Analysis of Poem "Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes
Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes is a poem that highlights the difference between two types of people: the working class poor and the elite rich.
- The scene is an everyday occurrence at a stoplight in downtown San Francisco but could be happening in any major city of the world - a red traffic light causes everyone to stop, regardless of status, race, creed or gender. It's at this point that the poet pounces and details a microcosmic duality.
Everyone has to stop at the lights but not everyone is subject to the same cultural and social conditioning, not everyone is of equal status, especially in the western world where capitalism and democracy rule.
- So the poem becomes political and challenges the reader to think about such themes as inequality, democracy, capitalism and class divides.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti has long been a political activist and cultural guru, helping to initiate publications of cutting edge poetry and other radical literature going back to the early 1950s, when he opened his famous City Lights bookshop in San Francisco.
He was instrumental in getting Allen Ginsberg's Howl into book form and became known for his counter-cultural activities which culminated in the legendary Summer of Love, 1967, a landmark meet up of hippies and flower people in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco.
Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes was first published in 1968 and appeared in the book Landscapes of Living and Dying, 1979.
The poem's main theme reflects the mindset of the poet, who wrote this line in another book, Poetry as Insurgent Art:
'Challenge capitalism masquerading as democracy'
By focusing on this slice of life in downtown San Francisco, the poet has brought to the attention of the reader the need to question political values and human value. Ferlinghetti does this in a way that is ironic and entertaining.
Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes
Analysis of Two Scavengers in a Truck
Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes juxtaposes two sets of people, a pair of working class garbagemen and an elegant couple, accidentally brought together by the random red light at a traffic junction.
The poem revolves around this basic theme of social divide and contrast, the speaker at first describing the situation in a straightforward and direct manner before elaborating on the idea that this perceived divide shouldn't really occur in a healthy democracy.
What strikes the reader from the first line on is the fact that the speaker is in the present, observing the action as it happens. This is important because it brings an immediacy to the poem and charges it up.
As the poem progresses it becomes clear that certain lines are separated by a lot of space, which causes the reader to pause, and that other lines are subject to enjambment, they continue on to the next without punctuation.
In fact, punctuation does not play a part in the syntax of this poem; it is up to the reader to decide when to pause, to stop, to continue on. Again, this can distance the reader but also introduces the idea of freedom - lack of restriction brings opportunity.
- Despite the direct language, the colloquial street vocabulary and the casual delivery, there is an objective feel to this narrative, this commentary. There is no first person perspective, no 'I' - it's an impersonal observation.
So the lines vary in length, from 2 syllables to 13, from short clause to long clause, from soundbite to lengthy sentence and a half. Four separate stanzas (lines 1 - 9...10 - 15....16 - 30....31 - 37) highlighting the red garbagemen, the yellow truck and the elegant couple in their open top Mercedes.
Note the language here, the distinction - the workers are red, the couple elegant. The workers are hanging on, the couple are elegant.
- But also note the irony. The couple are still elegant, one casually coifed, the other hip...but the workmen are looking down on them, as if they were the higher beings on the evolutionary ladder.
It's the language again that sticks in the mind as the poem progresses - the workmen are scavengers, grungy, one with grey iron hair, hunched back like a Gargoyle Quasimodo. This term sounds almost like an insult.
- Scavengers feed and make a living off of others who do the killing and fetching for them so this is a definite derogatory word. And that sets up a tension because here we have public servants doing a vital job for their community, clearing up the trash, getting rid of waste material that would otherwise cause disease and mayhem for city dwellers.
The question might be asked - Why does the speaker use this term, scavengers, as they look down on the elegant couple in their very smart car?
The poem goes on to suggest that the two garbagemen see the wealthier people as they would see a t.v. advertisement...the idea that the workers might want to become the very people they're gazing at. The workers aspire to be wealthy, as they hope to buy things (shiny new big cars) when the t.v. ads come on.
And in the final stanza the notion that the four people stopping for the red light are all part of the capitalist system comes to the fore. In the capitalist democracy anything is possible - you can follow the American dream - but first of all you must become aware of what is possible.
Is this what the speaker is implying? In a system that has wealth creation as its be all and end all, aspiring to that wealth is always possible? Even at a commonplace traffic junction poor people can be inspired?
- Or is the speaker saying the opposite? In a capitalist democracy you'll always get winners and losers; those who have to sweat and get stinky and live on a low wage and those who are able to get more of the pie.
Beautiful people are wealthy, ugly people are poor? Is that a fair assumption? Perhaps not.
The disparities in wealth are unjust but in a system where capital is king and democracy allows the injustice to become inherent, the free market is always at battle with the public good. Metaphorically the system is a sea - most thankfully can swim or take a boat.
More Analysis of Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes
Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes is a free verse poem of 37 lines, there is no set rhyme scheme or meter (metre in British English) and the structure is irregular, dispersed short and long lines suggesting separation.
On the page this poem stretches out, big indentations challenging the reader to keep the flow going as short line ends and long line begins following expanses of white.
This unusual lineation - big gaps between lines bringing long pauses - reflects the oddness of the meeting of the two vehicles. Stinky truck meets immaculate Mercedes, sweaty workmen peering at wealthy, groomed couple.
The atmosphere created in the poem is one of detached interest and factual reporting. In fact this poem could have come straight from a media reporter, giving a running commentary on this everyday scene, the voice rising near the end as a kind of climax is reached.
The language used comes from the city street, it is ordinary, direct and naturally very American (stoplight, garbage, hip, grungy).
Note that the couple are elegant, hip and coifed whilst the garbagemen are scavengers, suggesting that they are people who pick up what others have left behind, they are no better than vultures or creatures that feed on carrion and other unmentionables.
This creates a natural divide within the poem which echoes the actual divide in reality.
Figurative Language in Two Scavengers in a Truck
Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful in a Mercedes is based solidly in real time but it also contains figurative language which brings added interest for the reader as it creates alternative worlds.
When words have the same consonant and are close together they are said to be alliterative, producing texture and something a bit different for the reader.
standing on the back stoop
as if anything at all
When similar sounding vowels are close together:
downtown/standing on the back/In a hip...linen/in...everything is...possible/very red/holding...close/
When one thing becomes another. In the final three lines democracy becomes the high seas, suggesting that it is subject to powerful forces.
When something is like another thing. One of the garbagemen is said to be like some Gargoyle Quasimodo a reference to a medieval stone figure often given an ugly or demonic character, as is Quasimodo, the hunch back created by writer Victor Hugo in his book The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
© 2018 Andrew Spacey