It's weird, it's groovy, it's exciting, and it's all in one breath (not really, but close enough). Remember that without any punctuation, we can assume that we're not stopping the show at any point. Once we're in the audience's seat, our eyes and ears are fixed on the poet and we don't get any bathroom breaks.
Let's dig in.
The structure of the poem contributes quite a bit to the sound of the poem. We know it looks like one swinging thought so the sound has a similar swing to it as well, as the lines loop back and forth like a trapeze. And to top it all off, we have a nice big bag of magic-hat tricks (poetic devices) that stress both the excitement of the poem and the possible danger.
Let's start with assonance. We have lots of examples right from the beginning: "climb, rime, high, wire." Hear all those I sounds? Ah, but Ferlinghetti doesn't stop there. We also have an example of consonance in the repetition of the M sound in "climb" and "rime" (7-8). Not to mention the internal rhyming we see in these same words. Looks like Ferlinghetti may be showing off, and it makes sense, considering it's all a show in this poem.
We get more assonance later on in lines 11-12: "pace, way, day." That A has an elongated sound, meaning it takes some more energy to get the whole word out. And again, the sound here contributes to the long and challenging process of getting across that high wire and catching Beauty.
More consonance, too, in lines 13-15: "sleight, foot, tricks." Hear that short staccato T sound? All those short quick sounds roll right into each other, maybe mimicking the tricky nature of the poet's fancy, quick footwork.
Also we have lots of assonance (mistaking, thing / and, any) and consonance (what, it, not) in lines 16-18. The poem's structure seems to nestle these lines together, making them stand out, and the sound of the words does the exact same thing. These are important lines and Ferlinghetti seems to make that point through the combination of special structure and special sounds. After all, this is the poet's main responsibility: perceiving truth without mistaking "any thing" for what it "may not be." That T sound makes us annunciate "what, it, not" in a nice clear way. A truthful way maybe.
Later we get some alliteration in lines 19-21: "perforce perceive" and "taut truth." The repetition of these initial consonant sounds functions kind of like the T sound we saw in lines 16-18. It makes us pay attention and take notice of the words themselves and the ideas behind them. Again, it's the poet's job to "perceive taut truth," so these words are important. They've gotta stand out.
And we get even more alliteration in lines 22-25: "stance or step." We know these steps and stances are really just symbols for the various words and ideas a poet may work with in his advance toward Beauty. Just like the other examples we've seen so far, these words have the same initial consonant sound so they make us pay attention to their importance.
And last, but certainly not least, we have more alliteration in lines 32-24: "fair eternal form," and more assonance: "eternal […] empty […] existence." Of course Ferlinghetti would end his poem with a literary bang of devices. We're meant to see the true scope of Beauty's presence and the everlasting emptiness of existence, the combination of which makes the poet's work all the more challenging but also equally fulfilling if he's ever able to catch Beauty. So it all has a rather dramatic sound that's meant to pay respect to that elusive Beauty.
The title is everything here. Why? Well, the poet's entire existence rests on it. He's "constantly risking absurdity" in everything he does. Say he goes to get a cup of coffee. Guess what: he's "constantly risking absurdity." Or let's say he wants to put on a little performance for us like an acrobat. Then too, he's "constantly risking absurdity."
But wait a minute. What does it mean to constantly risk absurdity in the first place? Well, we think he's pointing to the fact that when you write poetry (which is really the only everyday activity a poet cares about), you are always running the risk of sounding like a total wacko. Let's face it: poetry (and even art in general) is known for being a bit confusing, a bit strange, and even, at times, incomprehensible. But still, the poet soldiers on.
Yep, there's no rest for the poet. And we know by now that everything he does is a challenging, even dangerous creative process. But it's not all in vain, for we know that on the other end of that high wire is Beauty, ready to leap and risk it all for our man. That's what makes constantly risking absurdity totally worth it.
We've got a poet-acrobat, high wire, and Beauty about to do a "death-defying leap" into his waiting (hopefully strong) arms. But there aren't any lions, clowns, or other notable signs that suggest this is your average circus. It's a circus of the poet's mind more than anything else. And as such, we can imagine that this place has probably got even neater things to offer than a bunch of clowns in a shrunken car.
Our acrobat has the cosmos on his side "where Beauty stands and waits with gravity" (lines 25-26). Bet you never saw that at a circus. And this circus never seems to end, what with Beauty's fair form being "eternal," and the fact that this is really all a metaphor for poetry-writing, which seems to be the poet-acrobat's lifetime calling. An endless circus? That sounds… exhausting.
And to top it all off, he's risking "absurdity and death" throughout it all. No nets, no elephants, no promises.
Even though we don't hear the poem from the poet-acrobat's voice, we do get a speaker that seems to do a pretty good job of showing us his perspective. So essentially we have a third-person point of view that's limited to the poet himself. Notice we don't hear Beauty's side of the story. We only see her "fair eternal form" but we don't hear her fair eternal thoughts. If we did, the poem would sound a whole lot different, right?
