The 1997 reading by Ferlinghetti & Creeley
The Idea of Order at UC Santa Cruz
by Billy Marshall Stoneking
Sadly Billy Marshall Stoneking died in July 2016, not long after this piece was accepted for publication in the Journal of Poetics Research. We at JPR are sorry to convey this sad news. Billy was a wonderful raconteur and poet, and he will be sorely missed. You can see some photos I took at a dinner at Nigel Roberts’ place in Rozelle in 1984 here.
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In 1997, at the beginning of a four-year self-imposed exile from Australia, I stayed with an old friend of mine for a few months, camped out in the spare bedroom of his mobile home near Santa Cruz, California. During the time I lived there, I went to a number of poetry readings, most of which weren’t particularly memorable, though at one I was finally able to lay to rest the last vestige of any remaining awe I might’ve still been harbouring for ‘the Beats’.
On this particular occasion, I turned up at a reading given by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Bob Creeley. Like other American males of my generation, I’d loved Ferlinghetti’s poetry, which I’d discovered as a 22-year-old uni student in a Penguin Poets paperback that also featured a selection of poems by Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsburg. It seemed like a lifetime since I had read his stuff. Creeley was a later discovery, and though I liked a lot of his early poems, I didn’t know his later work that well. So when I heard that they’d been invited to give a reading at the UC Santa Cruz campus, I decided I’d go along and check out what they might be like together.
As expected, the place was packed, the air full of anticipation and excitement. What I didn’t expect — and what I found surprising — was the lack of evidence of any enthusiasm or energy on the parts of these two forces in contemporary American poetry. It was like they weren’t there at all. Or that they were simply going through the motions, like you might drive a car to work, and when you get there you can’t remember anything about the actual drive. It was like that, only more disturbing. Then I remembered the “poetry tours” I’d been on myself, one of which had spanned three American states and lasted for nearly 12 weeks. After awhile, each place was pretty much like the last one, and the one tomorrow like the one today. And you realized how easy it was to switch on the automatic pilot and let your mouth do the poetry while the rest of you reclined in some secret green room of the soul in a far corner of the mind where almost nothing could reach you. Yeah, I was familiar with the sorts of challenges touring presented and how difficult it was maintaining the presence and freshness day after day, night after night.
So, from the moment Bob and Larry took the stage to greet their audience, you kind of already knew – or at least I did -that neither one of these septuagenarians was infused with the inspiration that was the only antidote to the usual boredom and fatigue that often accompanies those who have been doing the same thing for far too long. Like a 1950s rock revival star, Larry went through the motions, reciting the obligatory introductions that had been committed to heart so long there was no heart left. Mostly, he performed his old stuff, those early poems from Pictures of a Gone World. Weird to think, they were more than forty years old now. And then there was Creeley, doing his greatest hits, like ‘Drive, he sd’, etc, etc. They performed the poems like they’d done it a million times, and they probably had.
Creeley, to be fair, did have some new stuff, stuff he’d written at a writers’ retreat in Key West a year or so earlier. As he mumbled his way through a long, extemporaneous introduction to the poems, I began to feel sorry for him. He seemed so frail, so uncertain, ill placed alongside the name-dropping and cheap nostalgia that comprised far too much of what had already been said. Then again, maybe they were only doing what came naturally, what they knew from experience, a hard-won knowledge of what the audience expected and what it wanted to hear.
As Creeley strived to evoke the memory if not the actual ghost of Wallace Stevens, I could only imagine that he was giving it his best. Like telling us how, when he wrote the poems — the poems from the Key West retreat — it was like Stevens himself had been talking to him; or even speaking through him. It was hard to tell. Whatever concordances there may have been between his new stuff and ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’ were obscured by the self-congratulatory repartee and private jokes that intermittently passed between him and Larry, not to mention the sentimental reveries for lapping waves, endless beaches, and the good life ’mongst one’s fellow writers, punctuated with the occasional “etc, etc” at the end of sentences that might otherwise have threatened to put the audience to sleep had it not been for the merciful placement of a few “so on and so on and so ons…”.
