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It has been a season of mourning for literature: first the death of Mary Oliver and now W.S. Merwin, two writers who left a considerable imprint on over half a century of American poetry. Considering the fact that founding father of the Beats and proprietor of world-renowned City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, turns 100 on March 24th, maybe a few more people have glanced over to check on him. How’s he doing?
He's grown "frail and nearly blind," writes Chloe Veltman at The Guardian in an interview with the poet this month, "but his mind is still on fire." Ferlinghetti “has not mellowed,” says Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, "at all." If you’re looking for him at any of the events planned in his honor, City Lights announces, he will not be in attendance, but he has been busy promoting his latest book, a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel about his early life called Little Boy.
In the book Ferlinghetti describes his childhood in images right out of Edward Gorey. He was a “Little Lord Fauntleroy” in a Bronxville mansion 20 miles outside New York, an orphan taken in and raised by descendants of the founders of Sarah Lawrence. “His new guardians spoke to one another in courtly tones and dressed in Victorian garb,” notes Charles. “They sent him to private school, and, more important, they possessed a fine library, which he was encouraged to use.”
The poet would later write he was a “social climber climbing downward,” an ironic reference to how some people might have seen the trajectory of his career. After serving in the Navy during World War II, earning a master’s at Columbia, and a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne, Ferlinghetti decamped to San Francisco, and founded the small magazine City Lights with Peter D. Martin. Then he opened a bookstore on the edge of Chinatown to fund the publishing venture.
The shop became a haunt for writers and poets. Ferlinghetti started publishing them, starting with himself in 1955. The following year he gained international infamy for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (hear Ginsberg read the poem at City Lights in '56). The book was banned, and Ferlinghetti put on trial for obscenity. If anyone thought this would be the end of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, they were mistaken.
He has published somewhere around forty books of poetry and criticism, novels and plays, been a prolific painter for sixty years, as well as a publisher, bookseller, and activist. He does not consider himself a Beat poet, but from his influential first two books—Pictures of the Gone World and 1958’s A Coney Island of the Mind—onward, Ferlinghetti’s philosophical outlook has more or less breathed the same air as Ginsberg et al.’s.
Quoting from Coney Island, Andrew Shapiro writes, “he counseled us to ‘confound the system,’ ‘to empty out our pockets… missing our appointments’ and to leave ‘our neckties behind’ and ‘take up the full beard of walking anarchy.’” He is still doing this, every way that he can, in public readings, media appearances, and a canny use of YouTube. His is not a call to flower power but to full immersion in the chaos of life, or, as he writes in “Coney Island of the Mind 1” in the “veritable rage / of adversity / Heaped up / groaning with babies and bayonets / under cement skies / in an abstract landscape of blasted trees.”
Ferlinghetti urged poets and writers to “create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic… you can conquer the conquerors with words.” Despite this stridency, he has never taken himself too seriously. Ferlinghetti is as relaxed as they come—he hasn’t mellowed, but he also hasn’t needed to. He’s a loose, natural storyteller and comedian and he’s still delivering sober, prophetic pronouncements with gravitas.
See and hear Ferlinghetti take on conquerors, bullies, and xenophobes, underwear, and other subjects in the readings here from his throughout his career, including a full, 40-minute reading in 2005 at UC Berkeley, below, an album of Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth, above, and at the top, a video made last year of the 99-year-old poet, in Lady Liberty mask, reading “Trump’s Trojan Horse” under a grinning, gray-bearded self-portrait of his younger self. Happy 100th to him. "I figure that with another 100 birthdays," he says, "that'll be about enough!"
Poets get to have strong opinions about what poetry should be and do, especially poets as well-loved as Mary Oliver, who passed away yesterday at the age of 83. “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear,” she told NPR in an interview, “It mustn’t be fancy…. I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem.” Oliver’s Zen approach to her art cut right to the heart of things and honored natural, unpretentious expression. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” she writes in “The Summer Day,” “I do know how to pay attention.”
For Oliver that meant giving careful heed to the natural world, shearing away abstraction and obfuscation. She grew up in Ohio, and during a painful childhood walked through the woods for solace, where she began writing her first poems.
She became an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” as Maxine Kumin wrote, and at the same time, to the spiritual. She has been compared to Emerson and wrote “about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and worst of all, God,” Ruth Franklin remarks with irony in a New Yorker review of the poet’s last, 2017 book, Devotions. But, like Emerson, Oliver was not a writer of any orthodoxy or creed.
