Ferlinghetti’s Birthday

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021) – photo Carlo Silvio

Lawrence Ferlinghettis  birthday today. We thought we’d feature an exchange he had with Allen back in 1977, when he got into a discussion about how he should write his poetry.

The poem at hand was the wistful elegy, “The Old Italians Dying” (that first appeared as an op-ed in the LA Times. “Not much poetry today”, he wrote at the time, “has visual excitement. People are writing poems about walking down the street but they’re not seeing what’s there. “Old Italians Dying” is an objective description of sitting in the square – a sticking to what’s going down right in front of me. But you can never make it completely objective. I see the coffin as a black boat without sails. The person in the coffin is like a fisherman on his last trip to the sea”

For years the old Italians have been dying
all over America
For years the old Italians in faded felt hats
have been sunning themselves and dying
You have seen them on the benches
in the park in Washington Square
the old Italians in their black high button shoes
the old men in their old felt fedoras
with stained hatbands
have been dying and dying
day by day
You have seen them
every day in Washington Square San Francisco
the slow bell
tolls in the morning
in the Church of Peter & Paul
in the marzipan church on the plaza
toward ten in the morning the slow bell tolls
in the towers of Peter & Paul
and the old men who are still alive
sit sunning themselves in a row
on the wood benches in the park
and watch the processions in and out
funerals in the morning
weddings in the afternoon
slow bell in the morning Fast bell at noon
In one door out the other
the old men sit there in their hats
and watch the coming & going
You have seen them
the ones who feed the pigeons
cutting the stale bread
with their thumbs & penknives
the ones with old  pocketwatches
the old ones with gnarled hands
and wild eyebrows
the ones with the baggy pants
with both belt & suspenders
the grappa drinkers with teeth like corn
the Piemontesi the Genovesi the Siciliani
smelling of garlic & pepperoni
the ones who loved Mussolini
the old fascists
the ones who loved Garibaldi
the old anarchists reading L’Umanita Nova
the ones who loved Sacco & Vanzetti
They are almost all gone now
They are sitting and waiting their turn
and sunning themselves in front of the church
over the doors of which is inscribed
a phrase which would seem to be unfinished
from Dante’s Paradiso
about the glory of the One
who moves everything…
The old men are waiting
for it to be finished
for their glorious sentence on earth
to be finished
the slow bell tolls & tolls
the pigeons strut about
not even thinking of flying
the air too heavy with heavy tolling
The black hired hearses draw up
the black limousines with black windowshades
shielding the widows
the widows with the black long veils
who will outlive them all
You have seen them
madre de terra, madre di mare
The widows climb out of the limousines
The family mourners step out in stiff suits
The widows walk so slowly
up the steps of  the cathedral
fishnet veils drawn down
leaning hard on darkcloth arms
Their faces do not fall apart
They are merely drawn apart
They are still the matriarchs
outliving everyone
in Little Italys all over America
the old dead dagos
hauled out in the morning sun
that does not mourn for anyone
One by one Year by year
they are carried out
The bell
never stops tolling
The old Italians with lapstrake faces
are hauled out of the hearses
by the paid pallbearer
in mafioso mourning coats & dark glasses
The old dead men are hauled out
in their black coffins like small skiffs
They enter the true church
for the first time in many years
in these carved black boats
The priests scurry about
as if to cast off the lines
The other old men
still alive on the benches
watch it all with their hats on
You have seen them sitting there
waiting for the bocce ball to stop rolling
waiting for the bell
for the slow bell
to be finished tolling
telling the unfinished Paradiso story
as seen in an unfinished phrase
on the face of a church
in a black boat without sails
making his final haul

Allen typically offers to radically edit down the poem  (“I enjoyed the poem, subject is close to you so details are possible and poem’s an opportunity to remember actual perceptions playfully. It’s a good poem, good moment” – However – “Despite usefulness of repetition for building mournful/doleful humoresque style, some of the repetition seems excessive  especially in opening page, I tried cutting to see what effect  – as follows..”)

– and then he proposes:

For years the old Italians have been dying
all over North Beach San Francisco
For years old Italians in faded felt hats
sun themselves dying on the benches in Washington Square
The old Italians in their black high button shoes
men in old felt fedoras with stained hatbands
dying day by day the slow bell
tolls ten in the morning in the church of St Peter and Paul
marzipan church on the plaza
and the old men still alive sit
sunning themselves in a row
on wood benches in the park.

“Twenty lines reduced to twelve, with basically same movement, but more condensed or concentrated, leaving out no detail..”

Lawrence is having none of it:

“Dear Allen…re my “Old Italians Dying”. You’ve made that passage into a good poem in your own voice, but you’ve got to hear me read this aloud. I read it slowly, gravely and there is nothing “humoresque” about it (except of course for “They enter the true church for the first time/in many years”. But this is immediately followed by “I these carved black boats/ ready to be ferried over…I’ve cut lines in earlier poems – especially derivative literary liners – at your suggestion – But this time its different. There is no “Tentative Description of a dinner to Impeach President Eisenhower” – and I fear that you’re hearing that old voice rather than the new (I’m just getting started, I was warming up, back then!)…in the first line of the passage you’ve rewritten, you deleted “the” in “the old Italians have been dying” – But this is not just “old Italians” in general, in the abstract, it is the old Italians of North Beach San Francisco, the specific ones you’ve seen here for years. (You always said the concrete is the most poetic.) And in this case there’s much detail in “the”….
And when you hear the poem aloud, the repetitions make it – it builds and keeps building…”



Tess Taylor, writing, many years later, on Lawrence’ passing – “I’m old enough to remember when Ferlinghetti’s 1976 poem “The Old Italians Dying” was published again twenty-odd years later – (indeed it was, 1998) – in the San Francisco Chronicle, and my mom paused to read it aloud to me, before sighing and saying: “Now there’s a poem,” and closing her eyes to let a little beam of sunshine pass across her face.”


One comment

  1. Beautiful article here. Happy #ferlinghettiday ! Still 3/23 in San Francisco but we’re right behind you.

    I live that exchange. I will read it tomorrow in honor of both Lawrence & Allen.

    Chris Buck

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