or elsewhere who else if not an American certainly not a European with all his baggage of centuries like Pasolini said when he came to New York in the 1960s and met the New Left rads and wrote that he envied these Americans who could act without first having to wade through thirty centuries of intellectual baggage like what would Heidegger do or what would Descartes do or what would Plato say or Plutarch or Herodotus or Gramsci or some other great looming intellect haunting their old Euro heads yeah you can imagine what with the European Communist parties tied up in knots and eventually destroying the student revolution or revelation of 1968 And what Tarquin said in his garden with the poppy blooms was understood by the son but not by the messenger and so today the messenger embodied now as the media spreads confusion and doubt as to any eternal verity as indeed so do the philosophers or other heavy-headed thinkers who spread doubt in every direction even as Socrates did So that so that today there is a veritable clearance sale of ideas strained through the semiliterate media which ends up giving us a kind of Gazpacho Expressionism or cut-up consciousness as in William Burroughs' Naked Lunch or in John Cage's cut-up of any classic text as he did Finnegans Wake annihilating the beautiful hushed talk of Irish washerwomen gossiping in the gloaming while doing their washing on a riverbank where field mice squawk and dusk falling and night descending into doubt and despair and fear and trembling O lord save us Blind in our courses we know not what we do or where we go O the semiconscious existential despair of not knowing who we are and the boy all his life looking for himself and where he came from Father lost Mother in a madhouse and he the little kid wandering around knowing nothing having been told nothing of where he came from and who was to tell him the little kid plunked down on earth somewhere alone like a stray cat or pup without a collar or name tag and how was he to find himself in this twirling world spinning to the music of the spheres which is the sound of Om in which all sound is absorbed in which all thought all feelings all senses are absorbed yes and Om the sound of living itself the great Om of all our breathing the voice of life the voice of our buried life the voice of the voice of the blood then coursing through us through even the penis that strange appendage a peninsula of sorts a third arm or leg that so imperiously asserts its authority and inopportunely rises up and inserts itself into affairs personal or worldly and then so arrogantly lets us down at critical moments at the very gates of paradise or Nirvana or hell and refuses all our incitements "of mind and hand" as some Frenchie philosophe said even as he let down his pants in the queen's chamber indeed indeed and we are left with the perpetual astonishment of man on earth when confronted with himself or his penis indeed what a piece of work is man and this his daybook his nightbook and I am not writing some kind of Notes from the Underground as if I had any idea where any underground is these days if I ever knew since I've always been off in my own burb in some suburb of consciousness dreaming away or otherwise goofing off or picking my nose in hopeless cellars with fellow travelers or their ilk imagining I'm going to change the world or something and so I'm just some kind of literary freak and my mind the constipated thought of the race all too shallow to be called nihilism while all the while all I want to do is walk around the earth cooking the Joy soup What else is there to do with the rest of eternity and would you tell me what it is we're all supposed to do on earth anyway I mean truly just sit right down and think of an answer to all that while there's still time just give me a concrete answer as to what humans are supposed to do with all our time what on earth that is are we just to sit around like blobs of perspiring protoplasm or like chimps in trees scratching our fleas or whatever I mean maybe in fact it's just dreaming that we're supposed to do after everyone is fed after all is said and done oh no that's just a big evasion of the basic burning question What I want to know is what in hell are we here on earth for anyway baby baby Am I your bedroom philosopher or Doctor of Alienation Am I a willing well-fed participant and protagonist in our consumer society a consumer-gatherer or a rebel antagonist revolutionary an enemy of the state or something in between neither fish nor fouling-piece Tell me tell me the night is young and you're so beautiful pardon me if I am overdutiful Babeee and that's what he was asking himself as he grew up into something new and strange at least in the eyes of some totally objective journalist sent down here to earth by some managing editor with a low tolerance for malarkey who wants the truth and nothing but the truth so let 'em have it tell us what is what and who we are and what we are doing down here anyway The top-dog editor wants to know the straight story and are you man enough to tell it or are you brain enough to tell it and are you man enough to say I love you man   (Little Boy: A Novel, pgs 93-96)