2003 Frost Medalist Lawrence Ferlinghetti

What is Poetry?: A Non-Lecture

Rough Draft of an ARS POETICA
Delivered, on the occasion of his receiving The Frost Medal

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti



The poet by definition, as the bearer of Eros and love and freedom, is the natural-born non-violent enemy of the state.

Militant poetry as the agent of truth is the best arm against home-grown fascism.

Dissident poetry is not Un-American.

There are three kinds of poetry. Lying-down poetry is supine poetry that accepts the status quo and is so laid back it has a hard time keeping awake. Sitting poetry is ambivalent poetry written by the sitting establishment with vested interests, its bottom line dictated by its day job. Standing poetry is the poetry of commitment, often great, often dreadful.

What is poetry?

Love lie with me, and I will tell.

Poetry a lawless enterprise.

Poetry the truth that reveals all lies.

Poetry a camera-eye without a shutter.

Poetry, unlike armchair philosophy, does not leave the world unchanged.

What is poetry?

Wind stirs the grasses, howls in the passes.

First light and a dark bird wings away: it's a poem.

Poetry is looking down both roads that diverge in a narrow wood.

Words wait to be reborn in the shadow of the lamp of poetry.

The flight-path of a poem must be upward or it will crash.

Poems are emails from the unknown, beyond cyberspace.

Poetry as a first language preceded writing and still sounds in us, a mute music, an inchoate music.

Poems like moths press against the window trying to reach the light.

Poetry is white writing on black, black writing on white.

It is a Madeleine dipped in Proust's tea.

It is a player-piano in an abandoned seaside casino, still playing.

All the world is one poem, all poetry one world, give or take a bomb or two.

Poetry is what we would cry out upon coming to ourselves in a dark wood in the middle of the journey of our life.

Poetry is news from the growing edge on the far frontiers of consciousness.

Poetry is a mute melody in the head of every dumb animal.

It is a descant rising out of the heart of darkness.

It is the light at the end of the tunnel and the darkness within it.

It is the morning dove mourning night.

It is the morning dove mourning love, and nothing cries out like the cry of the heart.

Every great poem fulfills a longing and puts life back together.

Every bird a word, every word a bird, and birdsong is not made by machines.

Poetry is boat-tailed birds singing in the setting sun in the tops of jacaranda trees in the plaza of San Miguel de Allende.

It is all the birds of the universe flocking together for a congress of birds and singing singly.

And every poem an exaggeration understated.

No need to write a great epic: two trout head-to-tail in a frying pan make a tragic poem.

A poem is a phosphorescent instant illuminating time, a moment of Absolute Spirit. (Thank you, Hegel.)

Poetry is more than painting sunlight on the wall of a house.

It is Van Gogh's ear echoing with all the blood of the world.

It is the primary conductor of emotion; if it don't conduct, it ain't poetry.

It is a lightning rod transmitting epiphanies.

It is a dragonfly catching fire.

It is the sea-light of Greece, the diamond light of Greece.

It is a lamp of the imagination lighting up every darkness.

It is a bright vision made dark, a darkling vision made bright.

It's the trees in spring in a back garden on Morton Street.

It is what the late November's saying about the disturbance of the spring.

Poems are shadows on the wall of Plato's cave glimpsed but fleetingly.

Poetry is eternal graffiti in the heart of everyone.

A poem is a mirror walking down a wide street full of visual delight.

Poetry is the shook foil of the imagination; it should shine out and half blind you.

It is the sun streaming down in the meshes of morning.

It is white nights and mouths of desire.

It is a tree with live leaves made from log piles of words.

A poem should arise to ecstasy somewhere between speech and song.

Poetry is the still sound between the strings of a lute.

It is the birth of ideas before they are distilled into thought.

It is made by dissolving halos in oceans of sound.

It is the street talk of angels and devils.

It is a sofa full of blind singers who have put aside their canes.

A poem must sing and fly away with you or it's a dead duck with a prose soul.

Poems are lifesavers when your boat capsizes.

Poetry is the anarchy of the senses making sense.

It is all things born with wings that sing.

It is a voice of dissent against the waste of words and the mad plethora of print.

It is what exists between the lines.

It is made with the syllables of dreams in unwritten dictionaries.

It is far far cries upon a beach at nightfall.

It is a lighthouse moving its megaphone over the sea.

It is a picture of Ma in her Woolworth bra looking out a window into her secret garden.

It is an Arab carrying colored rugs and birdcages through the streets of Baghdad.

A poem can be made of common household ingredients: it fits on a single page yet it can fill a world, and fits in the pocket of a heart.

The poet is a street singer who rescues the alleycats of love in the South Bronx.

Poetry breaks the brass wall between races.

Third World poetry may be the voice of the future.

But politically-correct identity-politics do not necessarily make great poetry.

Poems are the lost pages of the books of day & night.

Poetry is the distillation of articulate animals calling to each other across a great gulf.

It is a pulsing fragment of the inner life, an untethered music.

It is the dialogue of naked statues.

It is the sound of gaiety while weeping.

It is the sound of summer in the rain and of people laughing behind closed shutters down an alley at night.

It is Helen's straw hair in sunlight, without a permanent.

It is a sword on fire where someone has thrown in to become a pacifist.

It is a bare light-bulb in a homeless hotel at three in the morning.

It must be more than want ads for broken hearts.

It is worth nothing and therefore invaluable.

It is the incomparable lyric intelligence brought to bear upon fifty-seven varieties of experience.

