Sunday, March 23, 2008

Vincent Ferrini (1913-2007): All There, All of the Time: A Eulogy



For Vincent Ferrini community was as real as his Italian immigrant family, and as closely knit. It was as encompassing as the working class culture he’d been nurtured by in the industrial city of Lynn, and the Catholic Church he formed an uneasy truce with. Vincent understood community because he grew up in the thick of it. After graduating from Lynn Classical High School, he sought community at the public library, where he and friends developed their own college curriculum, while their high school classmates attended the universities Vincent and future novelist and historian, Truman Nelson, couldn’t afford; and later, when he became a factory worker, he found community in the trade unions he helped organize and in the Communist Party, which, quoting Melville, he called “his Yale College and his Harvard.”

But just as the need for community underlay everything Vincent strove for and wrote about, he was also a supreme individualist. He believed wholeheartedly in Emerson’s “infinitude of the private man;” and, in ultimately rejecting collectivism, his indomitable individuality drove him from what Vincent called “the Church of Politics.” No dogma ever held Vincent long in its thrall, except perhaps for his core belief in life as the poem and the poem as life itself, a concept potentially more radical than the politics he eschewed.

His nephew Henry’s brilliant film, Poem in Action, has given us Vincent’s biography and his history in stunning words and images—the poverty he grew up with in Laconia Court in Lynn’s Brickyards, the debilitating strikes and lay-offs he wrote so dramatically about in his first book, No Smoke—events which drove traumatic wedges into working class family structures; his father’s admonition that he was born into the wrong class to become a poet; his “graduation” from the Lynn Public Library, rather than any college that would, in his words, “un-educate” him; his life long hunger for books; and his plunge into the daily grind as a bench hand at General Electric in the midst of war mongering, war preparation, and war fear.

Community was also the WPA, where, in the 1930s, Ferrini, like so many other writers and artists, found work, in his case as a teacher and researcher into maritime history during the Great Depression. It was as a participant in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration that Ferrini learned that government was not the enemy but could be the great social equalizer and intervener of last resort, something he never forgot in his anger over what dangerous uses government had been put to under subsequent administrations.

Poets are not usually thought of as being political, as embracing the exigencies of citizenship, though many American poets have become activists out of necessity, if not of vocation. Vincent had been political long before he moved to Gloucester, in 1948, where he eventually became one of the great advocates for the fishing industry and the preservation of a working waterfront; nor was he driven from politics by McCarthyism, which had destroyed the lives of so many American writers, artists and intellectuals. Even after his disenchantment with ideologies, Vincent remained political. Along with the Catholic Worker and the Gloucester Times, which he devoured as soon as it was delivered to his frame shop at 126 E. Main Street, he subscribed to and read Time Magazine every week—religiously—“to find out,” as he said, “what the oligarchy thinks and what the ruling class is up to.” For Vincent never ceased, as he wrote in one poem , “upsettin’ da setuppa.”

The poetry Vincent began writing in Lynn was informed by the life he and his family and neighbors led, the life of working people, during the Great Depression. In fact, it could be said—and several scholars and critics have affirmed it—that his first book No Smoke, a series of poetic portraits of people caught up in hard times rendered in the manner of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, is one of the great documents of that era. Those poems and others in two subsequent books, Injunction and Blood of the Tenement were described by critic and novelist Mike Gold as being “as genuine as a soldier’s wound or a row of stamping machines;” and because of their depictions of grinding poverty, social injustice and the hardscrabble lives of the industrial working class, the writer and anthologist Walter Lowenfels identified Ferrini as, “the last surviving Proletarian poet,” an honor that meant more to Vincent than the award of any literary prize.

