Snyder and Ferlinghetti Give a Reading in North Beach, November 7, 2011
by Kristi Moos
Club Fugazi’s sloping red walls and roman columns appear to be stuck between Art Deco and Antiquity. One can see in them the strained elegance of social dances held there in the 1930s and 40s the mixers put on for Italian-American teenagers with their expectant families in tow. One can hear opera singers and red-curtain entertainers; one can see fan dancers, piano performers and slick-haired crooners performing to well-dressed crowds.
Some time in the 1950s, the lights dimmed. A group of young writers took the stage and began reading poetry. What began with locals reading unpublished work quickly grew into something larger. “Carpetbaggers from New York,” as Lawrence Ferlinghetti joked, began arriving. In the blink of an eye, the Beat movement was born.
By the early 1960s, Club Fugazi swarmed with literary legends— Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Kenneth Rexroth and Gary Snyder, to name a few, gathered here for literary readings. Sixty years (and many poems) later, Snyder and Ferlinghetti returned to give a benefit reading for the San Francisco Poetry center, filling Fugazi once more with poetry and story-telling that conjured up the dawn of a new generation of literature.
The mood of the night was joyous and historic. Ferlinghetti stepped up to the mic in multi-colored street shoes and an electric-red scarf, his eyes aglow with mischief. At age 92, the poet and publisher of City Lights Books told the crowd, “When I arrived in San Francisco in the 1950s, there were two great halls in North Beach: Garibaldi Hall on Broadway and Fugazi Hall. The first time I ever read a poem in public was at Fugazi. I was hooked.”
When Snyder, 81, walked out to greet the anxious crowd, this icon of ecological poetry instantly became human: “The last time I was in here,” he said, “was to see Beach Blanket Babylon.”
A far cry from the big hair and theatrics of Babylon, Snyder stood in blue jeans, a pale denim shirt and a loose-fitting vest. He read each poem with great care. Calm, cerebral, and thoroughly Zen, he began the night by reading “What to Tell, Still,” a poem written in tribute to the late James Laughlin, founder of New Directions Press and publisher of his and Ferlinghetti’s work.
His second poem, “Mariano Vallejo’s Library”, was a poem of place that revealed Snyder’s knack for story-telling. He talked of Vallejo’s life, a man at the center of California during its last years under Mexican rule. Vallejo never ventured outside of California his whole life. He owned a big ranch in Sonoma County, and had gathered, over the years, what was then the best library “in the Eastern Pacific.” Years later, his house and library burned to the ground; Yankees swept in and the Rancho lifestyle quickly disappeared. For Snyder, it is Vallejo and his adobe that tell the story of California’s transformation and provides partial answers to vital questions like: How can a state so rich in history and tradition withstand continual transformation, with the influx of new people, new plants, new civilizations and new ideas? How is it that California can remain constantly rough about the edges, always in the midst forming new narratives? The poem speaks up, bearing forth its dazzling disharmony:
“The old adobe east of the Petaluma River still stands.
Silvery sheds in the pastures once chicken coops,
the new box mansions march up the slope….
the bed of the Bay all shallowed by mining
pre ice-age Sierra dry riverbeds
upturned for gold and the stream gravel washed off by hoses,
swept to the valley in floods.
Farmers lost patience, the miners are now gone, too.
New people live in the foothills.
pine-pitch and dust, poison oak.” 1
Snyder’s love for California, in all its incarnations, remains steady. Rather than disparaging the “new” and its legacies of destruction, he sees renewal. He inhabits the land as it is, and calls others to do the same:
“The old ones from the world before taught care:
whoever’s here, whatever language –
race, or century, be aware
that plant can scour your mind,
put all your books behind.”
Throughout the night, Snyder’s respect for natural ecologies came across clearly in his tone. Poised and deeply edifying, his meditative stance on ecological ruin offers a refreshingly powerful joy to environmental rhetoric. Void of the urgency of anger, his work is urgent only in its desire to appreciate the existing world. His poems recognize places as they once were, but more significantly, as they are.
Snyder might say that beauty is the impermanence of nature. He might say that the consequences of human activity, like all things, will sprout up and flow on, and will one day float beyond our reach, as in his next poem, “In the Santa Clarita Valley”:
“Like skinny wildweed flowers sticking up
hexagonal “Denny’s” sign
eight-petaled yellow “Shell”
blue-and-white “Mobil” with the big red “O”
growing in the asphalt riparian zone
by the soft roar of the flow
of Interstate 5.” 2
Snyder describes Santa Clarita as the last watershed valley north of Los Angeles. A few people in the audience sighed. They must have been picturing the valley as a once idyllic gorge, lush and vibrant, now lost to sprawl. The image Snyder lends us is far more surprising: the poem is not about loss, but about enjoying tangible beauty in an altered landscape. In an ironic twist, Snyder asks us to see that the gas station signs are just as fragile as the “wildweed flower.” We see that Interstate 5 is just as susceptible to re-rerouting as the ancient river it uprooted. The poem is whispering: yes, the life of the valley flows into Los Angeles; yes, Los Angeles flows into and through it; that is the natural course of things. Isn’t that lovely, in its own way?
