Book review: Lawrence Ferlinghetti cleverly paints the world’s beauty and ruin

The poet, publisher and City Lights Bookstore founder approaches Marrakesh with a blank slate.
Chuck Twardy

Four stars

Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010 By Lawrence Ferlinghetti, $35.

Starting “Marrakesh Journal” roughly midway through Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010, Lawrence Ferlinghetti announces: “Sometimes it is better not to know anything about a country when you visit it.” Having already learned well about best-laid plans, the poet, publisher and City Lights Bookstore founder chose to approach the Moroccan city as “a tabula rasa upon which all has yet to be written.” The newness of every sensation, free of any associative taint, “takes on the immediate quality of poetry, the quality of pure color in painting,” Ferlinghetti exults. “Herein lies the true fascination of travel, not in the confirmation or contradiction of what we have been led to expect …”

It was a minor epiphany for Ferlinghetti, who often seeks the offbeat, although it’s notable that his account of visiting Marrakesh consists mostly of mental rambling, including rumination on various types of cries and a disquisition on mouths. Clearly he enjoyed Marrakesh. Other places, not so much. For Ferlinghetti can be as cranky as any traveler whose plans, even sketchy ones, are upended by happenstance. Think that overnight wait for a postponed flight was a pain? Try taking the Trans-Siberian Railway nine days across the bleak taiga, hoping to catch a ship to Japan and a flight home, only to learn you can’t board a ship without a visa, obtainable only in the Japanese embassy back in Moscow. Oh, and get deathly ill.

Editors Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson pulled these journals from handwritten notebooks and peppered them with reproductions of Ferlinghetti’s drawings. Two sections were previously published but are hard to find, The Mexican Night (1970) and Seven Days in Nicaragua Libre (1984). Diano and Gleeson describe Ferlinghetti as the Beat Generation champion “who has never considered himself a Beat.” His politics are Leftist but realist. He smugly fails to find the horrors both pols and press warned of in 1960 Havana, but unapologetically describes a bleak Soviet Union and calls East Berlin “a sewer of sufferers.”

Often these journal entries, missing articles of speech and burdened with “some kind of” analogies, read as sketches for more fully involved and refined essays. And Ferlinghetti’s mental meanderings, while often powered by surrealist energy and deft word play, can occasionally leave you yearning for more of the street or train or landscape. But mostly he is an adept, clever observer of human aspirations and failings.

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