So what does this do to the sound of the poem? If we only get one side of the story and we get a lot of language that stresses that it's all "his" world, maybe we also get the sense that the world kind of revolves around him. After all, everything is "his own making" and everyone is watching him, including the speaker.
But the speaker also has a ringmaster's voice that maintains the fun spectacle of the poem. He tells the poet's story as if he's watching him that very moment, adding to the excitement and circus-like vibe. So he's not trying to be super-serious about it all. After all, we're at a circus and the point of the show is to entertain the audience.
Sure it's Ferlinghetti, so we don't have to worry so much about those five-dollar words and tricky philosophies. But since he's writing about Beauty, Truth, and Poetry, we know the poem's not going to be a leisurely walk in the park. We're inevitably going to see some abstract ideas, figurative language, and of course enjambment. But it's groovy, man, so dig it.
Experiment time! So we've got a poet that writes "street poetry" that sounds something like normal talk rather than a flowery sonnet. It's a pretty short poem, so give the following a shot:
Read "Constantly Risking Absurdity" out loud to yourself (or an audience, even if it's Rufus the dog). Be sure to pay attention to the poem's lack of punctuation.
So whether you went through with our nifty experiment or not, chances are you've noticed that Ferlinghetti sounds very different compared to the poets of many yesteryears. There's definitely something groovy and conversational about his work, and this is something you'll probably encounter with other Beats as well.
You've got this one in the bag, because by now you've probably noticed that everything in this poem is free. The structure is free, the form is free, the meter is free, heck even Beauty is free. Everything's loosey goosey here—even the enjambment, which might have driven us a little crazy. But that headache isn't for nothing. It's to remind us that the poem (like the poet-acrobat) is part of one big swinging creative process.
The lines themselves look like they're swinging to and fro, a little erratic at times, and a little more controlled in other places. In a weird way, it really reminds us of a circus, as if the lines themselves are swinging back and forth on a trapeze. We also noticed that when the speaker chooses to get a little heavy on us with his philosophy, the lines appear to be more controlled (take a look again at lines 16-18). So the poem's structure is in tune with the words and ideas we hear.
Also, we mentioned that we can't really decipher breaks in stanzas here, aside from a couple of capitalized words. It looks like it's all one big stanza, which makes sense considering that it's all one big swinging idea. So the mood that we seem to get just from the structure alone seems to be one that is not only free but also a little unpredictable and even dangerous (thank goodness for those nets below the high wire). Not dangerous in the sense of being eaten alive by caged tigers but rather in the sense of risking everything, especially the poet's work and purpose.
The poem opens with a focus on the poet who's compared to an acrobat of sorts. He's got some fancy footwork, which we know is just a metaphor for his magic-hat of poetic devices. He also has some lofty responsibilities, catching Beauty, and is constantly risking "absurdity and death." We know from the very beginning that Ferlinghetti is trying to make us see his poet in a more imaginative and figurative sense. Which makes sense since the poet-acrobat's entire purpose is by nature a little crazy and unpredictable.
It's high and it's mighty. It's everything that the poet-acrobat rests upon in terms of his work and purpose. At the same time, it's high so it's full of danger and potential mishaps. That wire is everything to the poet, because it will take him to Beauty, who's waiting at the other end. But it also is the very thing that keeps the poet in the mindset of "constantly risking absurdity." The poor guy just can't win, whether he's risking it all on the high wire or trying desperately to catch Beauty. After all, he knows that there are no guarantees.
She's beautiful all right, but not in the way we normally think. She's not a supermodel or a doll. She's a poet's ideal. She's the stuff of the perfect poem. In fact, we're not even sure what she looks like, but again, she's a personification of the poet's idea of perfection, and we're not meant to see her as a flesh and blood kind of gal. She's also on a "higher perch" that's difficult to get to. And yet everything the poet-acrobat does is for the purpose of catching her and making that perfect poem.
We'll get to the specifics about the actual Charlie Chaplin below, but for now, we understand that he was a comedian, a little funny looking, and very recognizable. But this isn't about him. It's about all the ideas that come to mind when we imagine him. He's small, so he's not all that intimidating; silly (often doing ridiculous slapstick sort of comedy); and perhaps represents the notion of absurdity. After all, everything about the poet-acrobat and what he does can very easily be confused with being absurd and ridiculous (rather than artsy and awesome and, oh, beautiful). And the poet is the "charleychaplin man."
You don't normally have a lot of sex going on during a circus, right? Okay, maybe nowadays there are exceptions to every standard (we're looking at you, Zumanity), but typically speaking an acrobatic performance is pretty clean, aside from the risking death part. The same holds true here. It's all about the poet, his art, and Beauty's "death-defying leap."