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The Greatest Poem is Lyric Life Itself

Lawrence Ferlinghetti gets Parking Ticket, 1960s, by Gary Stevens. Creative Commons 2.0.

This month in the MythBlast Series, we’re focusing on Joseph Campbell’s Masks of God, Vol II: Oriental Mythology. On page 490 of that volume, Campbell quotes from “The Song of the Cowherd” by the poet Jayadeva: “Oh may this poem…delight all lover’s hearts.” The poet and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who delighted the hearts of all lovers (and delighted the lovers of great hearts, too), died on February 22, 2021. He’s already been eulogized in a multitude of ways, and with language that far exceed any bon mots that I might muster, but I do want to consider something he said in The New York TimesLast Word” feature of the online obituaries section because when I heard it, it rang in my soul like a bell.

“Last Word” is a series of short on-camera interviews featuring prominent figures reflecting upon their own lives that are only released with the individual’s obituary. Ferlinghetti’s piece was extraordinarily intimate, and allows one to witness the intelligence, the heartfulness, the passions, and the sensitivities of a man who managed to forge his life in the flames of creativity and courage. In this video, Ferlinghetti tells us his early life was “unhappy,” and remarks, “so I escaped by lyricism.” He goes on to say, “When present day life gets too awful, there’s the lyric escape.” Ferlinghetti follows up with a few examples of the lyric escape, such as writing a poem, looking at the moon, or even “shacking up with your best girlfriend,” but what I hear resounding in his words is that the lyric escape is a flight into beauty.

And it’s not just any beauty, it’s the beauty found within. As Campbell puts it: “[T]he sphere of eternity, beyond the veil of time and space, where there is no duality, they are at one; death and life are at one; all is peace.” (Oriental Mythology 121) It is an “enchanted mood,” Herman Melville insists, in which “thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer’s sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.” (Moby Dick 251) (As an aside, Melville is referring to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who was ordered by Queen Mary to be put to death on March 21, 1556 by burning.) Both Campbell’s sphere of eternity and Melville’s enchanted mood refer to the aesthetic arrest by which one is overcome in the presence of deep beauty. That aesthetic arrest is Ferlinghetti’s lyric escape.

Ferlinghetti seems to know that lyric beauty—the goal of the lyric escape, is the antidote to life’s pain. Readers of Joseph Campbell will be familiar with his discussions regarding James Joyce’s theory of art, in which proper art induces in the beholder a seizure of the heart, an aesthetic arrest. I’ve always thought Joyce’s seizure of the heart to involve at least some small degree of pain, a cardiac event induced by an intense psychological experience. People end up in ER exam rooms for similar reasons all the time. Perhaps, because we discover some modicum of pain in the experience of it, beauty has a salutary, restorative effect when we find ourselves in the grip of life’s pain. Beauty functions as a homeopathic remedy for the pain of living; it’s the healing alchemy of like curing like.

Beauty, as Rilke puts it, is “the beginning of terror;” we know we must eventually take our leave of “this earth of majesty, this blessed plot,” this place where piercing beauty makes its home, and either it or ourselves will eventually turn to ashes. In his beguilingly titled book Essays in Idleness, the 14th century Zen monk-poet Yoshida Kenko captures the essential impermanence of beauty in a poignant, elegant meditation:

If we lived forever, never to vanish like the dews of Adashino, never to fade like the crematory smoke on Toribeyama, men would scarcely feel the beauty of things.

Containing both gratification and pain, beauty transcends dualities and remains, not only beyond the veil of time and space, but beyond pleasure and pain, beyond joy and sorrow, beyond life and death, within the sphere of eternity.

The lyric escape transformed Dante’s pain of exile into the Divina Commedia, the Divine Comedy. The same year he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, Keats’ lyric escape created “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” a lyric flight that allowed him to live for a precious while within a timeless, ever-green scene etched on an ancient urn where young lovers loved forever, leaves never fell from trees, and he remained “the foster child of silence and slow time.” In bed after yet another bout with influenza and brittle mental health, Virginia Woolf’s lyric escape writes herself out of infirmity with an archly beautiful essay, “On Being Ill.” Lying there, she imagines herself a deserter from “the army of the upright,” looking up to see the “extraordinary” and “strangely overcoming” spectacle of the “divinely beautiful” and “also divinely heartless” sky that healthy, perpendicular people seldom notice.

“With the hook of life still in us still we must wriggle,” Woolf writes. “Left to ourselves we speculate thus carnally. We need the poets to imagine for us. The duty of Heaven-making should be attached to the office of Poet Laureate.” Perhaps so; I’d like to think I’d feel at home in Billy Collins’ or Elizabeth Bishop’s heaven. But the duty of heaven making unfailingly falls to each one of us, and it’s a duty made lighter if we learn the art of the lyric escape.  After all, as Ferlinghetti wrote in Poetry as Insurgent Art, “the greatest poem is lyric life itself.”


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