I received two packages in the mail last week: (1) Fat Wreck Chords’ precedent-setting punk-rock compilation Rock Against Bush, Vol. I and (2) Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s epic poem Americus, Book I. Though every kid young and old who’s worth his or her black Converse and Dead Kennedys T-shirt should own (and distribute far and wide) Rock Against Bush, he or she would do equally well to tap the source and pick up a copy of Americus. The fact is: Ferlinghetti was punk before you were born.
He was down with Jack Kerouac in the early days, he was the first to publish Allen Ginsberg, he hiked with Gary Snyder, he chanted with Alan Watts, and he met Kenneth Rexroth for tea. Ferlinghetti was one of the major players behind the San Francisco literary renaissance. He held many a beat poet’s hand throughout the 1950s, his spirit animated the New Left and the hippie counterculture of the 1960s, and now, well into his 80s, his voice undoubtedly will resonate with a new generation on the brink of revolt.
Americus is just one of those books—the kind that lifts you up out of middle-class complacency, hits you at gut level and flips the switch to that light bulb in your head. It’s the kind of book that, in Henry Miller’s words, “disappears from sight and, in turn, creates new spirit and reshapes the world.”
Ferlinghetti—best known perhaps for his Bay Area bookshop, City Lights, and his publishing house, City Lights Books—has jacked into something big with Americus. The book turns out to be both a eulogy for an America no longer living and a manifesto for an America yet to be born. Yet, first and foremost, Americus is one man’s “burning answer / to the ever-moldering question / as to what poetry can be.”
And what an answer Ferlinghetti provides. Though I surely didn’t understand every line of Americus, or recognize each literary reference, by the end of the book, I was standing in my living room shouting the final lines. The armpits of my Target T-shirt were saturated and dripping adrenaline, and I could hear my heart thumping rapidly in my ears. I wanted to jump, leap, dance, smash, crash, love, boom, bam, hoot, holler, rock, roll, anything! I opted for a stage dive off the ottoman and onto the floor.
The FBI is correct: Ferlinghetti is indeed “a rabble-rouser.” His words ignite a reader’s ire, and his vision threatens all who wield power unjustly. “The poet,” Ferlinghetti declares, “as the bearer of Eros / as the bearer of love / and pleasure and joy / and total freedom / must by definition be the natural born / non-violent / enemy of the State / which would eat / your liberties!”
With Americus, Ferlinghetti has given us a working definition of the poet and his art. He also has provided a generation weaned on cell phones, reality-TV programs and graduate school with a marvelous statement of purpose: “Is not some gross national happiness / still possible? / the human spirit reanimated? / Could a hero or antihero still emerge / from the calamity of humanity?”
Ferlinghetti sure seems to think so. And, as I sit listening to the refrain of Authority Zero’s song “Revolution”—“You wanna a revolution? YEAAAAAH!”—blasting out of my speakers from the Rock Against Bush compilation, I can’t help but think that Ferlinghetti just might be on to something. The entire Punk Voter (www.punkvoter.com) movement and the youth culture that spawned Rock Against Bush reverberates with the sound of Ferlinghetti’s wail. As he observes: “White Bicycles of protest still circle round it / For there will be an end to the dogfaced gods in wingtip shoes / in Gucci slippers / in Texas boots / and tin hats in bunkers pressing buttons / For there are hopeful choices still to be chosen … / And there is no end / no end to the doors of perception still to be opened / and the jet streams of light in the upper air of the spirit of man in the outer space inside us / Shining! / Transcendent!”