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
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
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
The poetry Vincent began writing in
As soon as Vincent moved with his wife Margaret, daughters Sheila and Deirdre, and son Owen, to
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
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:”
is in a forgotten
to the warbler’s chant
and with singing
the magic world
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
The black man has no premium
On color and enslavement
Neither has the yellow man, nor the white
Nor the brown skinned
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
and walk upon the OZONE!
who think the REVOLUTION
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
To many living here in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s,
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
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:
no one has
If you ever
want to find
and know me
And this is the poem I most want to remember him by, Vincent’s summation of his life and beliefs, his own epitaph:
than a temple
it is where
and have my
by the weathers
which is me
I will be
(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.)