As soon as Vincent moved with his wife Margaret, daughters Sheila and Deirdre, and son Owen, to Gloucester in 1948, he found himself part of yet another community. Through the family of Captain Serio, his landlord at 3 Liberty Street, he gained entrance into the Italian fishing community, perhaps even more closely knit than the Italian community he’d left behind in Lynn. And he wasn’t here long before he and his wife Peg made the acquaintance of the large community of artists and writers, who had made Cape Ann their home. In 1949, Charles Olson, still living in Washington, D.C. and teaching at Black Mountain College before his return home to Gloucester in 1957, paid Ferrini a “fan visit” after reading some poems of his in a little magazine called Imago, beginning a long and fruitful, if sometimes contentious, friendship. The Ferrinis became friends with ceramicists Kalman Kybinyi and Doris Hall and their children, Moisha and Laszlo, who lived on Old Salem Road and owned a gallery and coffee house on Rocky Neck; with painter Edo Hansen Rhodes, who lived on the Back Shore, with painter Adlolph and weaver Eva Matz, who ran a campground in West Gloucester, with the Fehlharbor family at whose home on Washington Street one could meet Brandeis professor and historian, Ray Ginger, who had written The Age of Excess and the definitive biography of Eugene Victor Debs (two books we should take down off the shelf today), and with Doris and Jonathan Bayliss. Jonathan, a novelist and playwright, worked as a business analyst at Gorton’s, later becoming controller—and then treasurer of the city of Gloucester— while Doris ran a pre-school in their Washington Street home. Other friends included painter Albert Alcalay, his wife Vera and sons Leor and Ammiel, who spent summers on Rocky Neck during the 1950s.

Out of this community of artists and writers—and with the help of local patrons including art collector Harold Bell, dentist Bernard Cohen, psychologist Ruth Borofsky, and painter Dorothy Segal—emerged the first issue of Four Winds, Cape Ann’s first quarterly magazine of arts and letters, edited by Vincent and Margaret Ferrini, Gloucester High School English teacher David Meddaugh and his wife Ilmi, and painter Mary Shore. The table of contents of the inaugural summer of 1952 issue included poetry by Ferrini, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov, as well as translations from the work of Gottfried Benn, one of Europe’s most respected post-war poets. Featuring poetry of that caliber, along with fiction by Jerre Mangione, a major Italian-American scholar and writer, and art by Albert Alcalay, Tom O’Hara, Stephan Antonakos and Serge Trubach, the founder of the Cape Ann Society of Modern Artists, Four Winds transcended it local origins.

What had originally attracted Ferrini to Gloucester—the community’s closeness to the sea, the working class culture of wharves and fish processing plants, and the intimacy of Brace Cove, where Ferrini walked every morning contemplating the natural world around him—soon found its way into his poetry. Leaving behind the strife of the factories (“abandoned by the Bosses/our skeleton teeth locked on the sky…”), the former Proletarian poet entered more deeply into himself. In books like Sea Sprung, The Infinite People, and The House of Time, one found a new lyricism, grounded in the personal, the subjective, as exemplified in “The Tiny Room:”

the factory

is in a forgotten

city

we dance

to the warbler’s chant

and explore

the sky

take time

apart

and with singing

eyes

approach

the magic world

of sleep

During this time Ferrini also began writing plays, which require a community to stage, plays eventually selected for publication in the Best Short Plays of 1952-53, and 1953-54 and performed in New York, Boston, and mostly happily for him, by his friend Michael MacNamara, in Gloucester. Having left General Electric to open his own picture framing shop, Ferrini set himself solidly down in the community. And the community came to him not only to have its pictures framed by a master (frames that were often more beautiful than the pictures they contained), but to talk and argue, to learn from Ferrini, who fused art and work in that shop, as he writes in one poem, “Eleven:”

I pull the plug out at 5

and all the nightbirds start whistling in my ears

trade is arrested

my hands forget the table

I’m in the bell throated song

But Ferrini did not remain inactive. His conversations with local customers, with workers in the sawmill and warehouses of the Building Center, where he purchased materials for picture frames, his many talks with his friend, writer and historian Joe Garland, who, like Ferrini, had also been a union organizer, and his encounters with the realities of life in a blue collar city reported daily in the pages of the Gloucester Times—fluctuations in the fishing stocks, the depredations of Urban Renewal, which his friend Charles Olson called “renewal by destruction,” the encroachment of development that would threaten the fishing industry or undermine the historic character of Gloucester—spurred Ferrini to a new activism, an activism that was reflected in his poetry, in which the personal and the social reached a new and dramatic synthesis.

