>First, the poem, then a story. This is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly risking absurdity” (something I do every day in the classroom!) and it’s one of my favorite “ars poetica” pieces — that is, poems about the art of poetry. I like how he takes those hyper-serious concerns of poetry — Death! Beauty! — and playfully turns them into a circus act. And who doesn’t like a metrical pun like “sleight-of-foot tricks” which then awfully rhymes with “theatrics,” all in a poem supposedly in free verse! Or how about all the other puns — “gravity,” performing “above the heads,” etc.? Or the perfectly silly conjunction of Beauty’s “fair eternal form / spreadeagled in the empty air.” Te-hee! And like most poetry, this one needs to be read aloud to appreciate its play with sound. In fact, I have a funny story about that, but I’ll let you read the poem first, and then tell the story below.
Oh, and btw, I’ve always seen this poem in a layout that spreads the lines across the page, like the high-wire acrobat (the simile stand-in for the poet himself) tentatively making his way across the wire. However, Blogger doesn’t want to do tabs, it seems (and I don’t know how to code it, if that’s possible) and the websites that I’ve seen with this poem display it as below. So, I don’t know if the format I’m familiar with is authorial or editorial. If anyone knows, leave a comment, because I’d like to know. Thanks.
Constantly risking absurdity
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of the day
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
for what it may not be
For he’s the super realist
who must perforce perceive
before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
to start her death-defying leap
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
See, isn’t that great?
Anyway, once upon a time I was teaching this poem in a general ed Intro to Poetry class, and my good friend from England, Em — who I’d know since I was 15, when we “met” as pen pals — was visiting me and sitting in on the class as well, so I really wanted to impress her with my super teaching skills!
We were doing a group of ars poetica poems and since we were somewhere in the middle to the end of the class, the students had already spent some time on formal aspects, including meter, so after I’d asked whether this poem had a formal metrical structure or rhyme scheme (it doesn’t — it’s free verse) I’d asked them if it nevertheless uses either rhythm or rhyme in interesting ways. So, we started reading it aloud and I asked students to note what they heard — half the class did rhythm, the other half did rhyme, as well as consonance and assonance. The rhythm group was having a little difficulty in figuring out what was meaningful in what they heard, and in identifying true patterns, so I helped the class out by beating out the opening in a very exaggerated way.
But right before I decided to coax them towards some answers, I noticed that one of my usually enthusiastic and involved students was falling fast asleep in the front row. No no no, this simply wouldn’t do on a day I was trying to impress my friend! So here’s what happened….
I started counting out the rhythm, asking students to think not about iambs and trochees and dactyls and anapests, but what kind of music the rhythm reminded them of.
“CON-stant-ly RISK-ing ab-SURD-i-ty,” I said as I walked across the floor, hitting the ground a little harder on each stressed syllable. “What does that sound like?” I repeated the rhythm a few times and finally someone came up with “A waltz!” and then someone said something about “circus music.” “Right! It’s the sound of the circus calliope or organ!”
“Now,” I said, “what does Ferlinghetti do with the rhythm next — and why? Listen.” It was at this point that I noticed the dozing guy. So now, I started from the top again, still exaggerating the rhythm, but now reading continuously to the next line (as one should, of course), accompanied by my stomps.
“CON-stant-ly RISK-ing ab-SURD-i-ty…” I stomped closer and closer to Mr. Dozer until I reached the next line of the poem, “…and DEATH” — BAM! I slammed my hands down on his desk!
“Wha?! Huh?,” he awoke with a start. “I’m not asleep! I was listening! I swear!”
Te-hee. I don’t usually care if an exhausted student can’t keep his eyes open, but I couldn’t resist in this case. It was just too funny! And it also dramatically demonstrated the way the word “death” and its placement disrupts the happy calliope-like (and sleep inducing?) opening rhythm with the potential SPLAT! of the acrobat-poet. The rest of the class got it, anyway. 🙂
And Em was amused, too.