"I am signaling you through the flames," says the poet.
And, we listen.
How could we not?
There have been many remarkable speakers at the 92nd St. Y. In fact, last night's reading began with an audio clip of Kurt Vonnegut's voice from when he appeared there in 1970. I've headed there many times in anticipation. But, I've never seen so long a line for a post-book-signing ... as I did for the living poet.
In his baseball cap and wire rim glasses -- red frames, mind you -- Lawrence Ferlinghetti read his poems in a wispy, near whisper of a voice to a sold-out crowd at the Y last night. His adoring fans hooted and hollered as he took to the podium. If you saw him there with his gentle, glowing eyes and ways you'd have been hooting, too.
Ah, a living poet. There was just something in the way the first poet laureate out of San Francisco moved about the stage. He carried his poems in a large Manila envelope. And when it grew time to read, he pulled out the sheets of paper and held them near to his eyes. He ruffled them for a while. Waited on a pregnant pause or two. And, read. His poems were funny. And, political. In that satirical way that makes you say "Hm, that's funny...but bad, very bad at the same time."
It was like story hour for adults. They marveled at the sound of this gentle man's voice as he read images aloud to them. And, indeed they were enthralled by the pictures his words painted.
For the second half of the evening, Ferlinghetti tried some experimental readings of poetry in sync with music playing from speakers -- a Star Spangled Banner hold the chorus was a backdrop of a poem about the state of the country, and the disillusionment of the awaited white dove of hope.
Another poem on the gloom of global warming was accompanied by the yelping cries of dying animals. Another was interlaced with long musical interludes of a space-age genre. "Are there no more fireflies?" asked the poet to the music. New verses covered fields (are there no more open fields?) and land (are we no longer a free country?)and citizens (are we no longer a good people?)
I'd say, though, forget the musical accompaniment. Really. Let the poems do their thing. When Ferlinghetti reads a poem, he is not monotone. Rather, his voice rises and falls in a melodic hypnotizing flow. And, he accentuates the words just so to hit home his idea.
The music just distracted from the songs that are the poems themselves.
As Ferlinghetti stood there, he grabbed hold of the podium. He had a message. He had a voice. And the people, they listened.
He read two unpublished poems (a pre-pub boon for the crowd) and read known verses from published works.
Then, he stood back from the podium and saw the faces in the crowd. He saw the bodies rising and clapping.
Oh to remember that moment. It was apparent in his tender smile that he felt the adoration of the crowd. His eyes were fixed, near watery. His smile so humble and endearing.
It is quite something to be there clapping as a tribute ... to a living poet.
Too often, art is fully praised and appreciated posthumously.
I mean really: Who needs TV when you've got this five blocks away?
Is poetry still relevant in the world saturated in Anna Nicole dramas and riddled with Virginia Tech shooting tragedies?
I'd say we need the sacred truth of poetry in these times more than ever.
Thank you, Mr. Ferlinghetti, for sharing your love affair with words with us.
Your Girl About Town