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

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

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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

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

The comparison/contrast remains hyperbolic because the annoyances sustained by Americans on their highways cannot come close to the terrible suffering of the victims in Goya's renderings. The speaker is making his exaggerated claim in order to emphasize the highway problem, as he sees it.

The victims in Goya's paintings are truly suffering slaughter and death at the hands of an enemy, and although it is sad that people on freeways die from traffic accidents, the number of those accidents is comparatively small and do not pile up bodies the way the war paintings do.

The poem is divided into two movements. The first movement focuses on the Goya paintings, and the second focuses on American freeways.

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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

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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

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

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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