Thursday, July 5, 2007

Vincent Ferrini: A 94th Birthday Tribute

Gloucester’s Poet Laureate, Vincent Ferrini, turned ninety-four on June 24, 2007. To celebrate Vincent’s birthday and in honor of our long friendship, I post the following memoir, followed by What the Hell, a poem by our mutual friend, Peter Tuttle, which pays special tribute to Ferrini. Tuttle’s poem first appeared in Issue 45 (April 2002) of the Minutes of the Charles Olson Society.

I was fifteen years old when I first sought out Vincent Ferrini at his frame shop on 126 East Main Street. I’d already read some of his poetry in Four Winds, the quarterly he and a group of artists and writers published in Gloucester during the summer of 1952. It was just after I’d moved from the Boulevard to Rocky Neck with my family that I discovered Four Winds on sale at the gallery and coffee house owned by ceramicists Doris Hall and Kalman Kybinyi, on the opposite end of Rocky Neck Avenue from my father’s luncheonette.

Before moving to the Neck, which was still in its heyday as a vibrant art colony, I knew nothing of art and less of poetry. But I had a yearning for what I didn’t yet know. That yearning expressed itself in a fascination with words, words that evoked or sustained deep feelings in me.

The poetry we read in school—Longfellow mostly; some Wordsworth I wasn’t ready for—didn’t give me what I was searching after. But in Four Winds I began to find it. That first issue, which I still have, contained poems by Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Cid Corman and Ferrini himself. They were poems the likes of which I had never seen or read before. I was especially taken by the poem of Ferrini’s that was printed on the inside back cover of the journal:

I pass

by day

and night

no one has

seen me

If you ever

want to find


and know me

leave behind


and enter

the caves

of other


there you

will find


who is


It was poetry like this—gnomic, different from what I was used to, yet somehow deeply familiar because it struck an instinctive chord—that sent me looking for more of the same. At the Sawyer Free Library I found the collected works of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I discovered Yeats' poetry and some verse by Amy Lowell. But still I wasn’t essentially satisfied, just as music didn’t really speak to me until I started listening to Bartok and Stravinsky and my brother and I were introduced to bebop on "Symphony Sid" Turin's radio program, often broadcast live from New York City's Birdland.

Just about that time Ferrini published Mindscapes, a chapbook of Haiku-like meditations. I came across it at W. G. Brown’s book store on Main Street and I resolved to meet Ferrini. Perhaps he could direct me in my search, I thought.

So I presented myself at the frame shop which at that time, 1952, was located in a shed at the rear of the building Vincent now makes his home in. I poked my head in the door late one afternoon on my way home from school and a welcoming face turned from the table saw. Eyes lit up, the saw was shut off, and I received the first of thousands of strong handshakes I would be getting from Vincent the rest of my life.

I had told Vincent I was interested in poetry. When he asked me who I was reading, I could only come up with names like Whitman and Yeats.

“Yes, yes,” he said, not impatiently, “but who are you reading who’s living—who’s alive?”

I was at a loss for words.

“Let’s begin,” Ferrini said, grabbing some volumes down from what I observed were shelves stuffed with books of poetry.

That day Vincent introduced me to the work of Ezra Pound, to William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and I began to visit him regularly to talk about poetry, indeed about life. And he never asked my name initially. It was first things first with Vincent, then as now; and poetry was Number One.

Later it turned out hew knew my father; and even later we talked about our common roots in the Mediterranean, his in Italy, mine in Greece.

Still, I will never forget those early years of our friendship, when I was in high school and Vincent was so accessible, a storehouse of information about poets and poetry on my way home from the very place that was supposed to teach me about literature but only ended up boring me with the tried and true, that is until my English teacher Miss Harris introduced us to Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" and some of us discovered e. e. cummings on our own.

I went to college in Brunswick, Maine, making sure that the Bowdoin library had all of Vincent’s books. While I was a graduate student in Italy, Vincent kept me abreast of everything that was going on in poetry—and in Gloucester. When I returned home in 1962, our friendship picked up from where we’d left it and it has never waned. And over the years, along with our frequent talks, we’ve exchanged hundreds of letters.

I am only one of the many people, young and old, who came to Vincent to talk poetry and ended up talking life. For him there is no separation; for Vincent makes poetry live in his own work and in his vital presence. I can’t begin to record what I’ve learned from him during the more than fifty years of our friendship because it has become so intertwined with my own life and the workings of my psyche.