And there was the war in Vietnam and the civil rights struggle, which affected the poet as they were convulsing the nation. Out of Ferrini’s own struggles of conscience came two powerful poems, “The Garden of the Apocalypse,” in which he wrote in his characteristic universalism:

The black man has no premium

On color and enslavement

Neither has the yellow man, nor the white

Nor the brown skinned

Each person

Carries a civil war within him

and “Lenin Speaks,” first published in the Guardian and reprinted in anti-war newspapers, in which one could hear again the fiery voice of the young radical, as Ferrini scored the Cold War bureaucracies of East and West for impeding freedom of thought and action:

Smash this Frankenstein Mausoleum

let breath in my frozen corpse

for the Winds to free!

we were the first to step off

the globe

and walk upon the OZONE!

and

imagine

me

an IKON!

who think the REVOLUTION

is

only

ONCE?

ah,

what surprises they are in for

Vincent understood from his personal experiences during the Cold War and the McCarthy period, that in shrinking from our revolutionary origins in America we deny our own radical traditions, our insurrectionary roots inherent in the Declaration of Independence—what his friend Truman Nelson called “the right of revolution.” For in the final analysis, Ferrini’s radicalism was native, a pure American radicalism, in part the Enlightenment heritage of Sam Adams and Tom Paine, but more closely linked to the radicalism of Emerson and Thoreau, of Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott and Orestes Brownson. Vincent Ferrini was at heart a Transcendentalist. Like Emerson, he believed in the radical transformation of the self and society, often telling friends that Emerson’s 1837 Phi Beta Kappa Oration at Harvard, “The American Scholar,” (“We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds”) had awakened him as much as The Communist Manifesto. With Emerson and Thoreau, Vincent also believed that the divine was reflected in the mundane; he subscribed to the holiness of every person and to our inherent inviolability. He loved Thoreau the naturalist, who wrote that all objects are symbols and history but a reflection of myth—Thoreau the hermit of Walden Pond, understanding that at some level all poets are condemned to be hermits in America. But he was also in tune with the Henry David Thoreau, who, in defense of Captain John Brown’s campaign to overturn the abomination of chattel slavery, had shouted out in Concord Town Hall, “I need not say what match I would touch, what system endeavor to blow up!”

To many living here in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, Gloucester seemed much like the Concord of Emerson’s time, a community of artistic, intellectual and political ferment. There were the never-ending conversations with friends Charles Olson, Jonathan Bayliss, Gerrit Lansing, Harry Martin, Jean Kaiser, Vera and Albert Alcalay, Adolph and Eva Matz, Jay McLauchlan, and Celia Eldridge, individually and in groups, in the rear of Vincent’s frame shop, where, in later years, he lived in a book lined room that had the simplicity and spotlessness of a monk’s cell, in Olson’s magazine and letter-strewn kitchen at 28 Fort Square, or Bayliss’s big house next to the cemetery on Washington Street; in Geritt’s apartment on Main Street, or Harry’s above the pool room. Those were years when the flood of visitors to Gloucester to see Olson or Ferrini seemed unstoppable—Lawrence Ferlinghetti came, and Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Michael Rumaker, Joel Oppenheimer, LeRoy Jones/Amiri Baraka, Diane di Prima, Robert Kelly, Gilbert Sorrentino, Ed Sanders, Diane Wakoski, Paul Metcalf, and filmmaker Stan Brakhage, to name but a few. Younger writers like me could only marvel at the talk that was generated around dinner tables and in living rooms, the books that were discussed, the art that was described and commented upon with an excitement and trenchancy that I had never experienced in college or in graduate school—conversations that continued after Olson’s death in 1970, at Gerrit’s house, at Jonathan's, at Jay’s, at Henry Ferrini’s, and always in Vincent’s frame shop, even after he retired to devote himself entirely to poetry. It was here, in the frame shop-turned-home, that Ferrini also completed his stunning autobiography, Hermit of the Clouds, published by Greg Gibson’s Ten Pound Island Book Company, in 1988 and later translated into Japanese.

Vincent’s rich life was not without sorrow. He never recovered from the death by leukemia of his younger daughter Deirdre, just as the loss of his baby sister Yolanda, when a stove exploded in the family’s Lynn tenement kitchen, continued to haunt him, though in later years he found solace in his grandchildren Ben and Carrie by son Owen, just as his daughter Sheila’s career in the theater was a source of great pride.

No account of Vincent’s life would be complete without mention of the range of friendships he enjoyed with so many people, and all those he corresponded with. Annie and Geoff Thomas were always there for Vincent, helping him in so many ways, as were Shaun McNiff, Paul Sawyer, Joy Buell, JoAnn Castano, Hartley Ferguson, Elaine Wing, and the staff at the Book Store. Also important to Vincent, especially in his final months, was the caring of his children, Owen and Sheila, Howard Richardson, Barbara Oliver, Susan Steiner, Henry Ferrini, Susan Frey, Jane Robbins, Helen McLeod, and so many others, for the omission of whose names I apologize.

