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Analysis of "I Am Waiting" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

"I Am Waiting" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

"I Am Waiting" is a poem that focuses on hopeful change for the better with respect to the USA and its complicated identity. War, peace, religion, God, the environment, tv, the media, the Grapes of Wrath and's all here in a long, slender, unpunctuated poem.

It's Ferlinghetti's repeated list of romantic, ideal aspirations for a state of wonder to be reborn. For a poem that is 60 years old, from a poet who is a living legend at 100, it still resonates with younger folk.

Written in 1958, the first line of the poem refers to an obscenity trial that Ferlinghetti was involved with in 1957, following the publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, which Ferlinghetti helped distribute.

I am waiting for my case to come up

This ten-syllable line more than likely sparked the rest of the poem, which subsequently covers all manner of subjects and cultural mores, the first person approach bringing an immediacy and freshness that has stood the test of time.

  • I Am Waiting is a long, slender poem with no punctuation which gives the reader a certain freedom. When and where to take a deep breath for example is up to the person reading, not fixed by commas or colons or end stops.
  • The poem is also best read aloud, probably in a room full of old and young radicals keen to reminisce or change societal norms.

Ferlinghetti was part of the Beat movement—Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al—so had his finger on the literary pulse that was thumping at breakneck speed in the USA during the late 1950s.

San Francisco was an artistic hotspot and it was in this city that Ferlinghetti set up his famous City Lights bookstore, still trading, and press, publishing many cutting edge poets for the first time.

It was published in the iconic book A Coney Island of the Mind, in 1958. Perhaps, like Estragon and Vladimir in Beckett's Waiting For Godot, like Whitman in his Song of Myself, Ferlinghetti is still waiting.

"I Am Waiting"

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Second Coming
and I am waiting
for a religious revival
to sweep thru the state of Arizona
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped onto church altars
if only they can find
the right channel
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Great Divide to be crossed
and I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered
by an obscure general practitioner
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting
to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and tv rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
for Aphrodite
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder

Stanza-By-Stanza Analysis

Stanza 1

That first line refers to Ferlinghetti's involvement in an obscenity trial in San Francisco in 1957, following the publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems.

The speaker, a first-person who is almost certainly the poet himself, then goes on to repeat that mantric I am waiting but this time he waits for the rebirth of wonder, another oft-repeated phrase.

So we can be certain the speaker is wanting a change in how people live their lives, how governments govern, and how individuals react.

  • This is a romantic, idealistic call for someone to find the real America and respond with appropriate pain. Note the short line and wail quite poignant, like something you'd find in the old testament.

The speaker wants someone (who? a politician, a scientist, a poet?) to discover a new western frontier, presumably a frontier where pioneers bravely set up home having ventured precariously for endless miles searching for a newfound freedom and vision.

But it is to be symbolic, that is, it should be a spiritual frontier, an ideal for those journeying in need of a home to gain solace and revived hopes.

The Age of Anxiety is a long poem by W.H. Auden the Americanised Brit. It explores the idea of a fresh identity for the modern human who is floundering spiritually. The speaker wants this to stop.

The speaker also wants a special kind of war to be fought one which will allow individuals the right to be themselves and not be subject to government oppression.

Wow, this is some menu, some list. The speaker seems to be looking for an ideal kind of free paradise where the establishment is no more, where people are free to go about their business in a 'rebirth of wonder.'

Stanza 2

The speaker waits for the Second Coming, a Christian and Islamic belief where Christ returns to earth as Messiah and all will be well again. Religion should be revived in Arizona, the whole of that state, (note the sweep thru, alluding to something being clean, swept clean).

The Grapes of Wrath alludes to both John Steinbeck's 1939 novel of the same name inspired by the bible's Book Of Revelation 14: 19-20 which describes the great wine press of the wrath of God.

So here, and also with him wanting proof that God is an American, the speaker is being ironic. In fact, this whole stanza is a poke at conventional religion and the bible. Note the comic element of a strange new appetizer being served at the Last Supper.

Stanza 3

This first line could refer to Ferlinghetti's obscenity trial involvement again, or it could be that he thinks he's about to die (my number is up?).

The Salvation Army is a Christian organisation that helps the homeless so here the speaker wants them to take over the situation is so desperate. Surely the meek can inherit the earth (another biblical/religious allusion from the new testament, Matthew 5, 5 Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth).

