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Light, Fog, Fire: Ferlinghetti, Milosz, Ammons, Bashō, Komachi

Home » Campus News Latest » Lines of Thinking » Light, Fog, Fire: Ferlinghetti, Milosz, Ammons, Bashō, Komachi

by | Mar 10, 2021

“Truth and beauty live most happily amid complexity and paradox.” 
–Jane Hirshfield

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s death in February surprised me. First, I admit losing track of him and therefore being startled by the news of his death as well as his long life. At 101, he had outlived his era-mates by many years. That, it occurred to me, may have been bittersweet: the deepening saturation of truth and beauty “happily amid complexity and paradox” and the physical absence of those we write and make for.

As a west coast transplant from New York, Ferlinghetti had been a key author and publisher of a revolutionary age for American poetry and literature. And as a translator/publisher of poetry from other languages, Ferlinghetti also managed to widen our field of seeing, for him perhaps one of the chief uses of poetry.  

My further thoughts about Ferlinghetti were more in motion and inchoate, like sensing the afternoon light shifting subtlety on a wall or the almost imperceptible knowing of a small boat once pulled safely to dry sand, lifting with the tide to drift away. It was something ephemeral but not at all tragic. In fact, when I went to a bookshelf to look for things he had written and/or published, I was delighted to find a number of City Lights pocket books there, including a thin volume, The Love Poems of Karl Marx that I had forgotten years ago. I am not planning to write about those poems anytime soon, but I think that Ferlinghetti having helped to translate and publish them is a remarkable statement about the role poetry plays, well done or not, in expressing the variability of the human heart.  

I emailed an old friend, with whom I had been commiserating about Ferlinghetti, a photo of the Love Poems’ cover and frontispiece. He quickly wrote back with a remembrance. He had accompanied his college professor from UCLA on a trip to San Francisco to meet with Ferlinghetti. Joined by Allen Ginsberg, they went to a small place around the corner from City Lights in North Beach, called the Bagel & Coffee Shop, where very strong coffee was sold but no bagels were to be had. Zero. Not on the menu. They drank the coffee and talked intensely about poetry all morning.

For this month, along with two pieces by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, I have selected six short pieces, which speak to the theme of changing light in a world of impermanence. Three of the poets and pieces I have chosen are cited in Hirshfield’s book of essays, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. The first and last poems, however, are Ferlinghetti’s

The Changing Light

The changing light at San Francisco
                         is none of your East Coast light
                                          none of your
                                                                 pearly light of Paris
The light of San Francisco
                                                is a sea light
                                                                      an island light
And the light of fog
                                    blanketing the hills
                        drifting in at night
                                     through the Golden Gate
                                                          to lie on the city at dawn
And then the halcyon late mornings
                  after the fog burns off
                          and the sun paints white houses
                                                           with the sea light of Greece
                                with sharp clean shadows
                                       making the town look like
                                                     it had just been painted
But the wind comes up at four o’clock
                                                                    sweeping the hills
And then the veil of light of early evening
And then another scrim
                                when the new night fog
                                                                          floats in
And in that vale of light
                                           the city drifts
                                                                    anchorless upon the ocean

Like Ferlinghetti, the poet Czelaw Milosz introduced the work of other poets through his translation. Here is his translation into English of his original poem in Polish.


A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.

Many collections of the poetry of the inimitable A.R. Ammons have been published over the years, including his book-length, epic poem “Garbage.” If you haven’t read it, I would race to the bookstore, with a mask of course. To tide you over, here are three tidy pieces from The Really Short Poems of A.R. Ammons.


Sometimes the ridge across
the way transluminous
emerges above the mist
and squares and detached rondures
of vapory ground with
dairy barns and old trees
break out afloat
separated in high lyings


The sun’s wind
Blows the fire
green, sails the 
lifts banks, bogs, 
boughs into flame:
the green ash of 
yellow loss.

I thought the 
woods afire
or some 
house behind the
but it was
the wind
sprung loose
by a random 
smoking pollen fog
from the evergreens

The evanescent nature of the world has been a central theme in Japanese literature since the introduction of Buddhism and a formal system of writing from China in the mid 6th Century. Ferlinghetti was good friends with the poet Kenneth Rexroth, who was well known for his translations of Japanese verse. The following short pieces are translations by Jane Hirshfield: one is a haiku from the 17th-Century master of the form Matsuo Bashō; the second by Ono no Komachi, a groundbreaking poet from the 9th Century. Writing nearly two centuries before Murasaki Shikibu (Tale of Genji) and Sei Shonagon (The Pillow Book), Komachi significantly advanced the development of Japanese vernacular literature through her verse. 

Matsuo Bashō

Narcissus and screen:
one lights the other,
white on white

Ono no Komachi 

How visibly 
It changes color
In this world,
The flower
Of the human heart.

Ferlinghetti titled a volume published in 2007, Poetry as Insurgent Art. I very much like (and believe in) the idea of poetry having the power and “insurgent” mission to save the world; I do not believe this in a grandiose way; rather in very much the same vein that I appreciate the Zen calculus of a Bagel & Coffee Shop where there are no bagels. Zero.   

From Poetry as Insurgent Art

(I am signaling you through the flames)

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words....
About Lines of Thinking

Lines of Thinking is a monthly feature from College President Emeritus Tom Manley. Each installment features a poem selected for its powers to transport us to some higher, lower or common ground, and, possibly in the process, provide fresh perspective and insight on the ground we occupy daily.