An Analysis of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)"

Updated on October 22, 2017
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I can't seem to stop writing poetry or reading poetry. I think it is safe to say I love poetry and I love sharing great poetry with others.

Tightrope Walker
Tightrope Walker | Source

Constantly Risking Absurdity(#15)

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 day

performing entrechats

and sleight-of-foot tricks

and other high theatrics

and all without mistaking


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.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti from A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems copyright 1958

The poem written above was not transcribed as written by Ferlinghetti. The capsule would not allow me to write the lines as written.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Lawrence Ferlinghetti | Source

Ferlinghetti's poem has an uncanny resemblance to alliterative/accentual verse.

Alliterative/accentual verse can be seen in ancient text from mostly European countries for example "Beowulf." Alliterative/accentual verse breaks the line into two halves that use the same amount of stress meter in both halves and tends to use similar consonant sounds for each line. Old Germanic Languages tended to center around stress meter where the Romantic languages included more unstressed meter.

Not every line of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem is double stressed, alliterative, or syllabic. But he uses this style none-the-less to help him suspend the reader, then cast the reader's gaze over humanity from a height.

He separates his lines not by a count of syllables, but by the amount of stresses. This is where the poem falls into the realm of alliterative/accentual. If one were to listen to the audience while watching a high wire act, one would notice that the audience is held in suspense by the theatrics of the performer.

The performer sways back and forth, sometimes it seems he is about to fall, and then he regains his balance, moves forward a few steps, and then sways once more. The audience responds wth surprised inhalations during the swaying and relieved exhalations after his balance is regained.

Ferlinghetti uses his strongly stressed line to begin the poems sway. The reader inhales. Then the line slides to the left side of the paper slowly as he calms down the reader by using less stressed lines. This is the poems regaining of balance and the readers exhale.

He does not have a certain number of syllables, common in syllabics, or a specific amount of primarily stressed metrics. The trapeze artist may have planned his theatrics, but does not want the audience to be bored with the ordinary.

He realizes the hypnotic affect of suspense, and places the reader in the shoes of the trapeze artist. From the rope the reader can then see below to Ferlinghetti's "truth's of humanity."

Ferlinghetti opens the poem by saying that the poet is risking "absurdity" and"death" high above the heads of his audience. He is not saying that poets do feats of great physical prowess that threatens to cause bodily harm.

He is explaining the risks of putting one's heart into the search of the poetic.

The high wire that the acrobat walks upon is the sometimes terrifying journey of self awareness that the poet undertakes to find "truth" and "beauty" in humanity.

The acrobats theatrics are the use of poetic devices to fool the audience, to show the audience and amaze them, to get there attention.

He uses the acrobats constant struggle to find more daring obstacles to entertain to show how the poet must be on a continuous voyage towards "answers", and how this voyage can lead the poet into dangerous grounds.

Ferlinghetti compares the poet to "Charley Chaplin" to show the reader that the poet is not a superman but a normal humble person.

He then ends the poem by showing the reader that the acrobat may never reach an end to his search to entertain, that he will always be continually "spread-eagled in the empty air of existence."

City Light Bookstore
City Light Bookstore | Source

"Constantly Risking Absurdity" explains how lonely the search for beauty can be for the poet by showing the lonely acrobat performing high above on the wire.

It starts by taking the reader up onto the high wire by having to climb on "rime". Then it shows the reader the faces of the audience waiting for him to use "sleight-of-foot tricks" and "high theatrics" to entertain them.

Finally he shows the reader how the acrobat is not simply performing to entertain, he is performing for his own reasons. The acrobat is performing to reach "truth" and "beauty". He is performing to find his own meaning and the meaning to humanity.

Ferlinghetti takes the reader along for the ride. The reader stands next to the acrobat and sees his struggles and feels his emotions, and throughout realizes that the acrobat is the poet.

Questions & Answers

  • Who or what is placed on the highest level in “Constantly Risking Absurdity”?

    The poet is placed above the audience on the high wire. So the poet is above humanity looking down from his/her precarious high wire act.