After a while it was difficult deciding whether Bob’s memories of Key West were falling victim to old age or the malaise that too much time in front of strangers sometimes visits on poets who consent to read their work publically. Maybe he just hadn’t had a good night’s sleep. The audience didn’t seem to care. They went on laughing and clapping and slapping their knees, mostly in all the wrong places, but it seemed to satisfy Bob. So long as he knew they were still there and breathing and listening, it was all the proof you needed, enough to know there was one hell of a poet up there, if not all that much poetry.
When Larry and Bob had arrived at the point where they’d read everything they wanted to read, the M. C. threw it open for questions, and of course almost everyone had something they wanted to say. And is the case with most Q & As – in poetry readings and film festivals and everything in between — most of the questions didn’t add up to much. After awhile, a kind of pattern emerged, and it began to dawn on me that Ferlinghetti, and Creeley to a lesser extent, was merely the current embodiment of a vast illusory mythology, supporting players with characters no larger than the fictional lives these students could imagine for themselves, codified by Kerouac and enshrined in his books. Because they’d been on the road themselves, in their heads and hearts if not in the flesh, with their own Corsos and Cassidys and Snyders, all that was left, all that was really needed or wanted was for Ferlinghetti and Creeley to confirm the dream – their dream. This wasn’t about poetry, not really, this was about vicarious adventure and the semblance of having been there and done that. Inside that auditorium, at the UC campus, where the banana slug is the official mascot, we were all part of Kerouac’s story – and now we were receiving verification of our lived fictions from those who had been there and done that even before we had.
But really, it was Kerouac that everyone wanted to know — Kerouac, the beat, the bodhisattva, the mad man, the fireworks, the be-bop craziness of every heart’s Denver, the clicketty-clack of railroad prose late into night, blood on the scroll instead of the tracks. It was as if Larry and Bob’s identity – not to mention our own — depended on Jack. It was like a lot of the people who were there that day might never have even heard of Creeley or Ferlinghetti had it not been for Jack, and sunflowers, and the Road. It was Kerouac. And Kerouac’s stories that made Ferlinghetti and Creeley present. It was always the stories that did that. And other things as well, like the questions: ‘Is it true that Kerouac wrote all of Mexico City Blues on pot?’ and ‘Did William Burroughs really kill his wife by accident, or did he mean to do it?’ etc, etc.
It went on like this for about thirty minutes, and the more I heard the more depressed I got. In fact, I was on the verge of leaving when a young woman at the back of the room stood up and asked: ‘Mr Ferlinghetti, I’ve been writing poetry for about a year now, and I was wondering if you might be able to tell me what you think a person ought to know if they want to be a poet?’
I couldn’t believe my ears. A real question! After all the predatory curiosity about Jack’s drugs, Burroughs’ crimes, Corso’s gayness, and the rest — a sudden blast of fresh air. A real question. A hope. I looked from the woman to the stage. Ferlinghetti grasped the side of the podium, staring hard at his inquisitor, as though she’d broken one of the most important rules of the game. He glanced at the M. C. (can you believe this?!), then sipped some water from a paper cup, like straight out of an e. e. cummings’ poem. I couldn’t believe it. Why was he stalling? Now was his chance.
‘Would you mind repeating the question?’ he said at last.
The audience burst into laughter, and the young woman looked round as if she’d committed a crime, or maybe it was desperation — a sudden need to find some hole into which she might crawl.
‘It’s a good question,’ I interjected, wanting to let her know there was at least one person in the audience who was on her side.
Larry’s shopkeeper’s gaze settled on me before returning to her, fixing her with a look that might’ve been more appropriately directed at someone who had just shop-lifted a book. She squirmed. ‘Well, you know,⁏ she stammered… ‘I was, you know… I just wondered if… well…what things are important if you want to be a poet?’
Larry drew a deep breath and settled his best and most benevolent smile on her. Then, turning to the audience at large, he said: ‘This is why I don’t teach in a university.’ The audience burst into laughter and applause.
‘Answer the question,’ I shouted, but the moment was gone.
The young woman sat down and looked at her hands.
‘Just write… that’s all,’ Larry said. And with that, the Q & A was over.
I went away depressed, not entirely sure whether it was because of Larry, or because I was experiencing the beginning of a nervous breakdown.