Pamela Carter-Birken’s Doctor of Liberal Studies degree was conferred by Georgetown University in 2013. While still a student in the Liberal Studies Program at Georgetown, her peer-reviewed article about interpretation in art museums appeared in Curator: A Museum Journal. True to liberal studies sensibilities in scholarship, she has published in such diverse periodicals as Humanities, where she wrote about the history of the Denver rail station, and Social Work Today, where she discussed art programs designed for persons with special needs. Dr. Carter-Birken is at work on a book about Duncan Phillips, founder of the Phillips Collection, America’s first museum of modern art.
Look Inward: John Dewey’s Art as Experience and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind
Pamela Carter-Birken, Georgetown University
John Dewey wrote Art as Experience, his book-length argument for the power of individual encounters with art, primarily about visual art. In it, the philosopher and educational reformer writes that “in an experience, things and events belonging to the world, physical and social, are transformed through the human context they enter.” Dewey’s approach does not indicate a lack of respect for what the artist created; rather, art as experience allows for a meaningful connection between the participant and the work. While students of art history are likely to recall Art as Experience mostly for its commentary on paintings and sculpture, it also addresses architecture, music and literature. We will utilize Dewey’s 1934 book as a method of exploring individual encounters with literary art.
In applying Dewey’s methodology for visual art to literature, we will ask a question that concerns both art and literature: Why does it matter that we consider creative works – or as Dewey calls them, “art products” – for ourselves, rather than rely on the interpretations of others? To that end, we will adjust our Dewey lens to focus on the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, renowned for publishing Beat writers and founding City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Specifically, we will discuss poems from his 1958 collection, A Coney Island of the Mind.
Before looking at Ferlinghetti’s poems through Dewey’s art as experience, we need to acknowledge the primary method of teaching poetry when Dr. Ferlinghetti was a college student. He would go on to a master’s degree from Columbia and a doctorate from the Sorbonne, but in 1941, when he completed his undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina, the New Criticism, or literary formalism, was coming into vogue. It would remain so during Ferlinghetti’s graduate years, which began after his military service in World War II. In the influential book The New Criticism, John Crowe Ransom wrote that a poem is self-contained and should not be encumbered by the reader, or for that matter, the author. Cleanth Brooks, another leading member of literature’s New Critics, agreed that only the structure of the poem mattered. As we will see, that kind of thinking does not sit well with Ferlinghetti. In fact, it is antithetical to his belief in individual interaction with a poem. While the 95-year-old Ferlinghetti has not written of Dewey, per se, he has spoken and written of the merits of anti-formalism in experiencing poetry.
New Criticism dominated the study of literature from the early 1940s to the early 1960s. Its popularity developed partly because of its association with the hard sciences, which had grown in importance as a direct result of World War II and the Cold War. In mid-twentieth century America, even in the humanities, the subjective was being replaced with the objective.
The main drawback to formalism is that it limits us as human beings because it limits our power to individualize meaning and thus limits our ability to learn more about ourselves, our community, and our world. Conversely, Dewey invites us to bring ourselves to the painting or the poem so that we actually experience it one-on-one. He contends that individuals read paintings and poems through their own experiences. “Each of us assimilates into himself something of the values and meanings contained in past experiences,” Dewey wrote. “But we do so in differing degrees and at different levels of selfhood.”
Through his poetry, Ferlinghetti emphasizes the value of thinking for ourselves. In poem “11” of A Coney Island of the Mind, for instance, he writes that a “different direction” points the way to the “true mad north of introspection.” Introspection, or personal truth, is what Ferlinghetti would have us bring to his work, not a formalist analysis of structure.
Ferlinghetti rejects formalism for readers and for himself as a writer. He has talked of writing his poems so they can be read at a “public surface” leading to other levels. He respects the reader’s freedom to interpret based on what she brings to his poems. Take, for example, poem “20” from A Coney Island of the Mind:
The pennycandystore beyond the El
is where I first
fell in love
Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
of that september afternoon
A cat upon the counter moved among
the licorice sticks
and tootsie rolls
and Oh Boy Gum
Outside the leaves were falling as they died
A wind had blown away the sun
A girl ran in
Her hair was rainy
Her breasts were breathless in the little room
Outside the leaves were falling
and they cried
Too soon! Too soon!
Although poem “20” is not about an artist or a work of art, the reader may well feel as if she is looking at a painting. You can smell the rain the girl brought into the store, just as you can feel the wind rush through grass in a Van Gogh of Arles. And, as you do for the characters in Edward Hopper’s paintings of diners or movie theaters – many of them painted in the era when Dewey was writing Art as Experience – you wonder about this girl. What brought her to this happy, uncomplicated moment about to be complicated by puberty and all that comes after? Do the falling leaves or breathless breasts evoke poignancy for a past lost – or is it something more, something ominous?