© 2012 Jamie Lee Hamann


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    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 3 years ago from Reno NV

      I also am afraid of heights yet peotry gives me a way to lift off the ground. Thank you DREAM ON. Jamie

    • DREAM ON profile image

      DREAM ON 3 years ago

      To read your work is so much fun. I am afraid of heights so anyone that can climb that high and to write about it totally amazes me. That's talent. For me I like to be safe here on the ground. Have a great night.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 4 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you Harishprasad. Jamie

    • Harishprasad profile image

      Harish Mamgain 4 years ago from New Delhi , India

      Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a great poet and this poem is so beautiful and full of thrill and suspense. Jamie, you have brought forth a real gem for us. Your analysis is wonderful and tells everything so crystal clear about the essence of this great poem. Thank you. Voted up.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 4 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you Moonfroth, I may move over and check it out. Certainly take a look at some of your poems and others. Jamie

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      moonfroth 4 years ago

      Wonderful stuff Jamie, as usual! I don't post poetry on HP any more. They don't care about poetry. I'm now working on YUKU, a network that cares a lot about poetry re: layout. Whatever you want, that's the way it appears on the page..

      Love it

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 4 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you Patty Inglish, MS, it is a pleasure to read your comments. Jamie

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 4 years ago from USA. Member of Asgardia, the first space nation, since October 2016

      In high school when we tired of English Literature, one student passed around Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I am grateful to see your anaylsis and to read more of this poet's work here.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 4 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you Mike Robbers. Jamie

    • Mike Robbers profile image

      Mike Robbers 4 years ago from London

      This is so clever and well-written, kudos to you Jamie!!

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

      ThoughtSandwiches 5 years ago from Reno, Nevada

      Dang Jamie...

      This one STILL has some pretty long legs, huh?? As always your work is top-notch. Congrats on the new one, btw!


    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you "yo". Jamie

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      "yo" 5 years ago

      Excellent! Absolutely brilliant.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you moonfroth. Jamie

    • moonfroth profile image

      Clark Cook 5 years ago from Rural BC (Canada) & N of Puerto Vallarta (Mexico)


      What an exquisitely tight exegesis of an equally elegant poem. You PACK significance into every syllable of your wonderfully lean prose. A rare talent. Thank you.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you chef-de-jour. Jamie

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 5 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Hey thank you for this analysis of Ferlinghetti's Constantly Risking Absurdity. It's a fine line a poet treads when he sets out to walk along a poem, constructing it as he moves along! The tightrope walker is a beautiful image and just perfect for analogy.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you Pheobe Pike. Jamie

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      Phoebe Pike 5 years ago

      Wonderfully written. I tip my hat to you.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you goego for stopping by. Jamie

    • goego profile image

      goego 5 years ago from Loserland

      So good, Thank you

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you Docmo. Jamie

    • Docmo profile image

      Mohan Kumar 5 years ago from UK

      Brilliant. I'm not familiar with this beautifully observed work.. the metaphorical excursion and the construction shimmer with Feringhetti's genius. Your erudite commentary explains and extrapolates so well as a perfect accompaniment to his poem. A wonderfully illuminating hub. Thank you!

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you AudreyHowitt for sharing. Jamie

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 5 years ago from California

      Wow Jamie--so interesting! Thank you!

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you PDX for stopping by to read my hub, and leaving a comment. I hope you are doing well. Jamie

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      Justin W Price 5 years ago from Juneau, Alaska

      Very nice analysis, Jamie. I enjoyed the poem and your analysis made it stand out even more so. Well done, my friend.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 5 years ago from Canada

      you're welcome, thank you...

    • profile image

      Joshua Buchalter 5 years ago

      thank you, helping me do well in an English exam I hope :)

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 5 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you snakeslane.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 6 years ago from Canada

      Hey Jamie, here's a song for you:

    • ThoughtSandwiches profile image

      ThoughtSandwiches 6 years ago from Reno, Nevada


      Excellent Job...I'n glad we were talking and this came up in conversation for fear of missing it. I must say...prose, poetry, or puppets...It's hard putting yourself out there as you continuously search for beauty!

      I liked this one!


    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 6 years ago from Reno NV

      Thank you snakeslane, it is good to hear from you.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 6 years ago from Canada

      Wow Jhamann, thanks for this introduction to Ferlinghetti's 'Constantly Risking Absurdity #15'. I got a bit dizzy reading it. (Not good at heights) I am interested in your discussion of his use of stresses. Sad that capsules could not accommodate his actual line breaks, but your description fills the gaps. I believe learning by example is the best way to become a poet. I appreciate the example you've presented here. Many thanks, snakeslane