wake up and pee, the world’s on fire

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
hot air.

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
it’s important.

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
to find.

Cultivate dissidence and critical thinking.
“First thought, best thought” may not make
for the greatest poetry. First thought may be
worst thought.

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
Out.

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
screws.

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.

but now I’m mostly at the window

If I had started this blog two years ago, I would have posted something by Billy Collins within the first few days. He was another poet that my beloved 11th grade English teacher (I know you’re reading!) introduced us to during our American Lit class. I loved Billy Collins for his accessibility and his knack for celebrating the mundane… Having read most of his anthologies, I now see him as a one-trick poet, but he certainly does it well and I give him credit for being one of the few poets actually making a successful living off of his words. Who knows if I would have kept with poetry if it weren’t for poets like him. So here’s a Collins piece that I still adore–I actually wrote about this for my last English paper in high school (for another beloved teacher) instead of writing about the Emily Dickinson poem I had previously chosen. There’s just something about this poem that so deftly captures a child’s fear of growing up… and letting go.

“On Turning Ten”–Billy Collins

The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.

But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.

This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.

It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.