I was looking through my poetry folder on my computer today and found these “challenges to young poets” from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the great Beat poet (read A Coney Island of the Mind) who co-founded the great San Francisco bookstore/literary haven, City Lights. I saw him read at Cafe Trieste two summers ago, and he’s still cheekily original at the age of 90–see him while you can if you are in the Bay Area.
Ferlinghetti’s advice is not benevolent or without controversy but I love it for what it is–a challenge to challenge everything, to be always aware, to be ambitious and rigorous in your desire to create art.
Challenges to Young Poets-Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Invent a new language anyone can understand.
Climb the Statue of Liberty.
Reach for the unattainable.
Kiss the mirror and write what you see and hear.
Dance with wolves and count the stars,
including the unseen.
Be naïve, innocent, non-cynical, as if you had
just landed on earth (as
indeed you have, as indeed we all have), astonished by what you
have fallen upon.
Write living newspapers. Be a reporter from
outer space, filing dispatches to some
supreme managing editor who belives in full
disclosure and has a low tolerance level for
Write an endless poem about your life on
earth or elsewhere.
Read the between the lines of human discourse.
Avoid the provincial, go for the universal.
Think subjectively, write objectively.
Think long thoughts in short sentences.
Don’t attend poetry workshops, but if you do,
don’t go to learn “how to” but to learn
“what” (What’s important to write about).
Don’t bow down to critics who have not
themselves written great masterpieces.
Resist much, obey less.
Secretly liberate any being you see in a cage.
Write short poems in the voice of birds.
Make your lyrics truly lyrics. Birdsong is not made by machines. Give your poems wings to
fly to the treetops.
The much-quoted dictum from William Carlos
Williams, “No ideas but in things,” is OK for
prose, but it lays a dead hand on lyricism,
since “things” are dead.
Don’t contemplate your navel in poetry and
think the rest of the world is going to think
Remember everything, forget nothing.
Work on a frontier, if you can find one.
Go to sea, or work near water, and paddle
your own boat.
Associate with thinking poets. They’re hard
Cultivate dissidence and critical thinking.
“First thought, best thought” may not make
for the greatest poetry. First thought may be
What’s on your mind? What do you have in
mind? Open your mouth and stop mumbling.
Don’t be so open-minded that your brains fall
Question everything and everyone. Be subversive, constantly questioning reality and
the status quo.
Be a poet, not a huckster. Don’t cater, don’t
pander, especially not to possible audiences,
readers, editors, or publishers.
Come out of your closet. It’s dark in there.
Raise the blinds, throw open your shuttered
windows, raise the roof, unscrew the locks
from the doors, but don’t throw away the
Be committed to something outside yourself.
be militant about it. Or ecastatic.
To be a poet at sixteen is to be sixteen, to be
at poet at 40 is to be a poet. Be both.
Wake up and pee, the world’s on fire.
Have a nice day.