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Constantly Risking Absurdity

Constantly Risking Absurdity


by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lines 9-15 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 9-12

and balancing on eyebeams
                                     above a sea of faces
              paces his way
                                to the other side of day

  • So the poet-acrobat is now "balancing" presumably on the "high wire of his own making." But he's not just balancing on the wire. He's also figuratively balancing on the gaze ("eyebeams") of his audience. Pretty cool image, right? Eyebeams. Makes you think of Cyclops from X-Men.
  • Okay, so we have some figurative language and maybe even another metaphor going on in the imagery of line 9. If the poet is "balancing on eyebeams," maybe we can read this as a metaphor for his experience as a performer. Everyone is watching.
  • They've all got some neat-o eyebeams piercing the poet. So he's not just literally balancing on the high wire, but also on the attention span of his audience. Those eyebeams can't stay fixed on him forever. They have crime to fight.
  • The next line repeats the image of the poet being "above" his audience. The only difference is the audience is now being presented as a "sea of faces."
  • Another metaphor. This image seems to stress the individuality of the performer-poet, as opposed to the crowd below. He's up there all alone, and down there, it's just a bunch of indistinguishable spectators. 
  • Next line: "paces his way." When someone's pacing, you get a little uneasy, right? But hey, what else are you gonna do on a high wire, for Pete's sake? It's not like you can walk around in circles. And to be fair, our performer is "constantly risking" death too, after all, so it's only natural to be a little nervous.
  • Notice too that we have more emphasis on the fact that this is all "his." It's "his way" too, just like it's a wire of "his own making." Seems like it's the poet's world, and we're all just living it.
  • Where's this poet pacing? To "the other side of day." Looks like we have some fancy talk here, chock full of figurative language
  • What's this image all about? Let's work with what we know. The "day" is usually bright, right? Even when it's cloudy, there's still light. So maybe we have a similar idea here, too. Everything here is in the spotlight: "eyebeams," "day" and of course our poet caught right in the center of it all.
  • Alternatively, if we were to imagine traveling from one side of the day to the other, we can assume it would be a pretty long journey, right? Maybe there's a similar idea here that's suggesting a journey, all of which is in the light. Crossing that high wire takes a long time.

Lines 13-15

      performing entrechats
                                  and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics

  • More "performing" here. See, the acrobat can't just pace across the high wire. He's gotta do some tricks while he's up there.
  • So he performs some "entrechats / and sleight-of-foot tricks / and other high theatrics." 
  • That's a big word, entrechats. But rest easy, Shmoopers: it just refers to cool, crisscrossing foot tricks. Looks like our poet-acrobat is trying to either keep our attention or distract us from something else.
  • But what could he be distracting us from? Remember, poetry is very much a bag of tricks. Just take a look at all of the devices we've already noticed. It's like a magic hat filled with illusions, whether we're talking about structure, sound, or simply the words themselves and what they make us think of. All in the service of meaning-making.
  • And in some case, it's in the service of obscuring. At least, according to our speaker. Line 14 seems to be getting at this deceptive part of the performance with its mention of "sleight-of-foot tricks." We usually think of sleight-of-hand, in reference to magic tricks, but remember, we're talking poetry here, which is a whole different ballgame. And hey, there could even be a pun, what with Ferlinghetti's mention of a foot
  • Did you notice the repetition of "and"? Sure, it's a common word we use all the time, but every word counts in poetry and if we see it popping up a lot, we should pay attention. Also, the speaker could've used a different word, or even (gasp!) a comma. But the speaker chooses to repeat "and" instead. Why?
  • Think of it this way: when you imagine your little brothers, sisters, or cousins getting really excited about the story they're telling, they tend to use a certain word a whole lot: "and!" It heightens the excitement of the story in a way, even if it's annoying, because we keep getting more details and reminders that there are more to come every time we hear the word "and." 
  • So in a way, the speaker's use of "and" may fulfill a similar purpose. Maybe we're getting more excited, maybe all of the fancy footwork is distracting us like children often are, or maybe we simply have a catalogue going on here of all the tricks and illusions, whether or not they're building a thrilling crescendo.
  • And let's not ignore the use of the word "high," either. We saw it earlier, too, in the "high wire" image. Remember, poetry is often considered a "high art" meaning it's typically reserved for the highly educated, cultured, and of course the stuffy professors. We also know that Ferlinghetti wanted to toss all that to the wind and make poetry for the rest of us, too. Let's keep that in mind as we keep on reading.

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