Wild Dreams of a New Beginning by Lawrence Ferlinghetti 

Wild Dreams of a New Beginning is a speculative poem written in free verse within a single stanza. The poem’s lines vary in syllables from one to nine beats long and the lines themselves are both extremely short and long, the average length being approximately five words and seven syllables. You can read the whole poem here.

 

Wild Dreams of a New Beginning Summary

This poem is an image of our modern world and the ways in which we create meaning in industrialized landscapes. The second half of the poem is spent destroying these landscapes as a wave sweeps away all of North America and even travels into Europe. The ending is ambiguous as to whether humankind will now exist in peace with the world or recreate their past.

 

Wild Dreams of a New Beginning Analysis

This poem begins with the speaker describing a variety of different moments happening concurrently around the world. The first line,

There’s a breathless hush on the freeway tonight

is an apt beginning to this poem as the reader will not have time to stop for breath as they read this piece. Ferlinghetti’s choice to ignore punctuation, and create line breaks in unexpected places forces the reader to travel through this poem quickly, taking in image after image. It is a barrage on the senses.

The image of the freeway is easy to imagine, the reader will be able to picture long, wide, stretches of cement without any commuters. Everyone has finished rushing around for the day. But this isn’t a peaceful silence, its “breathless” as if waiting for something to happen. Ferlinghetti continues on, describing how “Beyond the ledges of concrete” restaurants have fallen silent, “into dreams.” Again, the hustle and bustle of the day is over and the only people left dining are the “candlelight couples.” This choice to describes the couples not as being lit by candles but being made of candlelight brings forth the feeling that all of this is temporary. Just like candlelight the couples will change, and more than likely be extinguished.

The poet moves on to a new thought now, the speaker is considering the past, specifically, the lost city and library of Alexandria. In legend, Alexandria was home to a massive library that contained all knowledge that the Roman people had been able to collect. Travelers would have their books taken from them and included in the library, and would receive back copies that had been made by the scholars and transcribers who worked there. This reference to “Lost Alexandria” still burning on “In a billion lightbulbs” brings the past to the future. The poet is perhaps considering the theory that there is no time, that the past, present and future are all interacting together. This theory is reinforced when in the next line Ferlinghetti references how

Lives cross lives

Idling at stoplights

We are all passing by one another, living our lives together and separately. We give no consideration for those we pass at stoplights, but we exist on the same plane none the less.

The next lines of the poem are tricky, and while their general meaning can be inferred, the context is hard to place.

Beyond the clover leaf turnoffs

‘Souls eat souls in general emptiness’

The first line can be understood both as a descriptor of a certain area of the city, but also as a statement of the past. Imagine a person, believing they have discovered something lucky, such as a four leaf clover, and making a decision based on that perceived luck. They turn off their path onto another.

This interpretation is reinforced by the next lines. The one that directly follows speaks of “souls eat[ing] souls.” It can be understood as an outcome of the decision made in the previous line. Perhaps this person the speaker is describing has entered into a relationship that they first believed to be lucky, but now their souls are consuming one another. They have worn each other down but still reside in supposed domestic bliss as

A piano concerto comes out a kitchen window

The following section of the poem continues this idea of intricate relationships and feeling occurring within a flat environment (easily imagined are the suburbs of a city). The next line speaks of the city of Ojai in California. This gives the reader an idea of where all of this is taking place, and created a relationship to the author who lived in California.

Mentioned is a yogi, someone of great wisdom and knowledge of life and the universe. This person is speaking “at Ojai.” Again, complexities coming together with suburbia. The yogi speaks the line,

‘It’s all taking place in one mind’

This relates back to the beginning of the poem in which the idea of history all happening at one time is presented. The speakers only takes a moment to bring the reader back to the flat environment this is taking place in. Lovers sit on “the lawn among the trees,” a fake kind of nature, created and maintained by mankind, listening for the master (perhaps the yogi, or some higher power), “to tell them they are one” with and connected to the whole universe. Again here is the idea of interconnectedness.

These lovers, perhaps representative of the larger population, see nature around them and imagine themselves as part of it. Unaware that they do not need to imagine but are intrinsically a part of it.