The mood shifted during Ferlinghetti’s set. With an old copy of Coney Island of the Mind in one hand, he reached into the breast of his jacket and pulled out a pair of thick-rimmed red glasses. He put them on and looked up, exchanging amused glances with the crowd. He exuded coolness. His words were strong and persistent, full to the brim with wit and sassiness. At times, his voice rose in song and then fell into poetic tenderness.
He recited his early poems from memory, beginning with the opening poem from Coney Island:
“In Goya’s greatest scenes, we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
groaning with babies and bayonets
under cement skies
in abstract landscapes of blasted trees
We are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent” 3
After rounds of hefty applause, Ferlinghetti commented, “it turned out to be an early ecological poem.” He was right. Each of his poems contain ecological undertones, but they are often overshadowed by political and sensual overtones. But the ecological element is there, loud and unapologetic. He noted, “Dylan Thomas said there are two kinds of poetry: loud and soft. I should learn to be quieter like Gary, instead of blowing off all the time.”
Another poem, “Magic Theater” turned out to be both loud and soft. In it, Ferlinghetti observes a scene along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. He observes the people who come and go, a man with his morning coffee and croissant wrapped in paper. Along comes a woman who sits down on the bench and begins weeping. The man cannot bring himself to speak to her. The man leaves, and then the woman leaves, her wet handkerchief still on the bench. All the while, a ferry comes and goes, “disgorging its humans,” one after the other. Here we see the passing of humanity, like the freeway passing through the Santa Clarita Valley, but this time in miniature: person by person, story by story, each slowing or pausing on their way by.
In a gesture of camaraderie, Ferlinghetti read excerpts from “Back Roads to Far Places”, a markedly softer poem. He pointed out the similarities to his fellow poet, telling the crowd, “this is as close as my poetry gets to Gary’s”:
“Bashō would have liked
A lake like this
To far towns
Reflected in it
Mocks its flowers
And when the white furze
On the dandelion stem
It is time
To blow” 4
I wouldn’t do justice to the night if I didn’t mention sex. Sexuality was a constant theme in both of the poet’s work. And yet, just as in the previous poem, there was a sweetness and playfulness about it. Ferlinghetti was nostalgic for the lover who he watched:
“sigh and rise
and stretch her sweet anatomy,
let fall a stocking.” 9
Snyder was gripped by the image of “Mu Ch’i’s Persimmons” the painting by the Chinese master, Mu Ch’i:
“Napkin in hand,
I bend over the sink
suck the sweet orange goop
that’s how I like it
gripping a little twig
those painted persimmons
sure cure hunger” 10
The crowd laughed with delight when Ferlinghetti said, “I wrote an email to George Whitman of Shakespeare and Company, saying: “Shake your speare! (with an e on the end).” We chuckled when Gary explained in “How Many” that the word “Subaru” means “a fistful of boys” in the Mayan language. What better way for a girl (or guy) to ride?
Later in the night, Ferlinghetti read a recent poem, “Are There Not Still Fireflies?”:
“…Are there not still fireflies in America?
Is not beauty still beauty
are there not still poets
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
signaling to us
some far out beatific destiny?” 5
For me, “Fireflies” shows Ferlinghetti’s poetic vulnerability, which in this case, is a strength. He spoke the lines in a contemplative mode that echoed the sentiment of Snyder’s poem, “Waiting for a Ride.” Each poem, in its own way, recalls everyday experience in terms of the cosmic, approaching at times, the existential. Are we not still here ourselves? Are we not able to appreciate nature?
Ferlinghetti’s moon is always full. Snyder’s moon is slighter, but perhaps closer at hand. Snyder’s moon is a watercolor painting by Japanese artist Chiura Obata, or a faithful companion keeping him company at home, as in “Waiting for a Ride”:
“full moon was Oct 2nd this year,
I ate a mooncake, slept out on the deck
white light beaming through the black boughs of the pine”
The poem ends not with the moon, but with the self, suspended somewhere in between the North star and life back on Earth, which for Snyder is sitting in the baggage claim of the airport in Austin, Texas:
“—it’s good to know that the Pole Star drifts!