It is entirely possible that Ferlinghetti is writing about nuclear destruction. Not only was it a topic on the minds of many in the late 1950s, but Ferlinghetti himself had walked among the ruins of Nagasaki only weeks after the Fat Man bomb dropped. For a doomsday reading of the poem, Ferlinghetti offers clues. The first is the innocent and idyllic setting of a candy store. Others include: “Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom”; “Outside the leaves were falling as they died”; and “A wind had blown away the sun.”
Of course, my interpretation of the poem is not yours, nor should it be. Your experience will be more rewarding if you come to a poem yourself. An encounter with a work of art or literature can offer us the deepest significance if we allow ourselves to individualize our interaction with it. When our personal backgrounds mesh with what the poet or painter relays through his or her work, we have the greatest chance of a meaningful experience.
Also in play in our encounters with art or literature are the place and the era in which the work was created. In A Coney Island of the Mind, poem “1” provides an apt illustration. Ferlinghetti begins the poem:
In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
Goya’s 1814 painting The Third of May 1808 in Madrid shows a Napoleonic rifle squad as they prepare to execute a man with his hands in the air. The viewer knows the man is about to be killed and not spared because dead bodies lie nearby. In the painting, onlookers cover their eyes. A monk stands near the man about to be shot, helpless.
However, the real terror for Ferlinghetti in poem “1” is not historic destruction, but corporate destruction. Ferlinghetti’s papers at the University of California, Berkeley, include a carbon-paper copy of the typed poem he submitted for publication. At the top of the page, he has written in his own hand: “This is a poem about Francisco Goya and America.”
More than halfway into the poem, Ferlinghetti shifts from history, as represented by Goya, to his own mid-twentieth century present.
We are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent
spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness
Ferlinghetti saw how the aftermath of World War II prompted the conformity of middle-class America. Rosie the Riveter put down her steel and picked up a can of spray starch. The man in the gray flannel suit drank his morning coffee out of a Melmac cup. Masses of young couples were in a hurry to get married and raise families. Husbands toed the line at work and housewives prepared meals of packaged goods.
Formalist criticism could be considered one more path to conformity. If a poem or a painting is severed from both author and reader, or artist and viewer, the power of interpretation goes to the critic. Dewey would tell us to take the power back; experiencing art products is a profound way to reassert our individualism. Ferlinghetti agrees. Listen to him speak of beauty in poem “10” from A Coney Island of the Mind:
I have not lain with beauty all my life
telling over to myself
its most rife charms
I have not lain with beauty all my life
and lied with it as well
telling over to myself
how beauty never dies
but lies apart
among the aborigines
and far above the battlefields
It is above all that
It sits upon the choicest of
up there where art directors meet
to choose the things for immortality
In poem “10” Ferlinghetti indicates that we should each choose for ourselves. Beauty or more pointedly, meaning, is in the eye of the beholder. When we read Ferlinghetti with Dewey in mind, it helps us determine why it is important that we consider creative works for ourselves, rather than rely on the interpretations of others. If we let others prescribe meaning to us, we diminish ourselves as individual thinkers. Dewey writes of the importance of the individual experience to our core selves, proclaiming that “we are carried out beyond ourselves to find ourselves.” Through art as experience, the philosopher and the poet have shown us how to become more human, should we dare to move “beyond ourselves to find ourselves.”
Why is it so gratifying for individuals to come to their own conclusions about art? You might recognize a part of your past, or you might learn something completely new. Who is to say? The encounter with a work of art may connect you to your community, or to the larger world, but the encounter and what you take from it is yours alone. While Dewey and Ferlinghetti encourage us to look inward when we encounter creative works, the circumstances surrounding each encounter will change. It follows that the same work of art can have different meanings for the same individual in different encounters. Returning again and again to a favorite poem serves as a fine example of how individual interpretation enriches our lives.
Our imaginations, combined with our individual and collective pasts, produce the most rewarding experiences with art and literature. The painting is not just a painting, and the poem is not just a poem. Formalism can be useful for grasping the basic structure of a poem or a painting. It falls woefully short, however, in helping us understand what makes us human. As examined through the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Dewey’s philosophy of art as experience allows for a rich appropriation of creative works. To appropriate is to take for one’s own use. Following the examples of Dewey and Ferlinghetti, we would be wise to continually strive to travel within ourselves. Art and literature are but two vehicles by which to make the journey.
1. John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: Perigee, 1934; reprint, 1980), 246.
2. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (New York: New Directions, 1958). Excerpts from the collection of poems appear in this essay exactly as they do in the New Directions first edition, which is not paginated.
3. Dewey, 171.
4. Hilarie M. Sheets, "Poet in Motion," ARTnews March-April 2000; Ray Gonzalez, "Tracing the Public Surface: An Interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti," The Bloosmbury Review 23, no. 2 (2003); Julia Older, "Poetry's Eternal Graffiti," Poets & Writers, March-April 2007.
5. Dewey, 195.
By Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND, copyright ©1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Used by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.
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