The notion of risk taking is central to Ferlinghetti’s portrayal of the poet’s role in the world. To say that the poet is “Constantly risking absurdity/ and death” is to remind the reader of how poetry is marginalized by a society that often finds the language and assertions of the art absurd and meaningless. This is partly because poetry refuses to yield to the forces of conformity and standardization, but poetry can also pose a threat to the state. In Plato’s Politeia (Republic, 1701), Socrates advocated the banishment of poets from the ideal society because of their tendency to depart from reasoned discourse.
Many poets have literally risked death by having the courage to confront the injustices of their society. Osip Mandelstam and Federico García Lorca both lost their lives for standing up to totalitarianism and fascism. The poet can risk other types of death as well, such as a death of the spirit when creativity fails or the reader loses interest. Stage performers often speak of dying on stage when the audience fails to respond. In fact, Ferlinghetti’s poem strongly asserts that a poet needs the support of his readers. He may perform “above the heads/ of his audience” because he takes chances that most people do not take, but he is “balancing on [their] eyebeams.”
For Ferlinghetti, therefore, the poet’s role is highly public and entails performance, which is in keeping with the role of poetry...
(The entire section is 498 words.)
Take it to the streets.
Enough with the five-dollar words only academics can understand. It's time to say it like it is, rather than twist our moustaches while patting each other on the back for coming up with another obscure idea that no one can understand anyway.
What's that? Oh, sorry. We were just channeling one of our faves: Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He's definitely of this "tell it like it is" mindset. Now, that's not to say he doesn't indulge in a fancy word now and then. He is, after all, a poet. But he prefers the kind of writing that says something about real experience rather than some fancy definition of reality that proves just how clever those academics are (or are not).
And how does Ferlinghetti get into this real experience? By writing poetry that sounds something like real talk, you know, the kind of stuff you'd hear in the grocery store, the coffee shop, or the corner bar. As one critic noted, "his writing sings, with the sad and comic music of the streets" (source).
It gets a little tricky though when you're a poet writing street poetry and you suddenly feel compelled to write something about Art with a capital A and Beauty with a capital B. How does one go about such a feat without sounding like a poseur hypocrite and falling into those pesky traps of five-dollar words and difficult-to-digest philosophies?
When we read Ferlinghetti's poem, "Constantly Risking Absurdity," first published in 1958, we start to get the full complexity of this seemingly small but ultimately enormous problem (yes, even we at Shmoop can't keep away from those poetic contradictions). It's all about the Artist trying to get his hands on Beauty and Truth without sounding totally crazy and out of touch to the rest of us. In order to do that, the poet, according to Ferlinghetti, must be an acrobat of sorts, swinging wildly to and fro, entertaining us common folk while also trying to say something real, without sounding like a stuffy professor in a stuffy tweed coat.
Sound easy? Not in the least. But hey—at least Ferlinghetti's up to the task.
Where would we be without Kanye, Rihanna, and Beyonce? It's a terrifying thought, we know, but seriously: imagine, for a moment, a world without pop music. Imagine if we only had artists who spent all their time talking about how clever they are and only used words they could understand (we're looking at you, Decembrists). It would make things pretty boring for the rest of us.
Well, before there was Kanye there was Ferlinghetti and the Beat generation. Yes, before hip-hop there was something called Beat poetry that sounded a bit like jazz music and was very taboo to the more conventional folks of the time, mainly because poets were doing something very new and doing it in a weird way. Heads up: your spell-check might go a little crazy with some of the Beats' neologisms. But no sweat; just go with the flow.
This generation became the platform that the hippies of the 1960's used as inspiration for their counterculture iconoclasm. And of course after the hippies, we got new types of experimental music and art that we hear today. It's all connected, dude. So when we hear the expression "we can't move forward unless we know where we've been" or something to that nature, we get the feeling that the same holds true for art, music, and of course poetry.
Deep stuff, right? And that's just what this poem is after. The real question in "Constantly Risking Absurdity" is how exactly does the artist do his thing without sounding, well, absurd? Think of it this way: say you've got the coolest idea in the world (maybe building an airplane or space rocket). The trickiest part about making that idea a reality is not the mechanical stuff, but convincing everyone else that you haven't gone completely 'round the bend. You just might find yourself like Ferlinghetti's poet-acrobat, performing "death-defying" leaps and hoping for the best.
But fear not, eager scholar, for it's all part of the process of creativity and self-expression. Sure it's a tough battle at times, what with all the hoops to jump through and itchy tights you may have to wear, but it's worth it if you're lucky enough to get your hands on that elusive Beauty (with a capital B). And it's even more awesome-sauce if you can take some spectators along for the ride (so steer clear of those five-dollar words, will ya?).