Please take less than a half minute to read “Don’t Let That Horse” at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42862/dont-let-that-horse-
Lawrence Ferlinghetti died yesterday, February 22, 2021. Among the clatter and clang of the days news, this is the one bit of information that makes me reflective.
I was babysitting for my Uncle Bill. A habit of mine had me looking through his bookshelves, seeing what he read, if there was anything that might take my interest. I was always on the lookout for that occasional piece of literature that showed naked people, women, especially.
Going through the bookshelf after my cousins went to bed, a curious book caught my eye. It was a small, thumb-worn paperback. The cover photo showed a tall, skinny building outlined with strings of lights. It rose up behind a dark framework for what might be cloth for a covered sidewalk. Behind and beside the tower glittering against a night sky were other structures outfitted with light strings.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind was probably the most intriguing book of my middle teens. All the poems were easy to read. They made sense to me immediately, unlike the poems we had to read and study in school. One poem, in particular, “Don’t Let That Horse . . .” held my attention. I read it so many times that night that it settled into my brain. I can recite it still today.
That’s not a feat. The poem is, by my count, only 69 words long. But the image it conjures is so large. A contemplation on Marc Chagall’s Horse with Violin in Mouth, the piece struck me to be about, really, the freedom one seeks from the conformities of life.
At the time, I was looking for my own identity. I was malleable, and this was a formative piece of literature. I was as raw clay and any strong, comfortable influence would have taken me directions I might or might not regret. But this bit of literary crystal allowed me to grasp, for the first time, that I didn’t have to be formed but could, in fact, form myself.
That, by itself, was one of the revelations that changed everything in my life, and not right away. What I found in “Don’t Let That Horse . . .” I carried with me for a long time, even if the forces around me continued to form me. I let myself be formed. I attempted uniqueness for many years, but a life of drunkenness and dissipation prevented me from really discovering the “me” in me.
But of all the things that stuck with me through the years, Ferlinghetti’s poem was constant. For a long time, I devoured books. Hundreds of them. I went through all the youthful churnings that all young people should go through. I read the Beats and dreamed drunken, electric dreams of long road trips and lumpy mattresses and desert disappearances. (I actually disappeared into the desert more than several times in my 20s.) The works of Somerset Maugham inundated me with insights into human behavior. Catch-22 became a book I would read again and again over the next 40 years—the last time in 2019.
Caught at the bottom of my game in 1990 at age 27, I had to sober up. I remember the first week in my apartment as I was trying to start a new life. I was moving some things around when I came across A Coney Island of the Mind at the bottom of a random stack of books. I took it up, sat down, and read, starting with ”Don’t Let That Horse . . .” I cried when I realized anything was possible. I just had to take that violin and hop up on the horse and give that violin to the first naked woman I came across.
I don’t know much about the Ferlinghetti. He would have turned 101 in March. He and a friend founded City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco in the early 1950s. He thought that the city needed a “locus” for its creative/literary community. His store became a hub for Beat poets and, in fact, helped those poets along by publishing their work. Though involved in the various counterculture movements of the 50s and 60s, he most impressively declared on more than one occasion that he was not a “hippie.”
Good for him. I never had much for the Beats personally, though I did revel in much they wrote, the raw beauty of their poems. Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a continuing testament to the struggle of freeing one’s spirit in a world that, at every turn, seeks to rein in those that cause disturbances in the (cosmic) field. Ferlinghetti encouraged and nurtured the creative spirits while eschewing their more excessive, even self-destructive impulses.
But more than any of his other feats of humanity and artistry, he was a poet. I never wanted to meet him or know much more about him. Meeting my heroes, I’ve found, tends to contradict the images I’ve built of them in my mind. In other words, they wind up being people, and some of them pretty nasty at that. Better to let Ferlinghetti remain a father figure, a sort of wise mentor who gently nudges me along the rails and roads of life.
His death makes me think of “Don’t Let That Horse . . .” again. Have I achieved what I imagine the Chagall character has gained for himself?
That’s not a hard question to answer. Of course, now that I look at it, I have. I sometimes get to thinking: All that education, the poems, the books I’ve authored, the ones I still to write . . . and I’m a mailman. I get down on myself.
But what else would I be? I’ve interviewed for jobs (“positions”), nearly gotten them a few times, but have never been able to imagine myself in them, actually doing them. Maybe I could. My income and security would be better, that’s sure. But, in the end, outside of the rigors of the job, no one tells me how to think, how to live my life. I can be fat or skinny, wear my hair long or short. I can be a socialist or a reactionary. As long as I put the right mail into your mailbox, nothing can touch me.
And there are no strings attached.