“Time of Useful Consciousness”

A book by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Why write poetry in America today? So many reasons — to examine, to rant, to bear witness, to demand and seize the moment, to shout, to revel. The drive to communicate, to emulate Walt Whitman and hear the sound of America singing, has always enlivened the best of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s work. Ferlinghetti is now 93 years old, and he’s still listening, shouting and reveling in his new book, “Time of Useful Consciousness,” a lilting, imperfect series of poetic considerations, looping through the history of America.

Ferlinghetti has published more than 30 books of poetry, but he’s best known for his first book, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” which came out in 1958 and has since sold more than a million copies worldwide. Since then, Ferlinghetti has published innumerable poems, prose and essays, turned to painting — the cover of “Time of Useful Consciousness” is one of his pieces — and worked tirelessly to promote culture, poetry and the spoken word in San Francisco, largely through City Lights Bookstore, which he co-founded in 1953. He shows no sign of slowing down. This new book may not be his strongest, but its best moments reveal a mind as alert and alive as ever.

Ferlinghetti has long stood with protest poets and writers of engagement. He was arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1957. “Only the dead are disengaged,” he wrote half a century ago, his words as relevant today as then, a firm kick in the pants to any artist who remains silent against oppression.

Back then, Ferlinghetti argued that “. . . the wiggly nihilism of the Beat hipster, if carried to its natural conclusion, actually means the death of the creative artist himself. While the ‘non-commitment’ of the artist is itself a suicidal and deluded variation of nihilism.” “Time of Useful Consciousness” is a fresh missive from an elderly Beat who has always refused to sit down. The title, “Time of Useful Consciousness” (or TUC), refers to the elapsed time from the interruption of normal oxygen levels until an individual can no longer function usefully or take corrective action. TUC is not the time to total unconsciousness, but rather that moment when we can still react, still fight.

book cover

Time of Useful Consciousness

By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

New Directions Publishing Corporation, 96 pages

Buy the book

Ferlinghetti describes his new book as “a fragmented recording of the American stream-of-consciousness, always westward streaming; a people’s poetic history. …” The book is a nine-part poem that includes references to literary and political figures far distant and more recent (Ronald Reagan still particularly rots Ferlinghetti’s soul). The poet risks cliché with some of his mentions — for example his over-used descriptions of Ti Jean (Jack) Kerouac — but he recovers his subtlety with gentle memories of Gary Snyder and other fellow Beats.

This slim hardcover reads fast, as a good riff should, but its voice is sometimes muddled — a black and white photograph of long-lost America that’s been reproduced so often, its real edges have blurred. With his overview of history, Ferlinghetti sometimes veers into a rehash of his earlier work. But his ability to listen and recreate the innately personal rhythm of talking and pacing from different people and places in the country saves him. He finds ongoing inspiration in the ever-shifting voices of the nation:

Ideas alphabets fornications Transmigrations transgressions Roman noses blown in Sephardic profiles Arab lips praising Allah in Alabama […] America America! ‘stranger than paradise.’

The book reads like an aerial survey, flying low over the fabulous history of this flawed and faltering country. It slides slowly and smoothly into the present tense —

it ain’t the river of Mark Twain’s dream the pre-coal river the ancient dreamin’ river Ask the river pilots and they’ll tell you The river towns all dying all the way down

as if Ferlinghetti knew I’d be reading this book during a severe drought season, when the Mississippi is so low that grain shipments might not be able to navigate the Great River for the first time in a century.

Ferlinghetti fractures his big themes and mass historic summaries into personally observed, primary colored vignettes. His delight in plain language and repetition shines in segments such as:

a bright yellow garbage truck with two garbage men in red plastic blazers standing on the back stoop hanging on and looking down into an elegant open Mercedes with an elegant couple in it and both scavengers gazing down as from a great distance […] And the very red light for an instant holding all four close together.

This piece, like several in the book, has appeared separately as an individual poem, but stands better as a strong I-beam in the construction of this long-form riff.

“Time of Useful Consciousness” is a good title, not simply for its sense of imminent doom, but because it implies that America has always been on the cusp of losing consciousness.

For Ferlinghetti, there are really only two possibilities, two states of being: Either you speak out, shout with horror and laugh with delight, or you die. This makes the title a fine flag not only for this book, but also for Ferlinghetti’s whole career. His poetry is a live song to consciousness, a clarion reminding us to stay awake.

Ferlinghetti is determined to fight the obliteration of history and remain consciously useful until the end. In 1976, he wrote in “Populist Manifesto #1”:

the time for keening come time for keening & rejoicing over the coming end of industrial civilization which is bad for earth & Man.

More than 35 years on, with this “Americus, Book II,” he’s still keening and rejoicing.

Trying to give voice to this inchoate country, Ferlinghetti can sound like an old ghost, counting historic details like beads in a rosary and mourning:

the forward rush of time and history and of this poem into what future blessed or blasted history and herstory […] in rear-view mirrors in which the past disappeared faster and faster.

But Ferlinghetti has never been a writer who cedes to despair:

Is not beauty still beauty And truth still truth […] Are there not still stars at night Can we not still see them in the bowl of night signalling to us some far-out beatific destiny?

I hope so, Old Voice. I hope so.

Lisa Pasold is a Canadian writer based in New Orleans. Her most recent book of poetry, “Any Bright Horse,” was nominated for the 2012 Governor General’s Award in Canada.

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