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Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Constantly Risking Absurdity"

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 "Constantly Risking Absurdity"

Any writer may likely argue that the act of writing always constitutes the possibility of "constantly risking absurdity." Are poets even more at risk than prose writers? The speaker in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem is dramatizing how especially true that notion is for the poet.

Poets are considered makers, and often they are relied upon to be making a short narrative featuring a true expression of their very human feelings. Painting such pictures of how one feels is always risky, even in prose. But the poet has the special obstacles of brevity and crystallization. To briefly crystallize one's feelings remains a daunting task. Perhaps that is why poets are rare, especially good or great ones.

This poem splashes across the page in a manner that imitates its subject. The speaker is metaphorically comparing the antics of a tight-rope walker and a poet. The tight-rope walker risks death as he attempt to walk across a thin strip of rope. It surely seems an absurd act to those who are certain they could never complete such a walk.

The poet experiences his own brand of absurdity as he attempts to create the vessels from which his little dramas pour out their content. The poet attempting to approach truth intuits the danger, especially of expressing it, but similar to the tight-rope walker, his metaphoric rope suspends him between two realities which he craves to connect.

Constantly Risking Absurdity

(Note: The word processing system for this site will not allow this poem to be spaced on the page as the poet intended. To see how this poem is supposed to appear, please visit the Poetry Foundation at "Constantly Risking Absurdity.")

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
any thing
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

(Please note: Ferlinghetti uses the original form of the term, "rime," in line seven, "climbs on rime." The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Reading of "Constantly Risking Absurdity"


One might well argue that anyone who writes is "constantly risking absurdity." But Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poem dramatizes how especially true it is of the poet.

Approach to Truth

The poem zigzags back and forth down the page mimicking the tight-rope walker who constantly shifts his feet and appears to rock back and forth, as he balances on the wire. The poet like the rope-walker "must perforce perceive / taut truth."

The speaker is attempting to approach "toward that still higher perch / where Beauty stands and waits / with gravity." Of course, the tight-rope walker has to make his own approach to the truth of gravity as he attempts to reach the other side of the rope extension.

The poet resembles an individual walking like a "little charleychaplin man." The form of truth that may or may not be caught could land him in the same kind of trouble that the tight-rope walker might splat into, if he misses a beat. Losing his balance could spell death. The poet losing his balance could mean loss of all credibility with his audience if he fails in his sense of propriety with his listeners and readers.

Postmodernist Poetasters' Loss of Credibility

Vis-à-vis the Beats and numerous postmodern poetasters, the ilk of Robert Bly, Marvin Bell, Barbara Guest, et al, the irony of this poem is thick. Such scoundrels do not even attempt to walk the rope but merely pretend the floor is suspended above the heads of their gullible audience.

The philosophy of writing dramatized in Ferlinghetti's "Constantly Risking Absurdity" demonstrates this man's genuineness that is sorely lacking in a Ginsberg or most other Beats.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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 he dubs himself "unconventional," Ferlinghetti 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 100 years old on March 24, 2019. The poet still resides in San Francisco, where he also remains co-owner of the City Lights bookstore and publishing house. He publishes at least three books per year.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes