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Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "In Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Introduction and Text of "Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem to See"

In Lawrence Ferlinghetti's In "Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem to See," the speaker has observed paintings by Francisco Goya and compares the suffering humanity portrayed in them to the suffering of Americans on American freeways. The Goya paintings are likely those of the painter's later years, a series titled, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War).

The comparison is hyperbolic because the annoyances sustained by Americans on their highways cannot logically compare with suffering of the victims in Goya's pectoral study. The victims in Goya's painting are truly suffering slaughter and death at the hands of an enemy, and although people on freeways die from traffic accidents, the number of those accidents is relatively small and do not pile up bodies the way the war paintings do.

The speaker wishes to make the exaggerated claim in order to emphasize the highway problem, as he sees it. The poem is divided into two movements. The first movement focuses on the Goya paintings, and the second focuses on American freeways.

(Please note: To experience the poem as the poet placed it on the page, please visit "Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem to See," at Poetry Foundation. The word processing system on this site will not allow non-traditional placement of text.)

In Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem

In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
‘suffering humanity’
They writhe upon the page
in a veritable rage
of adversity
Heaped up
groaning with babies and bayonets
under cement skies
in an abstract landscape of blasted trees
bent statues bats wings and beaks
slippery gibbets
cadavers and carnivorous cocks
and all the final hollering monsters
of the
‘imagination of disaster’
they are so bloody real
it is as if they really still existed

And they do

Only the landscape is changed

They still are ranged along the roads
plagued by legionnaires
false windmills and demented roosters
They are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent
spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness

The scene shows fewer tumbrils
but more strung-out citizens
in painted cars
and they have strange license plates
and engines
that devour America

A reading of "Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem to See"

Commentary

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "In Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem to See" employs extended hyperbole to compare the suffering of humanity today with an earlier time.

First Movement: Images of Suffering Humanity

In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
‘suffering humanity’
They writhe upon the page
in a veritable rage
of adversity
Heaped up
groaning with babies and bayonets
under cement skies
in an abstract landscape of blasted trees
bent statues bats wings and beaks
slippery gibbets
cadavers and carnivorous cocks
and all the final hollering monsters
of the
‘imagination of disaster’
they are so bloody real
it is as if they really still existed

And they do

Only the landscape is changed

The first hyperbolic claim is stated by the speaker when he says, "In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see / the people of the world." It is impossible to see the people of world in Goya's scenes; no artist would ever be capable of portraying the people of the world—not even a photographer could snap all the people of the world.

The speaker literally sees a sampling of people in one country during a particular time of war. He then claims that he seems to be seeing all of the people at the precise point in time when humanity took on the label "suffering humanity." Because the exact moment in time for labeling humanity as suffering humanity cannot be pinpointed, the speaker again engages his hyperbolic trope.

In the rest of the first movement, the speaker offers some specific images of that suffering humanity: "they writhe upon the page," "they are Heaped up / groaning with babies and bayonets," there are "cadavers and carnivorous cocks," and they represent "all the final hollering monsters / of the / 'imagination of disaster'." All of these stark and disturbing images prompt the speaker to opine that the images seem so precise and accurate that they might well still exist. He then declares that, in fact, they do still exist; the only difference is "the landscape is changed."

Second Movement: The Freeway of Disapproval

They still are ranged along the roads
plagued by legionnaires
false windmills and demented roosters
They are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent
spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness

The scene shows fewer tumbrils

but more strung-out citizens
in painted cars
and they have strange license plates
and engines
that devour America

The speaker then focuses on the problem of the American freeway. That suffering humanity is now in automobiles driving from place to place, encountering traffic problems. Some are bothered by "legionnaires," while others are annoyed by "false windmills and demented roosters." These people along the American freeways are the same suffering humanity as the war victims of Goya's painting, but they are just "further (sic, farther) from home."

Again, another exaggeration; the people are not, in fact, the same as Goya's. They differ in time and place and many other characteristics, not least of which is that they are drivers, not victims of war. The Americans are traveling these huge freeways that are "fifty lanes wide / on a concrete continent." The exaggeration of the number of lanes assigned to the freeways logically implies that the American landscape would be taken up by a lot of concrete.

To express his disapproval, the speaker exaggerates again by claiming that those highways are on a concrete continent. Of course, he knows the entire continent is not concrete, but through his hyperbole, he is complaining that there is too much concrete, in his opinion. And to add insult to injury, not only are Americans now harassed with multilane complexes of concrete highways, but the motorists are also constantly harangued by the numerous billboards that advertise products offering happiness. But the speaker insists that the happiness offered by those commercial eyesores promise only "imbecile illusions of happiness."

The speaker reports that the modern American landscape offers "fewer tumbrils / but more strung-out citizens / in painted cars." Those painted cars have "strange license plates / and engines / that devour America." The final hyperbolic claim gives the automobile engine the unique mammalian ability to gobble up the entire country—his final exercise in exaggeration capping his strong antipathy to modern modes of travel in America.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Monday, January 15, 1988, in front of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco

Monday, January 15, 1988, in front of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco

Life Sketch of Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, New York. His name became associated with the Beat poets because he was the owner of the establishment called City Lights, the bookstore and publishing house that printed the first edition of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems and the works of other poets who became the core of the Beat movement.

Ferlinghetti was put on trial for obscenity when Ginsberg's Howl was sold to undercover police at City Lights bookstore. The injustice of this situation was remedied by Ferlinghetti's being acquitted, while Ginsberg ironically went on to perpetuate his obscenity into a thriving career as a poet.

Ferlinghetti's work is quite distinct from the Beats. A perceptive critic has remarked,

I hope I won't seem politically incorrect for saying this, but after immersing myself in the writings of the guilt-obsessed asexual Jack Kerouac, the ridiculously horny Allen Ginsberg and the just plain sordid William S. Burroughs ... it's nice to read a few poems by a guy who can get excited about a little penny candy store under the El or a pretty woman letting a stocking drop to the floor.

Although Ferlinghetti dubs himself "unconventional," he denies that he was ever a member of the Beat movement. He explains:

I was a straight man keeping the store back home; I was leading a respectful married life on Portrero Hill. These guys were much too far out for me. I didn’t go out on the road with them. And I came from a former generation. When I arrived in San Francisco I was still wearing my beret from Paris, and we were known as bohemians ... people who led an unconventional creative life before the Beats came along.

Ferlinghetti became a pacifist after serving in World War II as a Navy lieutenant commander in Normandy and Nagasaki. He has quipped about his military experience in war: "That made me an instant pacifist."

Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned 101 years old on March 24, 2020. The poet still resides in San Francisco, where he also remains co-owner of the City Lights bookstore and publishing house. He continues to publish at least three books per year.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes