Lawrence Ferlinghetti disappeared from our sight in 2021 at the age of 101. The American poet and editor born of an Italian immigrant father, a native of Chiari (Brescia, northern Italy) and a mother with French roots, was very close to the Ars Poetica of Quintus Horatius Flaccus, a.k.a., the classical Latin poet Horace. Furthermore, his experiences with the poets from the Beat generation had introduced him to eastern spirituality. Poetry emerges from this cultural mix once again in an unsuspected way and this “emergency” is partly told here with an episode involving the young Ferlinghetti attending a poetry reading of the aged poet Ezra Pound in the city of Spoleto.
Ṛ ta (devanāgarī ऋत ) is a Sanskrit term that appears in the ancient Indian texts of the Vedas (ca. 2000 BC). Ṛ ta means the “cosmic order” to which the whole reality is subject, but also a sacred custom or the association between sacrificial rites and the rhythm of the universe to which such rites are closely related. It is, therefore, a prelude to the more widespread and subsequent term of Dharma (Cosmic Law). The term Ṛ ta comes from Ṛ (Sanskrit root for “move”) and * ar (Indo-European root for “appropriate way”), hence “move, behave, correctly”. So Ṛ ta acquires the full meaning of “cosmic order” or rather of the Reality that proceeds without opposition or obstacles. This term is linked, again by means of the Indo-European root of * ar , to the Greek term harmos (from the Latin harmŏnĭa and to the Latin ars the root of “art”. It follows from this that a direct connection cannot be avoided between this term and art in general, conceived as an activity that “is done (moves) appropriately” and as a real ritual with its own rhythm : words that cannot fail to be combined in order to etymological birth right in Rta. Words that cannot fail to remind us of what, for example, poetry should do, namely ex-movere and cum-movere . Ṛ ta is particularly considered in artistic rites and practices, or in the correct execution of the making (rite) which allows the very permanence of a cosmic balance (rhythm).
All this as a premise to introducing a very important letter written by Horace, Letter to the Pisons, so we can speak of harmony or, the the Art of Poetry as Horace named his famous critical work.
But you can also start from the end, that is, from today (2021 AD) inverting the journey and thus mirroring the one that goes from the word ars to the Letter to the Pisons. It is a reverse journey that starts from the recently deceased American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and arrives at the same Epistle of Horace, the poet from Lucania, southern Italy, born in the village of Venosa.
As the Nobel prize for literature Tomas Tranströmer (a great admirer of the poet Horace) would have said: not only do we look at memories but they look at us too. The poet-editor-impresario of American counterculture, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, had just turned 101 years old. This little boy who saw the moon landing when he was just fifty had time to close his work with an autobiography published by Doubleday in the United States shortly before March 24, 2020 when the protagonist of the Beat Generation had just reached his own century of life.
Ferlinghetti ends his autobiography with the following words:
“Little boy, raised as a romantic dissident, has maintained his youthful vision of a life destined to last forever, immortal as every young person is, convinced that their special identity will never perish, yes, believing all this in spite of the unrestrained fate of all humanity which, according to scientists, will soon disappear, with the Sixth Extinction of life on Earth. That is why the song of birds, now, is not a twitter of ecstasy but a cry of despair.”
This might seem like an apocalyptic declaration but it is not because despite the announced extinction (from the scientists’ song); despite the song of despair of the birds (or of those who forget that they too are a little boy ), the Poet has always been aware that non omnis moriar (Horace, Odes, III, 30, 6), that is, things don’t die completely and therefore that not everything will die. In his 116-page volume entitled What is poetry , Ferlinghetti assigns a task to poetic art and makes the poet a protagonist of the times. Only a strong appeal to inner human values and a poem that expresses them through oral transmission can restore humanity to a condition of harmony and make it recover its lost balance. His friend Jack Kerouac would have spoken of the cosmic order, as of Dharma.
The book What is poetry consists of two parts: in the first the poet focuses on the themes and methods of poetic production. In the second, by the evocative title Challenges for young poets, Ferlinghetti shows the ways of making poetry for young people attracted to poetry, i.e., the correct way to move. Rite and rhythm. Words which, I underscore, look to the Sanskrit root Ṛ ta (“cosmic order”) and therefore to Horace’s Ars poetica which are, in turn, the object of the gaze directed by the roots of poetry itself.