What I do know is that Vincent was the first model of an artist for me, a writer. He didn’t show me how to do it, he showed me how to BE it and revealed himself in the act of living and writing simultaneously. For Vincent had, as he describes it in the poem I’ve quoted, entered the caves of other people, and he did find himself; and he has spent the intervening years helping and exhorting the rest of us to do likewise.

(An earlier version of this essay was published in The Café Review, Vol. 2, Number 10, 1991, a special issue honoring Vincent Ferrini and later reprinted in Split Shift, in 1996)

What the Hell

-for Vincent


That curve that

Corner in the road

East Main Street Gloucester

Massachusetts I knew I’d

Recognize that curve that

Little white house

Not that it was built as a house

His old frame shop where the

Crossed oars

My crucifixion as he put it

Held his framery sign and I

Recognize the curve

It’s almost dreamlike these

Streets I once rode so


Back to them now three

Decades later

Nothing much’s changed

No one’s fixed the curves in the

Street you couldn’t

East Main Street follows the curve of the


Buildings pressed up against it on

Either side and down to the


Over the water in fact

Old wood pilings where all the

Fish plants and flake yards once


Much of that most of that

Gone now

But the buildings remain and the

Harbor and

Thirty years after I first met him when

Vincent was roughly the age I am now

I was the new kid on the block

Cub reporter for the

Gloucester Daily Times and certainly the

Only person there interested in

Getting to know

Having something other than an

Arm’s length relationship with the

Wild men of Gloucester of which

Vincent was now

With the Big Man’s death

The senior example

Well they interested me

Those guys they weren’t

Shy about literature and they

Weren’t shy about their

Political opinions


All of them though I’d

Missed the worst of that

There- that is- I got it in

School but that’s different it was

Not hard to have antiwar opinions on the

Upper West Side


In Gloucester

It was different and they

No doubt paid the price


Of course Vincent was a


Back in the Thirties or so I

No one came out and told me so but then I

Read No Smoke

His first and best book


About the dying shoe factory town city of
Lynn, Massachusetts just

North of Boston during the


Possibly Vincent leant me a copy

Possibly I read it

Yes now it seems to me I

Read it in the Library

Part of the collection you

Couldn’t check out

Rare book, even then

And you had the feeling that if

Vincent was no longer a

Believer when he wrote the book

He might well have been one
Proletarian literature

They would have called it

Not a long book


One after another of the

People of the city

Everyone from the fat cats to the

Streetwalkers and worse and how

The injustice

The lack of fairness

The lives of work for nothing or

Less than nothing while the

Bosses lived smug and

The anger

But it was the idealism that struck you

He wasn’t angry for himself

You thought

Not a selfish book

So though I couldn’t understand some of

Vincent’s later

More recent

Work that looked to me

Influenced by
Big Man’s

The Big Man

Charles Olson

Who’d so obviously

Dominated Vincent’s life

Still the reverence

And that’s what struck me because the

Next book I read was

The Big Man’s big book


And found myself appalled by his cruelty to Vincent

Supposedly his friend

This Letter 5 of the

Maximus Poems in which

The Big Man (he was a Big Man, 6’7”)

Savaged Ferrini’s Four Winds a

Literary review that he put out with

Mary and John

(And Vincent was carrying on then

As someone later told me



Sexual jealousy

Well partly

The Big Man may have

Wanted her too but



The sheer need to be

The Big Man in Gloucester poetry

Virtually the only man and

After all at this point it was

Ferrini who had the reputation

Olson was the new guy though he was


A late bloomer

Come to Gloucester after politics

After academia

To take possession

Try to

Take possession

Of Gloucester by

Poetry and then


I read the Maximus poems

Took a helluva a lot longer than
No Smoke

I tell you
And what I came away with was that
They weren’t really poems about
George Butterick
The Olson scholar
Not a wild man

