Thursday, April 03, 2008

Poetry Month -- Day 3

Today's poem is "Dog" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Again, thanks to Robert, who has been my source for much of the poetry to enter my life in recent days.


The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are bigger than himself
and the things he sees
are his reality
Drunks in doorways
Moons on trees
The dog trots freely thru the street
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
Chickens in Chinatown windows
their heads a block away
The dog trots freely in the street
and the things he smells
smell something like himself
The dog trots freely in the street
past puddles and babies
cats and cigars
poolrooms and policemen
He doesn't hate cops
He merely has no use for them
and he goes past them
and past the dead cows hung up whole
in front of the San Francisco Meat Market
He would rather eat a tender cow
than a tough policeman
though either might do
And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
and past Coit's Tower
and past Congressman Doyle of the Unamerican Committee
He's afraid of Coit's Tower
but he's not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
very depressing
very absurd
to a sad young dog like himself
to a serious dog like himself
But he has his own free world to live in
His own fleas to eat
He will not be muzzled
Congressman Doyle is just another
fire hydrant
to him
The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog's life to live
and to think about
and to reflect upon
touching and tasting and testing everything
investigating everything
without benefit of perjury
a real realist
with a real tale to tell
and a real tail to tell it with
a real live
democratic dog
engaged in real
free enterprise
with something to say
about ontology
something to say
about reality
and how to see it
and how to hear it
with his head cocked sideways
at streetcorners
as if he is just about to have
his picture taken
for Victor Records
listening for
His Master's Voice
and looking
like a living questionmark
into the
great gramophone
of puzzling existence
with its wondrous hollow horn
which always seems
just about to spout forth
some Victorious answer
to everything

--Lawrence Ferlinghetti

This seems like a very playful poem, in that it uses pun or something close to it at various points. Lines like "his head a block away" referring both to the chopping block and than the geographic city block. "Victorious" as a play on Victor Records. The language has a jauntiness to it that suggests a little dog trotting along somewhat blithely unconcerned. "Chickens in Chinatown windows". "Cats and cigars". "Poolrooms and policemen". The poem is also visceral, reveling in the senses and stench of the city. "Fish on newsprint".

One is tempted to say that the dog is a stand-in for modern man, but I think this is a mistake. The dog is a dog. He's inherently dogish. For some reason, I don't think Ferlinghetti wants me to see myself. But of course, I'm almost certainly wrong. Obviously the poem is inextricably linked with the times, as there are references to the Unamerican Committee and such. It is a political poem, but it's not dogmatic.

I was familiar with Ferlinghetti by name before this. He was one of the Beats, and he founded City Lights bookstore, a great store that's still in existence up in San Francisco (and is apparently big in China, too). City Lights is also a well-respected publishing house, printing, among other things, Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems. I'd never read a word he'd written. Unfairly, maybe, I'd given up on the Beats after my high school romance with Jack Kerouac ended badly. A part of me had always wanted to read Ferlinghetti's collection A Coney Island of the Mind, as I think it's one of the all-time great titles, right up there with Gravity's Rainbow and The Importance of Being Ernest.

Of course, after I confidently declare Ferlinghetti to be a Beat poet, I discover that he doesn't considered himself to be one (and admittedly, this poem doesn't seem much like Ginsberg's poetry, stylistically). He went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he wrote about sports for The Daily Tar Heel. City Lights was the first all paper-bound bookstore in the country. Ferlinghetti's first language is French. He is also a painter and political activist.


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