Saturday, May 4, 2013

In the Presence of Gods

I discovered William S. Burroughs through a goth named Frank who lived with us for a while. He had a tattered copy of Naked Lunch with a yellow cover and so many dog-eared pages that it was impossible to tell where he’d actually left off. I remember sitting in our living room, reading this book, and being enthralled with the surreal and disjointed tale Burroughs wove. As soon I finished Naked Lunch, I bought and read Junkie, which had an introduction telling the back story of the Beat authors of the 1950s. That introduction led me to the works of Kerouac and Ginsberg, among others,  and I hungrily devoured all I could find.

One book in my collection was The Portable Beat Reader, which was an anthology of novel excerpts, short stories, poetry, essays, and correspondence between authors.  It was through this book that I was introduced to the works of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who owned and operated the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco (which, incidentally was the first all-paperback bookstore in the country). In conjunction with this, he also operated City Lights Publishers, publishing works by authors like Charles Bukowski, the aforementioned William S Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsberg.

After  the publication of Ginsberg’s masterpiece, Howl, the book (which was being imported from a printer in London) was seized by customs officials.  Following this,  Ferlinghetti  was arrested on obscenity charges, eventually being acquitted in 1957 at the end of a long trial. His successful defense of this work established an important precedent for the publication of controversial material with redeeming social importance and was a major victory for First Amendment rights. As authors and readers, we owe a huge debt of gratitude to this man.

So my excitement in learning that he would be making an appearance at the University of Charleston in  was understandable. On the appointed day, Farrell and I filed into a small room lined with folding chairs. There was a table with refreshments near the door and the walls were adorned with Ferlinghetti’s paintings and sketches. There were about forty people or so in attendance and the event kicked off with William S Burroughs phoning in from Tangiers to read some of his own work. Following this, Ferlinghetti took the stage.

At one point, he was reading a poem which contained some surreal imagery to underscore an important theme. Most of the audience completely missed the gravity behind the imagery and responded with polite laughter; for a fraction of a second, an expression of shock crossed the poet’s face as he looked out over the smiling crowd. When he returned to reading, he completely abandoned the poem; instead he improvised verses dealing with people who were distracted by spectacle without taking pause to consider underlying messages. It was biting, satirical, and amazingly brilliant. I was in awe as I watched this living legend craft his art on the fly and thought it was hysterical that the very people he was spearing with his words were as clueless as they’ d been when they originally laughed.

When the reading concluded, I approached Mr. Ferlinghetti and apologized on behalf of the audience for their misplaced laughter. He was a gracious and somewhat dapper man, thoughtful and well-spoken. We spoke briefly before he signed my copy of The Portable Beat Reader and wished me luck in my own artistic pursuits. I walked away feeling as though God had just autographed the Bible, crackling with inspiration and awe.

Constantly Risking Absurdity
By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of the day
performing entrachats
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
any thing
for what it may not be
For he's the super realist
who must perforce perceive
taut truth

before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
with gravity
to start her death-defying leap
And he
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
of existence 

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