By the 1970s, with the war in Vietnam that had so troubled him winding down, Ferrini was poised to enter a new community of rising concern over gathering threats both to his beloved fishing industry and the city’s treasured resources, her land, water supply and valued wetlands. Speaking at City Hal in favor of the 200 mile limit to protect American fisheries brought Vincent into contact with Lena Novello, Angela Sanfilippo and Peg Sibley of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives, who were beginning their many years of advocacy for the industry that provided them and their families a livelihood. Vincent grasped the parallels between fishing and the shoe industry in Lynn; for him the collapse of a community’s economic life blood would mean the collapse of the vital community they sustained. When the Wives opposed an extension road across the Babson Watershed, arguing that any threat to our water system would also threaten the fish processing industry, Ferrini was at their side, along with Richard Emmanuel, the activist pastor of The Church, in East Gloucester; and he continued to advocate for the endangered industry for the rest of his life. This renewed activism on his part informed the major poem he was working on at the time, Know Fish, in which all of the concerns of his life and work—the political, the personal, the social and the ecological—become fused in the metaphor of “knowing fish,” as Ferrri wrote: “The thrust of the whole work is in the title, knowing fishes, in men, women and the sea. The pitch is that only when we connect with the interior fishes are we discovering and extending life by the innate rules of Earth, and thereby saving the self, the family, the city, and the planet.” I do not know of a better description of ecology—and Ferrini would spend the rest of his life living it directly while elaborating it in book after book. His nomination as Gloucester’s first Poet Laureate, by his friend and fellow fishing industry advocate City Councilor John “Gus” Foote, and his unanimous election to that office by the Council, was one of the greatest moments of his life, an acknowledgement, Ferrini felt, of the caring he had expressed in words and actions for the community he had adopted and now, it seemed, had finally adopted him.

No tribute, however, can capture the intensity of Ferrini’s presence, the dynamism of his talk, or the never-ending fire storm of his perceptions. His nephew Henry Ferrini’s film, Poem in Action, gets as close as is possible to capturing what it was like to be in Vincent’s presence. He never gave up hope, even in the darkest of times; nor did he ever say no to experience, no matter where it led him. The loss of a person like Vincent, to his friends and to the community, is enormous, not only for those of us who were fortunate to have known the poet, but for others who will never have that opportunity.

Vincent was all there, all of the time, from when I first sought him out to the last letter I received from him fifty-five years later, in which he wrote: We cannot live without the hope that drives our dreaming!

I’d like to close with two short poems. This is the poem, first published in Four Winds that sent me to Vincent’s frame shop in 1952, when I was fifteen years old and out of sorts with the world and myself, fortuitously discovering the magazine at Doris Hall’s gallery on Rocky Neck and meeting the poet for the first time:

I pass

by day

and night

no one has

seen me

If you ever

want to find

me

and know me

leave behind

yourself

and enter

the caves

of other

people

there you

will find

me

who is

yourself

And this is the poem I most want to remember him by, Vincent’s summation of his life and beliefs, his own epitaph:

This house

is holier

than a temple

it is where

I live

and have my

being

this house

of bone

and blood

molded

by the weathers

of experience

is all

I have

this house

after

this house

which is me

only

is dust

I will be

in your

house

Thank you.

(This eulogy was delivered on Saturday, March 22, 2008, at a celebration of the life of Vincent Ferrini, Gloucester's Poet Laureate, at City Hall, in Gloucester, MA.)

6 comments:

Ed Baker said...

thanks Peter...

cheers to you

Mr. J. Cook said...

Peter,
Thank you for posting this.
I've decided to incorporate it into upcoming lessons on Gloucester art and culture. I think it's a valuable document for future generations and a worthy tribute to Vincent.

Onward.
James

Kathleen Valentine said...

That is very beautiful, Peter. Your words are always so moving. Thank you for that.

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Ramie said...

Thank you very much for the moving piece on Vincent Ferrini. I happened to come across your writing as my father, Ed Stone, was a poet and friends with Walter Lowenfels who you mentioned and Serge Trubach the artist, if its the same Trubach who was a NYC WPA artist ( My mother, Mary Perry Stone , knew Trubach when she was on the Federal Arts Project as an artist and teacher ( small world) . I really enjoyed Vincent's poetry and suggest those wonderful poems should be sent to Blue Collar Review ( Journal of Progressive Working Class Literature.
Thanks, Ramie

Ramie said...

Thanks again.