Now the age of 101, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has composed poetical works about most U.S. presidents since the administrations of Eisenhower in the 1950s. I recall with appreciation his poem “Tale Tale of the Tall Cowboy” during the Reagan years (published in Harper’s), as friends and I were working in the Sanctuary Movement (for Salvadoran refugees), on the Pledge of Resistance (to end US support of terrorism against the people of Nicaragua), as well as Witness for Peace delegations in Nicaragua.
I was the age of nine in 1969 when New Directions published his short book, Tyrannus Nix? At that early stage of Nixon’s presidency, the prophetic Ferlinghetti zeroed in on the man who would soon be known for the bombing of Cambodia, the Enemies List, and the Watergate scandal.
Ferlinghetti is seriously playful in this cultural intervention, and I happily share the following themes and excerpts to give you a glimpse of political skewering from more than fifty years ago.
Direct speech—I’ve got to hand it to you old family friend… why don’t you open the Doors of Perception … will you ever invite the Living Theater to your House…and probably all the time longing to be loved by the same people who loved and hated Kennedys…
Political critique—Nixon Nixon I’m singing you this baseball Diamond Sutra from way out there in New Left Filed in the International League… the Vietnam albatross…Are you Machiavelli smiling… DDT is killing the pelicans and their eco-system is our own…War is good business Invest your son … look Fidel Castro in the eye and tell him without the benefit of electronic aides that your government does not believe his truths while a lizard crawled out of your eye
Cultural critique—They’re using the same footage for the War as for the Soap Opera with the same sponsor…
Pop and high culture—the face that sunk of thousand sampans… and the ball is lost in the sun… Richard poor Richard this is you Almanach de Golgotha and we’re your Cross…. You’re probably full of hostility behind that Ed Sullivan smile … [bumper sticker:] ‘We are the people our parents warned us against’ .. O Nixon Nixon I’ve cycled through your America and through my America
Recurrences—addressing Nixon with variations on his name –old Blunderbuss, Yard Dick
Humor—The Dodgers may with this year win the draft … Aren’t you really the good guy at the filling station all my relatives voted for … Is it possible for an old snake to learn new tricks…Do housewives dream of you Are you sexy…In what freezer was thy brain…Nixon oh Nixon I am not asking you to turn and live with animals… it occurred to me your warhead was showing
Literary thefts and allusions—E.E. Cummings, Brecht, Beatles, Ginsberg, Debs, Dylan, Ram Dass …While there is a napalmed class I am of it… Souls on ice won’t melt
Buddhist openness—I am thinking maybe it’s actually possible to communicate with you… It occurs to me if you had any mystic tendencies you’d probably go for Gurdieff Ayn Rand and scientology or some other psychic authoritarianism… Have you ever tried the full lotus position… I see we’re all demented remnants of light and ecstasy… You might learn yet to unmask your Self
Wordplay—the American Daymare in all its glory American Wet Dream over you…the Blood Spangled Banner
Literary parallels–Ahab and the furious search for the White Whale… Nixon Nixon burning bright in the forest of our night…the Jupiter Complex…
And the Ending—And the air is electric with hate And the air is alive with love and we are charged with loving You too