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On Poetry and Bullshit

Lawrence Ferlinghetti just turned 100 yesterday, on what would have been my father’s 95th birthday, and I find myself thinking about where I started as a writer and as a person.

I began writing poetry as a teenager but I didn’t take it very seriously until a teacher showed me some of Ferlinghetti’s poems outside of class. Many other poets have since accreted in the subsequent three decades, of course, but Ferlinghetti’s influence — along with Cummings, Stevens, Plath, Bishop, Rilke — is batholithic.

Initially, I thought I’d be a novelist, producing “large, loose, baggy monsters.” But I discovered that with poetry, I could build something in an hour or a week (or, okay fine, a month or more) and then build something else, and so on, until I had collected enough tiles for a mosaic that could — in theory — rival any doorstop.

Indeed, Durs Grünbein, in The Vocation of Poetry, says: “I might even go so far as to say that poetry is in large part born from the desire to start over as often as possible.”

From my father I learned that the opposite of the truth isn’t a lie but, rather, bullshit. Both “truths” and “lies” are equally committed to a coherent vision of the universe and they often serve the same sort of purpose; a person might tell the truth or a lie for surprisingly similar reasons. But bullshit is faithless. It’s incoherent, and it has no integrity.

So the Statue of Liberty can wield a sword instead of a torch in Kafka’s Amerika, and Ben Franklin can be a DJ at a rave in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Both false and true, but not bullshit.

My father learned the power and poison of bullshit in the Dutch Resistance as a teenager. After the war, he went to law school in the Netherlands — not because he wanted to be a lawyer, but because he wanted to be a writer. Then he gave up everything to move to the US to marry my mother. Then law school — again — followed by a second law degree. He worked in publishing, then in the crucible of a massive law firm, then taught, then founded his own firm. He did many different things, and started over many times. But it was always about language, about learning how to use it with humility and respect; to fight against bullshit and chaos. And countless stories at the dinner table, all coming together as one big story. A hedgehog who talked like a fox.

One small thing, then another small thing, then another. Steering by compass, from tree to tree, post to post — all the way across a continent, a lifetime, one poem at a time. Always seeking clarity and integration, attending to what’s there, and how it all fits together. And if you are seeking several destinations, all on a circuit, a seasonal cycle, following a rhythm, a flow — then you never really arrive and you never really depart. You continue.