It is a high house echoing with all the voices that ever said anything crazy or wonderful.

It is a subversive raid upon the forgotten language of the collective unconscious.

It is a real canary in a coal mine, and we know why the caged bird sings.

It is a sounding sea without shores.

Poetry is a rope to tie around you.

It is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations.

It is the voice of the Fourth Person Singular.

It is the face behind the face of the race.

It is the voice within the voice of the turtle.

It is the voice of everybody's inscrutable future.

It is made of night-thought; if it can tear itself away from illusion, it will not be disowned before the dawn.

It is made by evaporating the liquid laughter of youth.

It is a book of light at night dispersing clouds of unknowing.

It hears the whisper of hunted elephants.

It knows how many angels & demons dance on the head of a phallus.

It is Ulysses' horses mourning his death.

It is a saxophone singing the birth of the blues.

It is a humming, a keening, a laughing, a sighing at dawn, a wild soft laughter.

It is the final gestalt of the imagination.

Poetry should be emotion recollected in emotion.

Words are living fossils; the poet must piece the skeleton together and make it sing.

A poet is only as great as his ear; too bad if it is tin.

Poetry is perpetual revolt against silence exile and cunning.

It is a guillotine for accepted ideas.

The poet a subversive barbarian at the city gates, challenging the status quo.

It is creative destruction, the poet a master ontologist, questioning reality and reinventing it.

He is the gadfly of the state mating with a firefly.

He is a pickpocket of reality.

Poetry is a paper boat on the flood of spiritual desolation.

It is the existential dance of the self and the other.

It is the rediscovery of the self against the tribe.

Poems are questions posing further questions.

The poet mixes drinks out of wild liquors and is perpetually surprised that no one staggers.

He is a dark barker before the tents of existence.

He should see the rose through world-colored glasses.

He may be a singing animal turned pimp for an anarchist king.

Poetry is what can be heard at manholes echoing up Dante's fire escape.

Poetry is religion, religion poetry.

A poem is a dinghy setting out to sea from the listing ship of society.

A poem is a shadow of a plane fleeing over the ground like a cross escaping a church.

The poem is a telescope waiting for the poet to focus it.

The poet is his own priest and confessor.

Poetry is at once sacred and pagan play at its most utopian.

It is the ludic play of homo ludens.

It is the humming of moths as they circle the flame.

It is a wood boat moored in the shade under a weeping willow in the bend of a river in the Deep South.

The poet must have wide-angle vision, each look a world glance, and the concrete is most poetic.

He sees eternity in animals' eyes and in the eyes of women and men before they look away.

Poetry is not all heroin horses and Rimbaud; it is also the powerless prayers of airline passengers fastening their seatbelts for the final descent.

It is the real subject of great prose.

It speaks the unspeakable, utters the inutterable sigh of the heart.

Each poem a momentary madness, and the unreal is realist.

Poetry a strange form of insanity, tempered by erotic bliss.

A poem should still be an insurgent knock on the door of the unknown.

Like a bowl of roses, a poem should not have to be explained.

The lyric poem must rise beyond sounds found in alphabet soup.

Chance is not art, art is not Chance, except by chance.

A poet should be the antennae of his race with more than rabbit ears.

The images in a poem should be jamais vu, not déjà vu.

If a poem is hard as a diamond it's too hard.

If a poem is pure as a pearl, it's too pure.

Poetry a radical presence, constantly goading us.

The Platonic boy scout virtues are still Truth, Beauty, Goodness, Wholeness, Harmony, Radiance.

Add claritas to that. The poet's unintended obscurity is the eighth type of ambiguity.

The poet should deal in chiaroscuro; the kind sun of Impressionism makes poems out of shadows.

A sunflower maddened with light sheds the seeds of poems. Some sprout.

Let poetry discover the invisible template of reality, and make it new.

In poetry trees and grasses, beasts and humans try to talk to each other.

Poetry is walking on water and always about to sink.

It gives voice to all who see and sing and cry and laugh.

It is a window through which everything can be seen as never before.

Each poem a passion-fruit, a pith of pure being.

The poet a trance-dancer in the Last Waltz.

Eyes & lips are the doors of love, sight & sound the portals of poetry.

What is the use of poetry? If you have to ask, you need it.

Poetry a plant growing at night to give a voice to desire.

It is amore, pan'e vino.

It's a mediation between everyday reality and us.

It's a meditation that assuages the loneliness of the long-distance swimmer.

It serves many masters, not all beatific.

Speech is to poetry as sound is to music, with open-tuning.

Poetry is making something out of nothing.

Its function is to debunk with hard light.

Poetry like love dies hard among the ruins.

Poetry like love a natural painkiller.

It sometimes sees its own shadow at midnight and despairs.

The poet a membrane to filter light and disappear in it.

Poetry a handprint of the invisible, a footprint of visible reality, following it like a shadow.

Love delights in love, joy delights in joy, poetry delights in poetry.

For great poetry to be born, there must be hunger and passion.

To the lover, it is a pearl. To the hater, food for thought.

The mind thinks it knows its way around the heart.

Thinking poetry need not be sans ecstasy.

Poetry is thinking with your skin.

Any child who can catch a firefly owns poetry.

Life itself the greatest tragi-comic poem.

The poet must decide if bird cries are cries of ecstasy or cries of despair.

Poetry is bare ruined choirs where last the sweet birds sang.

Poetry is the last refuge of humanity in dark times.

Now that the new dark age of the Kali Yuga is upon us, poetry must burn brightest.

Let a new lyricism save the world from itself!