For American poetry, San Francisco, and North Beach in particular, is sacred ground. The neighborhood even has a museum dedicated solely to the group of poets who congregated in San Francisco starting in the 1950s, who brought poetry into popular culture and, as crazy as this seems now, made it relevant to a whole generation of Americans. There was a danger then at Monday (November 7, 2011) night's reading with Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti at Club Fugazi, a benefit for the Poetry Center & American Poetry Archive at San Francisco State University, that it would be two hours of self-congratulation about how great poetry used to be, in the good ole days. But Steve Dickison, the director of the Poetry Center, and the readers themselves, seemed to be on a mission to prove that even in 2011, two guys reading poetry on a stage in North Beach can still be relevant to the audience and the world.
The reading was structured to pay homage to the rich history Snyder and Ferlinghetti have with San Francisco, while juxtaposing it with the present reality of these two men, now much older. Before each man came out on stage for his first set (each did two 15 minute sets), films of them were projected on a large screen on stage, taken from old KQED/Poetry Center collaborative television segments on poetry, from the 1960s. In the first video, Gary Snyder is a wide-faced, smiling young man with deep dimples in his cheeks, standing in front of a bush of some kind, talking about Coyote the Trickster and the connections between the myths of all religions. When the video was done and Snyder walked out on stage, I was slightly shocked by his white hair and age, though when I realized he is 81, I was shocked again, this time that he looks so good and seems so healthy.
Gary Snyder then
I have to admit, I am a long-time Gary Snyder fan. His poetry was the only contemporary poetry I ever found in my house growing up, and this is because he writes about the things my family loves: Oregon, rivers, trees, mountains, families, myths, rationality, the apocalypse. I automatically relate him with my dad, because my dad is a botanist who could have been a poet and Snyder is a poet who could have been a botanist. My love for him is personal, and since I had never seen him read, I had high expectations. On Monday, he didn't disappoint me at all. The poems he read were about all my favorite topics (see above), and every story he told made me want to move in with him in his house in the pine forest of the Sierra Nevada. He's lived off the grid for 45 years and when he said this and the crowd applauded, he added, "Before you clap, try it. The alternative lifestyle is a pain in the ass."
Lawrence Ferlinghetti then
It was this self-reflection and refusal to objectify themselves that made both Snyder and Ferlinghetti so charming and watchable. The video that played before Ferlinghetti came out showed a young man in a fur cap joking around with his dog and reading poetry at home plate on an abandoned baseball diamond. The man who came out when that video was over seemed a little older, but still just as engaged with language and the world as he had been when he was young -- with just as much style. Ferlinghetti was dressed in spray painted red and gold skater shoes, with a matching red scarf and red plastic glasses. The most amazing part of this ensemble was that he looked incredibly cool. I don't know how it is possible for a 92 year old (for real, he is 92) to wear skater shoes and look cool, but I promise you, it happened.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti now
Ferlinghetti's work is a little more difficult for me to connect with. He is more overt than Snyder, and I don't have the same love for his subject matter (women and politics, mainly). But his delivery was beautiful, and after the film clip, when I was thinking to myself, "Wow, it must have been awesome to be a white male poet in the 50s and 60s," he said: "This is a very romantic male chauvinist poem. It was a male chauvinist time."
I respect that. You can't help who you are or when you were born, even if you are a white man, born in the time when white men got everything. The most you can do is acknowledge it.
Ferlighetti's second to last poem was a new one, which he just wrote this week. From my place above the stage, I could see that it was handwritten. It was called "The First and Last of Everything" and it was a revolution poem, not about the 1960s, but about the Occupy movement.
It's not a surprise that the show ended with a standing ovation. And it was well deserved, because while poetry readings may not be televised anymore, Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti showed the sold-out crowd that poetry can still be magic and no matter how old they are, they certainly aren't irrelevant yet.