But a professor at UConn who

At regular intervals hoped I’d

Write up his efforts

Articles published about Olson in

Little reviews


Which I did

Glad to

They all

Ferrini and the

Other two


Said how much Olson knew about


The historical research

Studying paintings by

Fitz Hugh

But not

As I saw

Much real history

The history of Gloucester is the

History of its fishing industry and the

Fishery of the

Gulf of Maine

That’s what drove the economy

Built all those captains’ houses that

Edward Hopper painted some

Forty years later on the

Hills overlooking Gloucester

White clapboard victorians

Crowding the streets

Looking out over the water from the


Even by then gone to seed

Fishing had been falling apart for

Quite some time and those

Captains were the

Captains of the

Glorious days of sail

Long before the Italians and the

Portuguese arrived and the

Side draggers


That was my critique but I kept my

Mouth shut because these guys

They were like some kind of a

Cult of Olson

This man who so dominated their

Thinking that they (then) all

Seemed to think it was enough

Was the right thing

To just go on

Sort of worshipping the Man

Not a word

For all the praise of Maximus of

That cruelty

Right there in the poem

To Ferrini

And how did he feel about that

Well, hell

I wasn’t going to ask him

An excitable guy

I tell you

Kept stabbing his workbench with his

Mat knife to

Emphasize his points

Probably politics

But injustice

Always the injustice

First time I met him

I certainly wasn’t gonna

And you know

You couldn’t

You could see the vulnerability

The wound

It went too deep

So I said




Thirty years later

Rented car

Back visiting family

Flown in from the Midwest

Dumb rental car

Most of them

They’re all dumb

Riding this street that I’d

Ridden as a young man

Much younger man

Just out of

College then

Even had a girlfriend

Down Rocky Neck

In fact I dropped a motorcyle on

One of these curves



Not hurt but it

Didn’t help the bike any

Riding home from her house at




It was like a dream

Sunny summer July day now

But the street was real

The curve was real

And there was Vincent’s

Little white clapboard place

A gable end almost touching the road

Not much bigger than a long

Single car garage

No sign now

No more crucifixion

Living on social security

I imagined

Poetry didn’t make you

Rich and neither did framing

But still

Late 80s

Vincent had praised my poetry

Said it might become

As he put it a

Creeping best seller

Imagined the Boston Globe reporters

Green with envy at a

Reporter who could

Write poetry

(I doubted that

Mostly I thought they
Just wouldn’t care)

There was the place

Said I’d buy him lunch

His choice

Least I could do for

All his kindness

Vincent didn’t have to

Praise this book by this guy who’s

Been gone thirty years



Tell you truth he

Didn’t look a

Helluva a lot different a

Testimonial to

Walking five miles every day and

Staying away from booze

And sheer determination

He’d lived long enough to

Outlive the McCarthy era
Tar and feathering

Lived long enough to

Outlive Olson

Now he could be the Olsonlike


Conscience of Gloucester

Writing the letters to the

Editor and they’d made him


I’d have loved to have been at that

City Council session

Poet Laureate of


Though fewer of us

(Perhaps our fault)

Understood much of what those later

Gloucester poems

All Know Fish

Were about

Didn’t matter

He was still there

And still wrote

Letters to the editor about

Local or national matters when he

Saw things were


He put his hat on

Broadbrimmed black
Vanity a friend had


Didn’t want people to

See him bald

So the poet’s broadbrimmed black hat and

That hot July day we drove the

Not so long way to
Halibut Point

Decent restaurant

Fresh fish and

Talked about

This and that

Where we’d been

Drove back after

He invited me in

And then

And then

I don’t know why

About that Letter 5

Showed my his reply

His last copy of his reply

Written then

In the Arriving in which he

Turned the other cheek

Said how Cid Corman had told him it would

Be the making of him but

Of course the unmaking too

Because he took it

Didn’t turn on the Big Man


I couldn’t really imagine

Loving or needing another

Man so

But they were all like that

The three of them

Ferrini and the

Other two


Olson the Father

Well, all right for one

He was a young man

But Ferrini

Pretty much the same age

Published sooner


Now smeared

For what motive

By this guy


I never met Olson and

Already with Letter 5

I didn’t like him

But these guys

All the children of immigrants

First generation educated

First generation literary

He held something for them

That I didn’t see


Connection to the bigger world?

All I can tell you is that in


Among these men

He wasn’t Ishmael

He wasn’t Moby Dick

He was Ahab and

From what I could see

From the evidence of Letter 5

Perfectly willing to use to drive to consume

Anyone for his purpose


Possession of

Gloucester by poetry which he

Should have known was

Bound to fail

But to see Vincent


But not frail

To listen to him
Make it new!

Terrible advice

It’s ruined poetry

They think making it new is

Making it different and

No one knows what the hell they’re

Talking about


You know what that is

It’s just second generation


They have to go even

Further out there than the
First generation did
Look at this

And he showed me a

Little review
They publish my stuff but

I have no idea what the hell
Their poems are about




--Peter Tuttle

(copyright 2002 by Peter Tuttle/ all rights reserved)

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