A variation of the opening lines of this poem are now repeated. This signals the middle of the poem and also an important turn in the narrative. The hush on the freeway is now “deathless.” It is seems immortal and unchanging, as if nothing could alter the world the characters of this poem are inhabiting.

This doesn’t last as in the next line,

…a Pacific tidal wave a mile high

Sweeps in

The next lines of this poem track the progress of the waves as it takes Los Angeles, sinking it into the sea, lights lit, just like the Titanic. This brings to mind all those still alive on the Titanic as it went down, just as are all the inhabitants of LA. Next, specifically nine minutes later, Nebraska sinks down. The speaker refers to it as Willa Cather’s Nebraska. Cather was a writer who lived in and wrote about pioneer life in Nebraska. This kind of life contrasts with that the reader will imagine being lost in Los Angeles.

The wave continues, it “comes over Utah” and the most famous faith of that region, Mormonism is washed away “like barnacles.” The next line mentioned coyotes which are also swept up and swim futilely “nowhere.”

Next to be taken is an orchestra that goes down while playing Handel’s Water Music, a collection of orchestral movements. This is another nod to the Titanic and the musicians who continued to play as the ship sank in the hopes of keeping the passengers calm. Ferlinghetti spends time in this section going over different parts of the orchestra,

Horns fill with water

And bass players float away on their instruments

Clutching them like lovers horizontal

These images that the author creates are extremely vivid and almost whimsical.

Next to go is Chicago, their “loop becomes a rollercoaster.” The loop is the commercial district of the city, heavily trafficked.

Continuing on, the writer continues to name well known places and depict the destruction of areas and aspects that would likely be known to the reader. This includes, Milwaukee beer which has become topped with sea foam, and the Beau Fleuve of Buffalo, its main river, which is fresh water, now becoming salt. Quickly Manhattan is destroyed, and the wave leaves North America to head to Europe. It “sweeps on Eastward.” Washing away Camembert Europe, which can be understood as Norman Europe, England, and France.

Manhattan is again referenced, it is said to be covered in “sea-vines.” All of the land that has been washed away is being awakened by its clearing. It is becoming again wilderness. The author describes this new wilderness in detail, the only sound is

…a vast thrumming of crickets

A cry of seabirds high over

It is free of the sounds of cities, it is empty for the rest of eternity. The Hudson river is able to retake its thickets, the area near the river that has been industrialized. The poem concludes with the line,

And Indians reclaim their canoes.

This ending can be taken in two ways, one that life will exist once more in apparent harmony with nature, or that, two, humans will only start civilization over once more.

 

About Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born 1919) is the son of an Italian immigrant. He spent parts of his youth in France, but was educated in Massachusetts and the University of North Carolina. He was a key figure in the San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1950’s. His concept of art is that it should be accessible to all people, made clear in his work through his challenging of the status quo. He was also essential to the creation of the Beat movement, he created a place for writers, such as Allen Ginsberg, to meet and speak about their ideas.

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  • Avatar Carol Lipton says:

    Could it not be more obvious that the final stanza is not about “civilization” starting over again, but of Native peoples reclaiming the land in canoes, their mode of transportation, in contrast to the cars in the freeway that was the leitmotif throughout? And that after 400 years of genocide, the only peoples who lived in harmony with the land that is the Americas can now retake it, are the original inhabitants of the land that Europeans stole from them. It is also saying that even the apogee of our civilized world, the yogis, the wisdom, the hushed dinners by candle light in the suburbs, all came at the expense of over 50 million lives that European colonizers destroyed to sweep the land free. Because only an extreme act of nature could defeat the greatest military power in world history, that has overwhelmed culture after culture, stealing 50 million people from African and forcibly relocating them to live in slavery for over 10 generations, severely traumatizing their home country’s culture, and forcing unimaginable suffering on those who survived Middle Passage to become the property of white people. And in poetic justice, this wave sweeps it back. It reminds me of the song “Rock of Ages”: and thy word broke their swords, when our own strength failed us.”

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      This is fantastic and insightful! You should come write for us!

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