Constantly Risking Absurdity
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Lines 1-8 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Constantly risking absurdity
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
- Oh boy, looks like we have a little craziness already, and only in the first two lines. But let's not judge too quickly. Yes, the poem looks funny, but when we actually read the lines, they make (almost) perfect sense.
- We start with the title of the poem: "Constantly Risking Absurdity." So Ferlinghetti hasn't gone off the deep end completely, since titling your poem with its first line is a pretty normal poetic convention.
- Before we get into the words themselves, let's take a good look at the poem's structure. The lines look groovy and wavy, right? Why? Does it maybe look already like an acrobatic performance swaying to and fro from one line to the next? Take a look at the "Form and Meter" section for more on this technique.
- Speaking of form, we can't ignore all the enjambment going on. In fact, there's no punctuation anywhere in any of these lines. It's all just one big happy thought/swing/line.
- This stream of consciousness style, in which one idea flows into the other (kind of like the way our minds work when we go from one idea to another) is a hallmark of Beat literature.
- Sometimes our minds are all over the place and the Beats often tried to capture this kind of feeling.
- Back to the words on the page. The performer that we see here is doing some dangerous stuff. Not only does he "constantly" risk sounding absurd, but he's also risking death. Yikes.
- Why death? Aren't there any nets below him? Maybe, maybe not. But it seems that death is something more figurative here. Maybe it's a death of his career, work or reputation.
- Notice too that he's performing "above the heads of his audience." What comes to mind with this sort of imagery? Yes, literally speaking, an acrobat will always perform above the audience. But since this is poetry, we should also look below the surface.
- Remember that Ferlinghetti wanted to make poetry more accessible to the everyday person, not just the stuffy professors. Is all the "performing above the heads" a metaphor for writing poetry? If a poet only performs "above" his audience, is he risking the purpose of his career? After all, if a poet isn't read and remembered by more than just a few people, it's pretty hard to get a legacy established. And we all would love a legacy, right?
- On the other hand, it's kind of a poet's job to get at some sort of truth, if there's one to be had. And that truth has got to be something that we, as people, can relate to, not just the professors. In doing so, a poet will inevitably be somewhat "above" our heads, since most of us aren't constantly trying to find Truth and Beauty the way a poet is. We're busy with our TVs, thank you very much.
- Notice, too, that there's a pretty clear separation of the artist from his audience (if we are talking in metaphors). One is the "performer" while the other is being entertained.
- Is there some symbolism going on here? What are some connotations of the word "performer?" Is there maybe something inauthentic about the image, as if the performer can never be entirely "real?" Does the audience necessarily care if they're real or would they rather just be entertained? Check out the "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" section for some ideas.
poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
- A-ha! So we were talking about poetry this whole time. It's official: here we get a simile that compares the poet to an acrobat. What comes to mind when you think of this comparison? Danger? Entertainment? A performance of some sort? Is Ferlinghetti maybe trying to immediately get us out of our normal associations of what a poet is supposed to be?
- Notice, too, that the poem's structure is mimicking the look that we saw in the previous lines: a swinging continuous thought-line. Be sure to check out the "Sound Check" section as well for some possible ideas about the swinging sound of the poem, too.
- So the poet "climbs on rime." Rime is a kind of icy coating of some sort. A slippery surface. A frost. Why is he deliberately climbing on something slippery?
- Isn't he afraid of that "death" he's constantly risking in the previous lines?
- We may also be getting an immediate reference to the "slippery" nature of the creative process, whether you're a poet or acrobat. No one said it was ever easy being a performer. In fact, it might be one of the more dangerous occupations a person can practice. Is it also maybe more fulfilling because of this danger? C'est possible.
- And there's no denying the pun here. Rime sounds an awful lot like rhyme, which is the stuff of poetry. (In fact, rime is actually an alternate spelling of rhyme.) Ferlinghetti-the-poet-acrobat is clearly being careful with his diction here.
- For another example, check out that word "climb." It rhymes with "rime," which sets up an immediate association, but we also think of climbing a mountain or climbing up the proverbial ladder of success. That can be challenging at times, right? Exhausting even. It's certainly a process of sorts, with no easy shortcuts.
- Plus, check out what he's climbing toward: "a high wire of his own making." Ah, we have a pretty clear symbol going on here, but we can't just hand it over. Check out the "Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay" section for some ideas.
- But what may be even more important is the idea that this high wire is of his "own making." The guy in the factory didn't make it. The circus engineer (is that a thing?) wasn't responsible, no sir. The poet-acrobat made it all by himself. Does that mean that he's somehow responsible for his own possible "death?" Is the wire that he made supposed to represent the poem he's in the process of creating? So many questions, so many possible answers.
- And again, don't ignore the enjambment we're seeing. So far we haven't seen any punctuation, as if the poem is being spoken all in one breath. Maybe there's a point to that, too. We've got a long, exhausting, unpredictable, and maybe even dangerous performance going on here. It's nerve-wracking. We're literally holding our breath.
- Also we have some assonance going on here: "climb, rime, high, wire." They all share the same I sound. "Climb" and "rime" also share the same "m" sound, so there's some consonance at the same time. Check out our "Sound Check" section for the scoop on how these sounds are making meaning in the poem.
- All in all, we seem to have a balance of some more experimental stuff going on (swinging structures and no punctuation) and the more conventional stuff (assonance, consonance, imagery, metaphors, symbolism, etc.). What does this do to our reading of the poem? How are all of these experiments and conventions contributing to the themes of the poem?