Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
where Beauty stands and waits
to start her death-defying leap
- Ah, there she is: Beauty! She's probably every poet's dream girl. And she gets a capital "B." We have some personification, too, as the speaker gives Beauty both a name that looks like a person's and pronouns and actions that only people have.
- But we know she's not a "real" person, just an ideal. A perfect poem maybe that speaks of life in the best way possible.
- So she's sort of the prize, but not quite. It looks like Beauty, too, has some risks she's willing to take with the poet-acrobat, because she, too, has "to start her death-defying leap." Notice the speaker isn't just talking about the poet anymore. It's not just "his" world anymore. It's Beauty's, too.
- Beauty stands and waits "with gravity" which suggests she's part of the whole universe. She's cosmic, man.
- Having "with gravity" in a separate line also makes Beauty look all the more powerful. The image gets its very own line, which makes us think it's pretty important. And of course it's important; it is gravity, after all.
- Notice, too, that it's Beauty that stands on that "higher perch" we saw in the previous lines. She's "it," so to speak. It doesn't get much higher or better than Beauty.
- But let's consider what "Beauty" really means here. We're not necessarily looking at something with flowing hair, rosy cheeks, and a killer bod. This Beauty's more of a poetic ideal rather than a real life image or thing.
- Remember, the acrobat in the poem is a poet so this is a poet's world. And a poet's world doesn't work like ours. It's filled with abstract things, illusions, magic tricks, and death. Awesome.
- So Beauty has to risk it all along with the poet. She's just as subject to gravity as the poet. But she's willing to risk it all just like the poet. Very romantic, don't you think?
- She's waiting there patiently for the poet-acrobat. It's as if she's always there and isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Maybe she knows that the whole process takes a while. But the poet's on his way, ready to catch her. We hope.
- Shmoop thinks it's about time we look at the metaphorical aspect of all this. We probably can guess by now that this isn't at all about acrobatics and death-defying leaps. Rather, it's all a metaphor for the risks a poet experiences when trying to create something of Beauty. And what does he constantly risk? Absurdity and death of course! Seems like a pretty real risk, right?
- But again, it's all part of the process. Everyone knows that an artist's life is never easy until he's dead. And even then we can't be too, sure.
- Also, it's all a "leap" of faith. The poet won't know if what he creates will be of any value. He's not even sure it will adequately represent "Beauty." But that's probably all part of the excitement for both the poet and audience.
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
- Another capitalization, so we can assume we have another section. We're still talking about the poet here, who's referred to as "a little charleychaplin man."
- Here's a quick crash-course on the famous comedian alluded to here. Charlie Chaplin was a silly little comedian (though very well read) who was famous for slapstick kind of comedy during the silent film era.
- His was an easy to recognize face, especially for Ferlinghetti's generation, and audiences just ate him up. So it's no surprise that he's being used in a similar way here: to represent a silly, awkward, even absurd (but familiar) comparison to the poet-acrobat. Also, Ferlinghetti is known to be a big fan of Chaplin.
- And there it is: suddenly the poet isn't so high and mighty like we saw earlier in the poem. He's silly, and pop-culture-friendly like the rest of us, though he still has those lofty responsibilities.
- You're probably asking why Ferlinghetti didn't spell the poor guy's name correctly. But like we said earlier, the Beats loved to play with words (even names) all for the purpose of making them sound more like they do in real life. Hence the squishing and change of the "ie" to "ey."
- So the poet's a silly little man now who "may or may not catch." Catch what, we're not sure. But that's kind of the point. The enjambment here echoes the fact that our poet-acrobat is unsure about the outcome of his performance.
- Maybe that's why he's smaller in size and stature than we saw earlier (again, we're talking metaphorically, though Charlie Chaplin was literally a small man).
- But to be fair, we're all a bit charleychaplinesque, aren't we? No one's ever sure what the outcome will be. We're all leaping and risking.
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
- Here's Beauty again. It's her "fair eternal form" that our poet-acrobat may or may not catch when she makes her death-defying leap.
- Beauty has got herself wide open for the poet. She's "spreadagled." No need to get too risqué here because we know Beauty isn't a real person. She's an ideal though that's ready to be caught. No reservations. No biases. No qualms.
- The "empty air" is furthering her association with the cosmos like we saw earlier. She's universal and free, and the poet-acrobat really really really wants to get his hands on her.
- But it's not just empty air. It's the "empty air of existence." That word, existence, carries all sorts of connotations, right? There's certainly no easy answers here, right or wrong, simply because none of us is quite sure as to why or whom we exist for. But we know we exist. Hopefully.
- So by the end, there are still no guarantees. We don't know if the poet catches Beauty and we don't know if he'll ever find that truth.
- But alas, this is all part of the heartbreaking, exciting, and dangerous life of the poet. The very idea that we're not sure if he even catches Beauty tells us what poetry is all about: constantly risking absurdity for the chance of a lifetime.