But they won't pay taxes.

The speaker goes on to mention the animals and the environment, a near prophetic few lines, and in addition wants nationalisms destroyed, peacefully. Again, this is a romantic's aspiration, which is one of the charms of this poem.

This marks the end of the religious allusions.

Stanza 4

The Great Divide in real life is a geographical feature that separates waters flowing into the Atlantic and the Pacific. It runs from western Alaska down to Mexico—so crossing it isn't that easy. On foot.

There's some anxiety in the speaker's tone now as he waits for a GP to discover eternal life—some humor in those lines—and for his own life to settle down, for the sea to become calm and for a re-write of pioneering history . . . the Mayflower was a ship that sailed from England in 1620 carrying Puritans, persecuted pilgrims who became known as the Pilgrim Fathers.

The speaker creates a surreal scenario by planting the 17th-century ship and voyagers into a 20th-century TV mockumentary in which the native first nationers get the cash from the TV rights.

The Lost Continent could be that legendary place below the seas where a former civilisation existed, before events overtook it and the whole lot sank without trace.

Stanza 5

Note the second line here which borrows a little from the Bible, Old Testament, Isaiah 44:24 I am the Lord that maketh all things . . . maketh is old English for make.

What did America do to Tom Sawyer, the character created by Mark Twain in three novels, the best known of which is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer preceded this one) . . . perhaps America influenced Tom Sawyer by turning him into a national treasure, a fictional child born at a time when America was still innocent, just discovering who it was culturally speaking, breaking free of the old colonial ties to Great Britain.

That British connection pops up a few lines later with Alice in Wonderland, a book written by Lewis Carroll in 1865, a tale of surreal fantasy about a girl who falls down a rabbit hole one summer's day.

Alice's dream is anything but innocent it has to be said.

The English poet Robert Browning wrote "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" in 1855, a long poem about a young man who wants to reach the tower and is given questionable directions by a 'hoary cripple'.

Some critics think this poem is a journey into the psyche of Browning himself but at the time Browning denied this. It is a dark and disturbing poem. Perhaps this is what is implied in Ferlinghetti's poem—the speaker wants to explore down to the darkest detail of his inner self so he gets to know everything.

Finally, Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love and beauty and passion)—has to grow live arms . . . does this mean that real arms as in limbs need to grow back (many classical statues show Aphrodite naked or veiled and with certain of these works of art her arms have been broken off ).

But the speaker is saying that she is present at a final disarmament conference so is she to grow military arms (with arms being a pun on weaponry)?

Perhaps the idea is that Aphrodite, a female influence, a Venusian power, will preside over the last meeting of world powers and declare that all arms will be now null and void.

There is a strong childhood theme running through this stanza which suggests that the speaker is wishing for a more innocent kind of life, hoping that the USA can identify with adventure, dreams and learning.

Stanza 6

The first four lines here relate to William Wordsworth's Ode: Intimations of Immortality from recollections of Early Childhood, written by the English poet in 1804.

Again, the speaker focuses on childhood innocence and memory, wanting perhaps to put things into perspective and learning from the early years of life.

The green mornings and dumb green fields also point to former times of happiness and spring-like energy, before the world got too complicated.

Towards the end, the speaker hopes to write a kind of perfect poem on a shaky typewriter (typewriters were once the battlefields and alchemical cauldrons of literature believe it or not) and also to fall in love like the lovers on the Grecian Urn, immortalised in a poem by the English romantic poet John Keats.

'Beauty is truth - truth beauty' so wrote Keats in the poem, implying that the lovers on the urn actually do not need to embrace for they are kept happy and forever young whilst real fleshy humans are subject to time and therefore decay.

Such is life. Ferlinghetti is still waiting for wonder to be reborn, perhaps humankind will always be wishing and hoping and yes, praying, but ultimately awaiting the renaissance, the final rebirth.

Analysis of "I Am Waiting"

"I Am Waiting" is a free verse poem with no set rhyme scheme or regular meter (metre in British English). There are six stanzas and a total of 120 lines.

The poem lacks punctuation of any kind so the pauses in between deep breaths have to be chosen by the reader. It's a question of going with the flow and deciding just where a breath needs to be taken. Reading it is like going down a ski slope slalom, just remember to take your sticks.

Without a doubt, this is a performance poem, to be read ideally out loud, preferably with a Californian accent.


© 2019 Andrew Spacey