Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ferlinghetti's "The World is a Beautiful Place," Take 2

Several months ago, I did a brief entry on Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "The World is a Beautiful Place." I've found myself thinking about the poem more and more recently. Maybe it is today's grim anniversary or the spate of recent problems or the fact that I just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut's A Man without a Country. Given all of these things, I thought it fitting to return to the poem.

First things first: the link to the poem is different than the one I used in the earlier post. I vastly prefer this new link for several reasons. One is that it provides an audio recording of someone reading the poem (the speaker does a very good job). The other reason that I like it is that the formatting is much closer to Ferlinghetti's original spacing and formatting. As one of my students pointed out when we were discussing the poem, the formatting is important. Not only does it make the startling juxtapositions that much more unexpected, but it also adds to the poem's rhythm. Finally, the staggered format also allows readers to see the poem in different ways, for the words on the left-hand side work as statements even if you opt to ignore the words that aligned on the right.

Like most people, I remember where I was on September 11, 2001. However, my most striking memory of that day is how achingly beautiful it was in Tennessee, where I was living at the time. For those of you who have never visited Tennessee (or the American southeast) in the summer, it is a hot, humid, muggy, and usually unpleasant place. That day in September was unusually mild and was one of the first beautiful, clear, cool days we had experienced in a long time.

I am writing this post from my apartment in Boston. It is another clear, beautiful, temperate day. I have a few pressing school issues (mostly papers and research), but my main goal for today is to run a few errands and maybe stop by the farmer's market. As I reflect on this rather leisurely and relaxed agenda, I can't help but juxtapose it with the quiet, solemn memorials taking place in various places in the US and the added problems of the hurricanes pounding Haiti, Cuba, and the Gulf Coast and the general strife, injustice, and abject poverty that is a worldwide epidemic.

I'm still not sure what the poem's lesson is. (Is it advocating for us to be more aware of the suffering that is going on in the world? If so, is it possible to live a relatively happy or even content life with the knowledge of all this suffering? On the other hand, I doubt that Ferlinghetti wants us to lead lives of blissful ignorance...) Regardless of this speculation, as I prepare to take care of my fairly petty and inconsequential tasks today, I can't help but think that Ferlinghetti was right. The world is indeed a beautiful place if you can overlook the rampant problems that come with it (and that are often caused by people).

ETA (on March 21, 2009): I posted another short discussion on this poem in conjunction to Browning's "Pippa Passes."