Constantly Risking Absurdity
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Lines 16-25 Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
and all without mistaking
for what it may not be
- Fair warning, fair Shmoopers: we're getting into some of the highbrow stuff here, but it's manageable. We promise.
- Let's keep in mind the context of these lines: the poet-acrobat is doing fancy footwork, maybe for the purpose of deception. Now we get to learn a little more about his performance-style.
- He's performing "without mistaking any thing." Notice the separation of "any" and "thing." The speaker is emphasizing the solitary nature of one "thing" whatever it may be. He's not lumping it into the word "anything." It's special and it deserves its space.
- Check out the structure, too. It looks like these three lines are kind of nestled in their own little space, unlike some of the previous lines we've seen. They're still part of the one big thought/line/swing we started with, but Ferlinghetti seems to be singling these lines out a bit, just through the structure alone. Why?
- Maybe he's emphasizing that there's some careful attention being paid by the poet to the individual "things" (presumably ideas and words since we're talking about a poet). The poet seems to be looking at all sides of the "thing" and not just taking them for face value. No "mistaking" going on.
- And all the careful attention is for the purpose of getting at what the "thing" may be rather than what it may "not be." Is your head spinning yet? It's okay.
- That's what philosophy is all about—spinning and liking it.
- So yes, it seems Ferlinghetti is doubling back on the whole notion of "street poetry" since this stuff is looking pretty heavy and dare we say highbrow to us.
- But to be fair, Ferlinghetti could have made this a whole lot more artsy-fartsy. He's still keeping the poem within our reach, so maybe we should cut him some slack. Maybe things are getting complicated for a reason.
- A little side note too: the Beats (even if Ferlinghetti claims he wasn't one) were for the most part highly educated, too, so it's not as if they rolled out of elementary school and right into poetry. They've got the academic chops to back up their "street poetry," so it's inevitable that we'll hear some of the deeper philosophical stuff on occasion.
- Ferlinghetti is no exception. The guy has a master's degree from Columbia University and a doctoral degree from the Sorbonne. Just sayin'.
For he's the super realist
who must perforce perceive
- We can't say for sure that we've begun a new stanza because it's hard to tell with the swinging lines. It looks like it's all one stanza, just like it's one thought swinging into another. But for our purposes, we can assume that there's a subtle break that begins with line 19, when the poem starts to focus more on the poet-acrobat himself. Plus we get a capitalization of "For." That's new.
- We learn that our guy's a "super realist" which is an oxymoron of sorts. How can a superhero or super-anything be a realist, too? They're by nature unreal or supernatural, right? Maybe the speaker is simply emphasizing the fact that the poet is more specifically "very" much a realist, hence "super realist."
- So there are a few different ways we can read line 19. But the main idea seems to be that the poet is by nature a contradiction. On the one hand, he has a lofty responsibility of finding Beauty and Truth (don't worry—we'll get there), while on the other he's trying to capture "real" life and putting it in a way we can identify with.
- Again, poetry and usually poets are full of contradictions, and that's what makes the stuff they put forth either very interesting or very confusing. And hey, the everyday folks are no walk in the park either. We're all nuts and confused to some degree.
- In these lines we also learn that the poet's got a duty: he "must perforce perceive taut truth." This is no easy feat, but since perforce means it's unavoidable; there's no getting around his duty. He "must" do it. Resistance is futile.
- "Taut" is a fancy way of saying tight. So this truth is a bit delicate, when we bear in mind how easy it is for something to snap if it's pulled too tightly. On the other hand, we may think that if it's tight it's also secure.
- Regardless, "truth" is present here and it's the poet's duty to perceive it. No putting it off until the weekend.
before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
- So first the poet-acrobat needs to "perceive taut truth" before the "taking of each stance or step." In other words, he better be sure that there are no mistakes here. After all, his life depends on it. Sure it's fun to write your girlfriend a love poem or two, but when you're a poet performing for an entire audience, your work better say something more than just "let me count the ways."
- Each step—each stance—matters.
- We could have some symbolism at work here, too. The steps and stances may represent the words, ideas, or language a poet uses. And just like an acrobat had better be sure he watches his step, so does a poet when it comes to the ideas and words he uses. Everybody's watching (or at least poets like to think so).
- But we haven't even seen the hard part yet. Still there's a "supposed advance" which suggests that the poet is moving toward something he hasn't quite reached yet. There's an end somewhere, even though he may not see it right away, and everything (word) he uses is part of the process of getting there.
- And again it's all "his." No one ever said poets weren't egomaniacs…
- Notice too the use of the word "supposed." There are no guarantees here, no shining trophies at the other end waiting to be handed to the poet. His main concern is avoiding death. What good is a trophy if you're dead anyway?
- And we get more reminders that there's still a long way to go—a "still higher perch." Have you ever heard of a satisfied poet, writer, or artist? If you have then chances are they're not all that great since it's a commonly shared belief that an artist's entire existence rests on wanting more, bigger, better things (in an artistic sense of course, though we're sure they wouldn't mind the big bucks either).
- So we're starting to see the struggling artist rear his ugly head in these lines. He's reaching, striving, climbing, considering every step he takes or word he writes, all in the name of reaching that "higher perch."
- That "higher perch" is perhaps a symbol for that elusive "truth" the poet is seeking out. Again, if truth were easy to find we'd likely have painful smiles on our faces all the time.