Beat On the Brat

A post-relevant poet shores fragments against our ruin.


It was probably inevitable, once the cavalcade of anti-war stars had reached the ranks of forgettables like Tyne Daly and Malachy McCourt, that another of history's great B-listers would lend his reputation to the movement. No less a figure than Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founding member and premier entrepreneur of the Beats, has been moved to break his literary semi-retirement, take up his quill, and howl against "the war with the Third World."

Although the once-subversive poet and founder of the legendary City Lights bookstore continues to plug away, he has not been much in view lately. Ferlinghetti's 1997 book A Far Rockaway of the Heart strove in vain to recapture the magic of his classic A Coney Island of the Mind and stirred fears that A Howard Beach of the Spirit might be awaiting publication somewhere. The last time he really made a splash was by circulating an open letter wherein he griped about the declining quality of U.S. Restaurant in San Francisco's North Beach. Thus, the publication of his new piece of anti-war verse, entitled "Speak Out," has been enough to make the local papers snap to attention.

Whether "Speak Out" is a substantial poetic achievement is a question we must leave to future literary critics, but its merits as an anti-war tirade are easily scanned. "And the terrorists in Washington/Are drafting all the young men," the poet writes. Ferlinghetti, who served his country in the Navy during World War II, presumably knows what it actually means when the government drafts young men, and thus should understand that this is not even close to happening at the present time. In fact, the current sponsors of a congressional bill to reinstate mass conscription, Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), are opponents of the Bush Administration whose bill is intended as a form of protest. (Before leaving this point, let me note that Ferlinghetti continues the boys-only ethos of the famously misogynistic Beats by referring repeatedly to "young men" throughout the work; even the most socially backward supporters of a war in Iraq now know enough to use the phrase "our men and women in uniform.")

On more solid ground, Ferlighetti indicts the crackdown on Muslims and Middle Easterners:

And they are rousting out
All the ones with turbans
And they are flushing out
All the strange immigrants

Lest we go too far in our concern about the very real and very troubling approach authorities have taken toward ethnic and religious outsiders, however, Ferlinghetti quickly reminds us who the real victim/heroes of today are:

And when they come to round up
All the great writers and poets and painters
The National Endowment of the Arts of Complacency
Will not speak

While the actual literary creations of the Beats have mostly faded from memory, the movement's real achievements—deft self-promotion and the almost single-handed creation of aspirational marketing—live on as testaments to free-market capitalism, so it's refreshing to see Ferlinghetti's honest dislike of a federal boondoggle like the NEA. Still, are we supposed to be stirred by a line about "all the young men…killing all the young men," when the horribly distinctive thing about our new reality—from the unprecedented slaughter of September 11 and Bali to the (accidental but still horrific) bombing of an Afghan wedding party to what will most likely be a high civilian toll on the Iraqi population—is the killing of civilians?

And while I'm willing to believe that domestic support for an attack on Iraq is far less enthusiastic than instant polling has suggested, it flies in the face of some powerful statistical evidence for the poet to announce, "Now is the time for you to speak/O silent majority."

It's easy, and meaningless, to mock a way-past-his-prime literary runner-up, but "Speak Out" is indicative of just what makes the anti-war movement in its current form so inept. Deeply satisfying as it may be to let your freak flags fly at The Man and all his hang-ups, opposition to a war on Iraq is important enough to attract Americans across a wide social and political spectrum. This opposition doesn't (or shouldn't) have anything to do with scattershot accusations about a terrorist government, or concerns about a non-existent military draft, or half-baked claims about American imperialism. (In fact, I think America's relative lack of imperial ambitions is one of the main reasons not to start on a decades-long nation-building process now.)

The breadth and range of attendance at this weekend's anti-war demonstrations suggests opposition to a war in Iraq has moved beyond moribund leftist clichés; if so, that's a hopeful sign. The case that we have no alternative to invading Iraq is one of the flimsiest arguments for war ever presented to the American people, and there may well be a "silent majority" that would reject that case for practical and essentially patriotic reasons. Which is all the more reason we don't need faded beat-era platitudes that made little sense even when they were first circulated more than 40 years ago. Especially when they don't even rhyme.