Oliver’s approach to the spiritual is always rooted firmly in the natural. Spirit, she writes, “needs the body’s world… to be more than pure light / that burns / where no one is.” She was beloved by millions, by teachers, writers, and celebrities. (She was once interviewed by Maria Shriver in an issue of O magazine; Gwyneth Paltrow is a big fan). Oliver was long the country’s best-selling poet, as Dwight Garner blithely writes at The New York Times. But “she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics,” Franklin points out. This despite the fact that she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her fifth book, American Primitive, and a National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems.
The word “earnest” comes up often as faint praise in reviews of Oliver’s poetry (Garner tidily sums up her work as “earnest poems about nature”). The implication is that her poems are slight, simple, unrefined. This perhaps inevitably happens to accessible poets who become famous in life, but it is also a serious misreading. Oliver's work is full of paradoxes, ambiguities, and the hard wisdom of a mature moral vision. She is “among the few American poets,” critic Alicia Ostriker writes, “who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey.” In her work, she faces suffering with “cold, sharp eyes,” confronting “steadily,” Ostriker goes on, “what she cannot change.”
Her poems have included “historical and personal suffering,” but more often she engages the life and death going on all around us, which we rarely take notice of at all. She peers into the darkness of hermit crab shells, she feeds a grasshopper sugar from the palm of her hand, watching the creature’s “jaws back and forth instead of up and down.” Oliver often wrote about the constant reminders of death in life in poems like “Death at a Great Distance” and “When Death Comes.” She wrote just as often about how astonishing it is to be alive when we make deep connections with the natural world.
“When it’s over,” Oliver writes in "When Death Comes," ” I want to say all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” The cost of not paying attention, she suggests, is to be a tourist in one’s own life and to never be at home. “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world." In the videos here, see and hear Oliver read “The Summer Day,” “Wild Geese,” “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” “Night and the River” (above) and "Many Miles."
Oliver was an artist, says Franklin, “interested in following her own path, both spiritually and poetically,” and in her work she will continue to inspire her readers to do the same. These readings will be added to our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.
Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
Quick way to date yourself: name the first Beastie Boys album you bought (or heard). If you somehow got your hands on an original pressing of their first single “Cooky Puss”—released in 1981 when the then-foursome was a New York hardcore band—congratulations, you’re a legend. If you first bought 1986’s Licensed to Ill—their major label debut and coming-out as a crude rap-rock parody threesome (minus fired drummer Kate Schellenbach), precision-engineered to freak your parents out—congrats, you’re old.
In whatever era you discovered them—Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head, Ill Communication… maybe even their last album, 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two—you discovered a different Beasties than the previous generation did. Over the course of their 30-year career, the trio evolved and matured, grew up and got down with new grooves to suit new audiences. That’s always been a very good thing.
As Mike D, Ad-Rock, and MCA—three personalities as distinctive as the three Stooges—got better at what they did, they transcended the misogynist, meatheaded mid-eighties incarnation they came to look back on with embarrassment and apology. “We got so caught up with making fun of that rock-star persona,” writes Adam Horowitz (Ad-Rock) in the huge new Beasties memoir, “that we became that persona. Became what we hated.”
Rob Harvilla calls these very genuine moments of self-reflection the best parts of the book. But with so many stories over so many years, so much brilliant writing, and so many guest appearances from celebrity Beastie Boy fans, that’s a tough call. “Part memoir, part photo-heavy zine, part fan-appreciation testimonial… and part sincere apology,” the book seems both fresh and made to order and a veritable buffet table of nostalgia. Or, as Amy Poehler puts it in her intro to a section on their videos: “These days, their music makes me feel young and old at the same time.”
Behind the silliness and sincerity there is mourning for third Beastie Adam Yauch (MCA), who died of cancer in 2012 and whose voice is conspicuously absent from the book. Yet the two remaining members choose not to dwell. “You brace for the heartbreaking account of Yauch’s diagnosis and death,” Harvilla writes, “but those details go undiscussed. ‘Too fucking sad to writing about’ is all Horovitz has to say.’” The prevailing atmosphere is celebratory, like any good Beastie Boys album—this one a party full of adult peers looking back, laughing, and wincing at their younger selves.
The voices on the page are so vivid you can squint and almost hear them (at one point Horovitz describes unwinding a cassette tape as “pulling 60 minutes of wet fettuccine out of a dog’s mouth”). But we don’t have to imagine what they sound like. Along with the 571-page hardbound cinderblock of a book, the band has released what Rolling Stone hails as the “audiobook of the year,” a “brilliant 13-hour radio play” in which Mike D and Ad-Rock are joined by a majorly star-studded cast of guest readers including Snoop Dogg, Kim Gordon, Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny, Wanda Sykes, Jon Stewart, Ben Stiller, and Bette Midler (that’s just the very short list).