that even our present night’s sky slips away;
not that I’ll see it
Or maybe I will, much later,
some far time walking the spirit path in the sky,
that long walk of spirits—where you fall right back into the
“narrow painful passageway of the Bardo”
squeeze your little skull
and there you are again
waiting for your ride” 6
In one of the most stirring poems of the night, “The First and the Last of Everything” Ferlinghetti envisions the twin towers on 9/11 as part of the great movement from east to west, (perhaps as a symptom of Manifest Destiny) from “the first wagon train westward” to “the last buffalo”, from “the first skyscraper” to “the first plane to hit the first tower” and to the very present, “the birth of a vast national paranoia.” It goes without saying: 9/11 marked the loss of innocence in the poetic imagination. His “Song of the Third World Birds” continued this political sentiment, drawing the allusion between the planes on 9/11 and the great throngs of birds migrating across the globe:
“And which side are you on
sang the birds
Oh which side are you on
in the Third World War,
the war with the Third World?” 7
Snyder also read a 9/11 poem, “Falling from a Height, Holding Hands.” 8 The short piece depicts a video that circulated on YouTube around the time of 9/11. It showed a couple who had jumped, hand in hand, from one of the burning towers. The poem’s quietude captures the horrific silence of that flight: a journey two hundred people chose to make that day. Yet in the poem, the couple isn’t falling—they are readying themselves for their final, perfect flight:
“We will be two peregrines diving all the way down.”
I cannot forget the way Snyder paused before the word — “diving”— how he floated before it and landed on the syllables with assurance and buoyancy. The “d” was the foot leaving the building; the certain, forceful take-off into the air.
This is evidence of the power of poetry. This pronunciation was an act of understanding. Snyder was giving power back to the people whose last decisive act was to plunge, together, into the next world.
In his final poem of the night, “Stories in the Night”, Snyder shared his experience of managing energy in his small household in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He told the crowd that he lives in relative solitude at the 3,000 foot level, in the pine forest north of Nevada City. “I’ve lived off the electrical grid for 45 years,” Snyder said to wide applause. “Before you clap,” he said. “Try it. It’s a pain in the ass.” He described using kerosene lamps, solar panels, and a system of faulty generators during the winters to keep his house warm and well-lit. “It works, just barely,” he joked. “Timothy Leary once said that the ideal simple life is to live on the second floor of a little building, south of Market Street, over a deli.”
That kind of lifestyle would fit Ferlinghetti to a tee—who, though far from an ecological poet, finished his reading with a series of poem about human place in ecology, threading together the impact of politics on everything from frontier buffalos to ballpark hot dogs with mustard.
The night was drawing to the close. There were only two more poems left to read. Ferlinghetti leaned over to the short wooden table and grabbed a piece of paper. Through the stage lights, I could see the poem. It was hand-written in black cartoon-like print, the words big enough to read from my seat. “I wrote this last week,” he said, grinning.
The poem was “The First and Last of Everything.” In it, Ferlinghetti drew a wide circle over life, from creation to the Occupy Wall Street movement:
“The first fine dawn of life on earth
The first cry of man in the first light
The first firefly flickering at night
The first wagon train westward
The first sighting of the Pacific by Lewis and Clark
The first desegregation by Huck and Jim on a raft at night
The first buffalo head nickel and the last buffalo
The first skyscraper in America
The first plane to hit the first twin tower
The birth of vast national paranoia
The birth of American corporate fascism
The next to last free speech radio
The next to last independent newspaper raising hell
The next to last independent bookstore with a mind of its own
The next to last leftie looking for Obama nirvana
The first day of the Wall Street occupation to set forth upon this land a new revolutionary nation!” 11
When the two poets stood on the stage together and bowed for the final round of applause, the polarities in their work were gone. The differences in perspective were softened by a peculiar poeticism, one tied to a generation of writers who felt for themselves (and the world) that poetry shaped culture, not the other way around.
If I had to describe the night in a phrase, I would say this: the reading was a glimpse into an older world of poetry; a world in which poetry really changed things– when a book of poems published in the United States could save vast tracts of unprotected land, or land one in prison.
I would say Snyder and Ferlinghetti, for all their differences, share (in the simplest of terms) a mutual attentiveness to the places around them. Their works value the crossroads and contradictions of the natural and man-made, the spiritual and sensual, the political and celestial, and the cavernous spaces in between.
I would say that what I heard in the night was still poetry; still the human imagination, whole, and wholly satisfied.
don’t need much light, for stories in the night. –Gary Snyder
1, 2, 6, 8 Snyder, Gary. Danger on Peaks. Counterpoint Press, 2005.
3 Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems. New Directions Publishing, 1958.
4 Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. Back Roads to Far Places. New Directions Publishing, 1971.
5 “Are There Not Still Fireflies.” Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “New Poems.” http://www.citylights.com/Ferlinghetti/?fa=ferlinghetti_poems
7 “Song of the Third World Birds.” Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. March 2, 2011. http://articles.sfgate.com/2011-03-02/opinion/28645045_1_birds-brown-birds-voice-foreign-policy
9 Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. Pictures of the Gone World. City Lights, 1955.
10 “Mu Ch’i’s Persimmons.” Snyder, Gary. The New Yorker, October 20, 2008. http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/poetry/2008/10/20/081020po_poem_snyder
11 ”The First and the Last of Everything.” Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. “Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder at Club Fugazi.” November 9, 2011. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/11/08/DDL11LS3GH.DTL
Many thanks to Annie Hayward and Jackie Simon.