Leafing through the pages of Ferlinghetti’s What is the poem one can find many references to and echoes of the poet Horace, a recalling of that trust they shared in the heights and validity of poetry as an art and to the conviction that a message can cross the boundaries of space and time. Ferlinghetti does nothing but reiterate with almost aphoristic conciseness the ideas formulated by Horace in his Ars poetica stating that art is the strength of these ideas, religion of the soul. Therefore, the poet is but a simple town crier committed to disseminating, sensitizing and educating people to its ideas.
And it is ideas that require a rite for a rhythm, with the aim of preserving an order or restoring it: 1) the requirement of simplicity and unity ( simplex et unum ) of the work; 2) an insightful juxtaposition ( callida iunctura ) of terms from which new meanings can arise; 3) the determining criterion of usus (use) of the living language, both spoken and written, in decreeing the birth, death and resurrection of ancient and modern voices; 4) the banning of big words that are “a foot and a half” long ( sesquipedalia verba ) that cause the phrasing of tragedy to feel cloying; 5) avoid the “mountain” of a high-sounding opening that gives birth to the “mouse”; 6) draw on the advantages ( commoda ) that the coming years bring with them and that they subtract by running away; 7) lingering in the labor limae, i.e., the labor of patient and endless formal revision; 8) letting oneself be seduced by the complementary couples ars / ingenium and natura / ars to establish “a friendly conspiracy”; 9) seek the balance between dulce et utile, the sweet and the useful.
But ideas also require a rhythm for a rite, to be able to sing a hidden harmony that we feel mostly at times when the song of birds no longer seems to be a song of ecstasy. Or when we lose our youthful vision that our life is destined to last forever, as immortal as a young person perceives it to be, even if they are 100 years old, and are convinced nevertheless that their special identity will never die. A belief we share.
From Greatest Poems (Mondadori, Lo Specchio, 2018)
Pound in Spoleto […]
Suddenly there was silence in the room. That voice shocked me, so quiet, so thin, so faint, yet so persistent. I rested my head above my arms on the velvet balustrade. I was surprised to see a tear, just one, fall to my knee. The thin, indomitable voice continued to ring out. Leaving blindly through the back door of the stage I walked through the deserted corridor of that theater where the others, seated, were still facing him, then I climbed down and walked out into the sunlight, crying …
Up above the city
along the ancient aqueduct
the chestnut trees
were still in bloom
flew into the valley
much further down
The sun shone
on the chestnut trees
and the leaves
rustled in the sun
and rustled rustled rustled
And would have gone on rustling
through the leaves …
Giuseppe Ferrara was born in Naples and grew up and studied in Potenza, southern Italy. He earned his degree in Physics from the University of Salerno and has been living and working for many years in Ferrara, as a physicist at a private Research Center. He has published five collections of poetry: L’Orizzonte degli eventi (Event Horizon, Este Edition, Ferrara 2011); segnicontroversi (controversialsigns, Edizioni Kolibris, Ferrara 2013), Appunti di viaggio di un funambolo muto (Travel Notes of a Mute Tightrope Walker, Tracce, Pescara 2016) and Il Peso e la Grazia (96 rue de-La-Fontaine Edizioni, Follonica 2018). His latest poetry publication is Raccolta differenziata (Separate waste collection, InternoLibri, Latiano 2021). His work is included in several anthologies including I poeti del Duca- Excursus nella poesia contemporanea di Ferrara (The Poets of the Duke – Overview of the contemporary poetry of Ferrara (Kolibris Edizioni, Ferrara 2013); Riflessi , n ° 40 (Pages, Rome 2015); Il mio mandala-Antologia 114 haiku (My mandala-Anthology 114 haiku (Cascina Macondo series, 2015) and Folate di versi ( Gusts of wind, Paolo Laurita Edizioni, Potenza 2019). He writes about poetry and more in his blog Il Post Delle Fragole ( www.thestrawberrypost.blogspot.it ). He is a member of various cultural associations and contributes to many literary journals.