New York hip hop legends LL Cool J, Chuck D, and Rev Run (of Run DMC) show up, as does Brooklyn acting legend Rosie Perez and non-New Yorkers Exene Cervenka and Elvis Costello. (See the full cast list at Audible.) It’s not a memoir, it’s a mixtape. Hear excerpts from the audio book in the SoundCloud clips above and buy it online, or download it for free through Audible.com's 30-day free trial program. Guaranteed, no matter what age you are, to make you feel young and old at the same time.
A quick heads up: Apple has just released six classic books read by celebrity narrators. And they're all free. The list includes:
From start to finish, that's 36 hours of free audio. For much more of that, visit our collection: 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free
Looking for free, professionally-read audio books from Audible.com? Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free trial with Audible.com, you can download two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.
The pronouncements of French theorist Jean Baudrillard could sound a bit silly in the early 1990s, when the internet was still in its infancy, a slow, clunky technology whose promises far exceeded what it could deliver. We hoped for the cyberpunk spaces of William Gibson, and got the beep-boop tedium of dial-up. Even so, in his 1991 essay “Simulacra and Science Fiction,” Baudrillard contended that the real and the imaginary were no longer distinguishable, and that the collapse of the distance between them meant that “there is no more fiction.” Or, conversely, he suggested, that there is no more reality.
What seemed a far-fetched claim about the totality of “cybernetics and hyperreality” in the age of AOL and Netscape now sounds far more plausible. After all, it will soon be possible, if it is not so already, to convincingly simulate events that never occurred, and to make millions of people believe they had, not only through fake tweets, "fake news," and age-old propaganda, but through sophisticated manipulation of video and audio, through augmented reality and the onset of “reality apathy,” a psychological fatigue that overwhelms our abilities to distinguish true and false when everything appears as a cartoonish parody of itself.
Technologist Aviv Ovadya has tried since 2016 to warn anyone who would listen that such a collapse of reality was fast upon us—an “Infocalypse,” he calls it. If this is so, according to Baudrillard, “both traditional SF and theory are destined to the same fate: flux and imprecision are putting an end to them as specific genres.” In an apocalyptic prediction, he declaimed, “fiction will never again be a mirror held to the future, but rather a desperate rehallucinating of the past.” The “collective marketplace” of globalization and the Borgesian condition in which “the map covers all the territory” have left “no room any more for the imaginary.” Companies set up shop expressly to simulate and falsify reality. Pained irony, pastiche, and cheap nostalgia are all that remain.
It’s a bleak scenario, but perhaps he was right after all, though it may not yet be time to despair—to give up on reality or the role of imagination. After all, sci-fi writers like Gibson, Philip K. Dick, and J.G. Ballard grasped long before most of us the condition Baudrillard described. The subject proved for them and many other late-20th century sci-fi authors a rich vein for fiction. And perhaps, rather than a great disruption—to use the language of a start-up culture intent on breaking things—there remains some continuity with the naïve confidence of past paradigms, just as Newtonian physics still holds true, only in a far more limited way than once believed.
Isaac Asimov’s short essay “The Relativity of Wrong” is instructive on this last point. Maybe the theory of “hyperreality” is right, in some fashion, but also incomplete: a future remains for the most visionary creative minds to discover, as it did for Asimov’s “psychohistorian” Hari Seldon in The Foundation Trilogy. You can hear a BBC dramatization of that groundbreaking fifties masterwork in the 47-hour science fiction playlist above, along with readings of classic stories—like Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (and an audiobook of the same read by English actor Maxwell Caulfield). From Jules Verne to H.P. Lovecraft to George Orwell; from the mid-fifties time travel fiction of Andre Norton to the 21st-century time-travel fiction of Ruth Boswell….
We’ve even got a late entry from theatrical prog rock mastermind Rick Wakeman, who followed up his musical adaptation of Journey to the Centre of the Earth with a sequel he penned himself, recorded in 1974, and released in 1999, called Return to the Centre of the Earth, with narration by Patrick Stewart and guest appearances by Ozzy Osbourne, Bonnie Tyler, and the Moody Blues’ Justin Hayward. Does revisiting sci-fi, “weird fiction,” and operatic concept albums of the past constitute a “desperate rehallucinating” of a bygone “lost object,” as Baudrillard believed? Or does it provide the raw material for today’s psychohistorians? I suppose it remains to be seen; the future—and the future of science fiction—may be wide open.