‘Constantly Risking Absurdity’ was first published in 1958 in his collection A Coney Island of the Mind: Poems. The poems in this collection are great representatives of Ferlinghetti’s style of writing. His poems are usually fairly straightforward, using language that the average reader and understand. The imagery in this particular piece is accessible in a way that many poems are not.
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Summary of Constantly Risking Absurdity
Throughout the lines of ‘Constantly Risking Absurdity,’ the speaker describes the high flying, dangerous acts of a poet/acrobat. He’s in the air, balanced on the eye beams or the attention of the men and women below. He walks across the high wire, entertaining them with his
You can read the full poem here.
Themes in Constantly Risking Absurdity
The major theme that pervades ‘Constantly Risking Absurdity’ is that of writing/literature. The poet focuses, through the circus-related images, on what it means to write poetry. He is interested in the quest to rich the ultimate, high “perch” on which Beauty exists. Through writing, poets seek out the truth, something that is ultimately unattainable. Truth, Beauty, the perfect poem are all out of reach even if one is able to make some progress across the high wire.
Structure and Form of Constantly Risking Absurdity
‘Constantly Risking Absurdity’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a thirty-three line poem that is not separated out into stanzas. Rather, the lines move back and forth across the page, mimicking the movements that Ferlinghetti emphasizes in the text. Without a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern (free verse), the poet is free to do whatever he wants to with the language and line breaks. Ferlinghetti certainly takes advantage of this fact. Enjambment is one of the most important techniques at work in ‘Constantly Risking Absurdity’.
Literary Devices in Constantly Risking Absurdity
Ferlinghetti makes use of several literary devices in this piece. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and imagery. As stated above, enjambment is one of the most important techniques. It can be seen in the transition between every line of the poem. There is no end punctuation, meaning that every line flows into the next and it usually cut off at an uncomfortable spot before the reader would like it to.
Alliteration is another formal technique that is seen through the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “perforce perceive” and “stance or step”. The imagery in this poem is quite clear and effective. Ferlinghetti crafts images of acrobats flying through the air all while reacting the high wire act to that of writing poetry. Consider these lines which reference beauty: who may or may not catch / her fair eternal form / spreadeagled in the empty air / of existence”.
Analysis of Constantly Risking Absurdity
Constantly risking absurdity
to a high wire of his own making
In the first lines of ‘Constantly Risking Absurdity’ the speaker, who is very likely Ferlinghetti himself, begins by referring to an unknown “he” who is performing above the “heads / of his audience”. This feels immediately like it is a reference to some of kind go acrobatic, circus performance. It’s in line six that the comparison is made clear. Ferlinghetti does not overly complicate it. He states very clearly that the poet is “like an acrobat”. He uses similes and metaphors throughout in order to depict this comparison clearly and compellingly.
The poet, like an acrobat, flies above the audience, risking sounding “absurd” or ridiculous and failing. This comparison could work for any number of creative professions but Ferlinghetti is focused on his own.
It is also important to note that he says that the high wire is of “his own making”. He put himself in this situation, gave himself the task of flying from the high wire of poetry and risking himself.
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
and other high theatrics
The poet is balancing high in the air above the audience. The speaker says that he is standing on the “eyebeams” or on the focal points of the audience’s eyes. They stare up at him and he balances on their attention. If he loses it, he will fall perhaps to his death. Below him, there is a “sea of faces” that help get him to the “other side of day,” or the other side of the high wire that is so far away.
The poet/acrobat performs “entrechats” and “sleight-of-foot tricks” for the audience as he moves. The faces and eyes won’t be satisfied with the simple act of walking across the high wire. He has to entertain him as he goes, crossing his feet over one another. The action becomes more and more perilous. It is also interesting to consider that the poet might be trying to distract as much as entertain. He is using his skills to keep their attention on him and perhaps off of something else (perhaps the nuts and bolts of writing). He uses things like figurative language to entertain and entrance.
and all without mistaking
where Beauty stands and waits
The poem becomes more complex in line sixteen. Here, the speaker describes how its important that the poet/acrobat does not “mistake” one thing for something that it’s not. It is likely that he’s thinking about words at this point, as the acrobat is really a metaphor for the poet. He considers all sides of the words or “thing”.
The speaker goes on to say that the poet is a “super realist” while at the same time making his way towards where “Beauty stands and waits”. That is the end goal, one that cannot be reached unless he makes no mistakes on the taut wire of truth on his way there. He can’t fall off if he wants to make it to the there side.
Readers should take note of the phrase “supposed advance”. This makes it seem as though the poet feels he is advancing but isn’t really. The pursuit of beauty is not a simple or easy thing. One might feel like they’re gaining ground but that’s not necessarily the case. Beauty is personified in the twenty-fifth line of ‘Constantly Risking Absurdity’. It’s an uphill battle to get to the other side of the wire, the “still higher perch” where she waits.
to start her death-defying leap
Beauty waits with “gravity” to “start her death-defying leap”. He has to be there to catch her, despite the “gravity” or importance (also a reference to the gravity that’s going to make him plummet off the wire).
The poet refers to “a little charleychaplin man” in the next line. This is an allusion to the comedian Charlie Chaplin who was quite popular in Ferlinghetti’s lifetime. He’s on the same level as this comedian, a “little…man” who may or may not “catch” Beauty’s form as she falls through the air. As a poet, he may or may not achieve what he wants to achieve.
This is far from the only poem that focuses on what it means to write poetry. Many poets throughout the ages have put their thoughts down on paper in regards to their own profession. Writing, just like all art forms, takes a great deal out of the creator. It is a task that taps into the writer’s interests, education, skills, and style. All of these things come tougher in ‘Constantly Risking Absurdity’ just as they do in the poem such as ‘Tonight I Can Write’ by Pablo Neruda, ‘Digging’ by Seamus Heaney, and ‘Author Never Dies’ by Riyas Qurana.