Poetry As Insurgent Art

by Bob Schwartz


Lawrence Ferlinghetti is celebrated as a poet, as founder of City Lights Books in San Francisco, and as a pioneer publisher of cutting-edge poets of the 1950s and 1960s (sometimes identified as Beat poets), most famously Allen Ginsberg. Ever a cultural and social activist, Ferlinghetti published in 2007 a tiny book called Poetry as Insurgent Art:

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words….

Woody Guthrie, godfather of modern protest music, was another artist who believed in the insurgent power of poetry and song. In 1941, he wrote and peformed Talking Hitler’s Head Off Blues. He followed that by adorning his guitar with this now iconic message, beloved by musical radicals everywhere: THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS.

So the question arises for every creator. Can a poem be an instrument of insurgency? Can a guitar and song actually talk Hitler’s head off and kill fascists?

The targets of reactionary politics and authoritarian rule are your body, your mind and your heart. When any of the three are damaged, thoughtful and sincere resistance and progress are more difficult. When all three are healthy and vital and hopeful, all is possible. Ferlinghetti’s poetry and Guthrie’s fascist killing guitar and thousands of other creations can inspire and embolden us to sing and believe and wisely strategize together, like a chorus, like an army. If we listen and act.