Poetry and Autogeddon
[San Francisco Chronicle, August 13, 2000]

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poets are supposed to be the antennae of the race. In 1958, in the first poem in A Coney Island of the Mind, I had a dubious vision of a concrete
continent with freeways fifty lanes wide. But that was pure hyperbole, and naturally no one took it seriously.

A decade ago a British poet, Heathcote Williams, published a book of poetry called Autogeddon. Here is one pithy part of it:

     If an Alien Visitor were to hover a few hundred yards above the planet
     It could be forgiven for thinking
     That cars were the dominant life form,
     And that human beings were a kind of ambulatory fuel cell:
     Injected when the car wished to move off,
     And ejected when they were spent.

     In 1885 Karl Benz constructed the first automobile.
     It had three wheels, like a car for invalids,
     And ran on alcohol, like many drivers.
     Since then about seventeen million people have been killed by them
     In an undeclared war,
     And the whole of the rest of the world is in danger of being run over. . . .

His prophecies of the future Armageddon of automobiles wasn't taken seriously, either. After all, since when were poets supposed to be describing,the real world? It seems, however, that we've gone far beyond his antiquated vision. Like George Orwell with 1984, he didn't go far enough.

Today, we in America, always the leaders of the free world, are reaping the fruits of this wonderful invention by Herr Benz, abetted and aided by one H. Ford and other sedentary geniuses of his ilk. Should I say we are reaping the bumper crop? We have surpassed the inventors' wildest dreams, and perhaps they will soon be turning in their graves, just as the inventors of the atom bomb are no doubt whirring in theirs.

We happy few are the beneficiaries of the real miracles Detroit has created. Turn on the radio any morning at seven and hear about the glories of Autogeddon: wrecks on freeways as good as any conceptual sculpture, bridges and ramps clogged, traffic backed up twenty miles out, sirens and car alarms echoing like a symphony over the airwaves. It is indeed an epic scene for an epic poem. All the elements of a great tragedy or at least a
great tragicomedy are present. And when the citizens' frustration builds up to road rage and there's a road kill, you have the perfect purgative effect that all great drama must have.

But it is not all bad. There is a beauty in it, too. There is a poetry of driving that may escape many drivers, if not many poets. Even if you get hung up on a freeway for an hour or two in a ten-mile-long traffic jam, you can still observe the divine comedy of all the souls trapped in their cars. Or, to add drama to your poetry, once you do get into the city, you can almost run down a pedestrian or two, or a bicyclist. There's no more poetic way to scare the life out of a native in a crosswalk (who may be in the right, but will end up dead wrong). Or you can terrorize a driver by tailgating her and flashing your lights on and off.

There's nothing to stop you when there're no cops around.. There's no book of etiquette for drivers. Miss Manners has few car manners--there's just no tradition for it. We've progressed so fast that we haven't had time to create one. No one is taught that it is simply bad form to blow your horn at anyone except when in real danger. And a good thing, too. It would impede progress, it would be in restraint of trade, almost as bad as all those strict environmental laws.

Your car is indeed your symbol of freedom, and it's your inalienable right to do anything you want in it. But I have my inalienable rights, too, and I'm a civil rights poet who believes in slow, leisurely drives about the city or on the freeway. I love to drive as slowly as possible. The slower I drive, the more poetic it is. Like watching a film in slow motion after smoking a joint, and everything takes on a profound symbolic quality. I love to kick back and enjoy the lovely landscape. This always infuriates the bobo on the cell phone behind me who by now is giving me the finger and blasting me with his klaxon. But the more this dude rages, the slower I drive. How can I tell him that the great epic poem I'm writing is every bit as important as that startup dot-commie he's rushing to meet?

It certainly is a heroic subject for an epic poem.

                                         Copyright © 2000 Lawrence Ferlinghetti
                                               All Rights Reserved