Pictures of the Gone World

Pictures of the Gone World
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
   The first book of poems by lawrence ferlinghetti is Pictures of the Gone World, a plain and slender 5'' × 6 ¼'' volume of 27 imagistic poems in open forms. The poems express Ferlinghetti’s views of love, art, time, death, great cities, nature, animals, memories, and literature.
   The book is the first volume produced in the Pocket Poets Series of City Lights Books, the publication company that was established by Ferlinghetti and was dedicated to inexpensive editions of artists whose experimental methods or political dissidence makes publication through other outlets unlikely.
   In June 1952 Ferlinghetti and his friend Peter Martin, the publisher of City Lights, a literary magazine, each invested $500 to open City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. The store began as a means to provide funds for the continuation of the magazine but with an emphasis on inexpensive, avant-garde books and an evening schedule that made the bookstore a cultural center, City Lights Bookstore endured and eventually became a landmark in San Francisco.
   In 1955 Martin sold his interest in the store to Ferlinghetti, making him sole director; on August 10, 1955, Ferlinghetti published Pictures of the Gone World. The poems have endured: the original text was reprinted numerous times; a selection of the poems were reprinted in a coney island of tHe mind (1958); an enlarged edition of Pictures of the Gone World was published in 1995; and numerous selections were included in These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems (1994).
   The title of the collection is apparently based on two key ideas. First, the poems are meant to be pictures. In that sense, the poems are like paintings or photographs—in the tradition of the imagists, the poems are meant to convey a strong visual impression. Second, the title refers to the “Gone World,” invoking the hip idiom and its sense of “gone,” which can connote a positive sort of craziness but can also suggest a desperate emptiness. Among the most familiar poems in Pictures of the Gone World are “Away above a Harborful,” “The World Is a Beautiful Place,” and “Reading Yeats.” Because these poems are included in A Coney Island of the Mind, discussion of these poems is found in the entry for A Coney Island of the Mind. Another poem of special interest in Pictures of the Gone World is “8,” also known as “Sorolla’s Women in Their Picture Hats.” The poem reveals Ferlinghetti’s frequently used technique of referring to famous works of visual art to create a springboard for his own imaginative flight. Ferlinghetti opens his poem with a reference to the women with large hats in Promenade on the Beach (1907), a painting by Joaquin Sorolla. Ferlinghetti says that Spanish Impressionists admired Sorolla’s works, particularly “the way the light played on them,” but Ferlinghetti doubts the realism of Sorolla’s painting, noting “illusions / of love.” Ferlinghetti’s own memory of his own experience seems more realistic to him as he describes the lovemaking of “the last picnickers,” who exquisitely delay the culmi-nation of their engagement. In recognition of the fulfillment that the picnickers finally experience, “night’s trees” stand up.
   “London,” which is titled “18” in Pictures of the Gone World, pursues the fantastic rather than the realistic. Ferlinghetti admits that the setting for the poem could be “anyplace,” but it is in fact London. Street artists on a Sunday afternoon seek a model, but when one woman volunteers and begins to disrobe, she finds the uncovered parts of her body absent. “I mean to say,” Ferlinghetti writes, that “she took off her shoes / and found no feet.” She is “ASTOUNDED” to witness her corporal incompleteness. When she puts her clothes back on, she is “completely / all right.” An artist calls out to her to repeat the amazing performance, but she is “afraid,” gives up being a model, and “forever after” sleeps “in her clothes.” On one hand, the poem is comic, fantastic, and surreal; on the other hand, if one considers the symbolism of someone who is corporally absent beneath her clothes and who is so frightened by the experience that she remains dressed when she sleeps, one sees that Ferlinghetti’s poem is about a woman who cannot be naked. Since “nakedness” to a Beat writer involves frankness, candor, and openness on both physical and spiritual levels, this failed model must be fundamentally and sadly unable to reveal herself.
   The issue of reality versus fantasy continues in Pictures of the Gone World in “23,” which is also known as “Dada Would Have Loved a Day Like This.” Dada refers to an antiart movement in Europe and New York in about 1916. Dadaists saw no meaning in a European culture that perpetuated hatred and war, and therefore the Dadaists sought to dismantle the forces of control so that art could go forward freely. In Ferlinghetti’s poem, the day features “realistic / unrealities,” but each of these apparent contradictions is “about to become / too real for its locality.” The “light-bulb sun” shines “so differently / for different people,” but “still shines the same / on everyone / and everything.” Ferlinghetti refers to “a bird on a bench,” an airplane “in a gilded cloud,” a “dishpan hand,” and “a phone about to ring,” but he proceeds to his principal example, the “cancerous dancer,” whose “too real funeral” amidst a “sweet street carnival” leaves “her last lover lost / in the unlonely crowd” and leaves the “dancer’s darling baby / about to say Dada.” A “passing priest” may “pray / Dada” and utter “transcendental apologies,” but Ferlinghetti insists that the day belongs to Dada because of “not so accidental / analogies.” This poem, with its reference to death, the bereaved, and the unaffected surroundings, is dark in its outlook, but true to life.
   Pictures of the Gone World remains a key publication in the history of the Beat Generation. The poems seem easy to read and accessible to all readers; yet their references to art and cultural history demand careful attention, and the subtle effects of rhyme and wordplay deserve appreciation.
   William Lawlor

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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