How to Paint Sunlight: New Poems

How to Paint Sunlight: New Poems

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

ISBN: 9780811214636

Publisher New Directions

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

    Instructions to Painters & Poets

I asked a hundred painters and a hundred poets
how to paint sunlight
on the face of life
Their answers were ambiguous and ingenuous
as if they were all guarding trade secrets
Whereas it seems to me
all you have to do
is conceive of the whole world
and all humanity
as a kind of art work
a site-specific art work
an art project of the god of light
the whole earth and all that's in it
to be painted with light

And the first thing you have to do
is paint out postmodern painting
And the next thing is to paint yourself
in your true colors
in primary colors
as you see them
(without whitewash)
paint yourself as you see yourself
without make-up
without masks
Then paint your favorite people and animals
with your brush loaded with light
And be sure you get the perspective right
and don't fake it
because one false line leads to another

And then paint the high hills
when the sun first strikes them
on an autumn morning
With your palette knife
lay it on
the cadmium yellow leaves
the ochre leaves
the vermillion leaves
of a New England autumn
And paint the ghost light of summer nights
and the light of the midnight sun
which is moon light
And don't paint out the shadows made by light

for without chiaroscuro you'll have shallow pictures
So paint all the dark corners too
everywhere in the world
all the hidden places and minds and hearts
which light never reaches
all the caves of ignorance and fear
the pits of despair
the sloughs of despond
and write plain upon them
"Abandon all despair, ye who enter here"

And don't forget to paint
all those who lived their lives
as bearers of light
Paint their eyes
and the eyes of every animal
and the eyes of beautiful women
known best for the perfection of their breasts
and the eyes of men and women
known only for the light of their minds
Paint the light of their eyes
the light of sunlit laughter
the song of eyes
the song of birds in flight

And remember that the light is within
if it is anywhere
and you must paint from the inside
Start with purity
with pure white
the pure white of gesso
the pure white of cadmium white
the pure white of flake white
the pure virgin canvas
the pure life we all begin with

Turner painted sunlight
with egg tempera
(which proved unstable)
and Van Gogh did it with madness
and the blood of his ear
(also unstable)
and the Impressionists did it
by never using black

and the Abstract Expressionists did it
with white house paint
But you can do it with the pure pigment
(if you can figure out the formula)
of your own true light
But before you strike the first blow
on the virgin canvas
remember its fragility
life's extreme fragility
and remember its innocence
its original innocence
before you strike the first blow

Or perhaps never strike it
And let the light come through
the inner light of the canvas
the inner light of the models posed
in the life study
the inner light of everyone
Let it all come through
like a pentimento
the light that's been painted over
the life that's been painted over
so many times
Let it all surge to the surface
the painted-over image
of primal life on earth

And when you've finished your painting
stand back astonished
stand back and observe
the life on earth that you've created
the lighted life on earth
that you've created
a new brave world

    The Chancing Light

The changing light at San Francisco
              is none of your East Coast light
                        none of your
                                    pearly light of Paris
The light of San Francisco
                           is a sea light
                                        an island light
And the light of fog
                     blanketing the hills
             drifting in at night
                        through the Golden Gate
                                   to lie on the city at dawn
And then the halcyon late mornings
          after the fog burns off
              and the sun paints white houses
                                with the sea light of Greece
                 with sharp clean shadows
                     making the town look like
                           it had just been painted
But the wind comes up at four o'clock
                                      sweeping the hills
And then the veil of light of early evening
And then another scrim
                 when the new night fog
                                       floats in
And in that vale of light
                         the city drifts
                                        anchorless upon the ocean

    Yachts in Sun

The yachts the white yachts
    with their white sails in sunlight
                    catching the wind and
                                         heeling over
All together racing now
                        for the white buoy
             to tack about
                    to come about beyond it
And then come running in
         before the spanking wind
               white spinnakers billowing
                    off Fort Mason San Francisco
Where once drowned down
           an Alcatraz con escaping
              whose bones today are sand
                                    fifty fathoms down
                   still imprisoned now
                                   in the glass of the sea
As the so skillful yachts
                          freely pass over

    White Dreams

A dream of white a dream of light
                         a white-out of darkness
a dream of a white stallion
                          in a dark landscape
       of a naked woman
                       riding it
   a dream of a girl-woman
             in a long white dress
                     and a picture hat
                        crossing Gatsby's lawn
and a dream
      of a white horse
          running in an open field
                    her white mane streaming
                       across the autumn landscape
          that some painter has painted
                               with cadmium ochre light
and a dream of bales of hay in a barn
                      they too painted light ochre
                           where a white mare feeds
                              on ochre grain
and a dream of early morning again
           when the white light reminds us
                               we are all immortal
    all of us creatures in a field
                       while eternal time trembles
                               in first light
But what of Van Gogh's sun
              as it howling turns round
                                 in the twisted firmament
And what of that terrible sun
                 and its terrible light
                                 shining through Dante's night
And what is that light that never was
                                      on land and sea?
What is light What is air What is life so passing fair?
Let some angel answer
                      in a skidrow bar room

    Big Sur Light

What is that sound that fills the air
Is that a singing still
a far singing
under the hill
a descant
a threnody
echoing away—
the happiness of animals on earth
forefeet pawing or prancing
or lying still in thickets
And couples dancing
to flute and small drum
the happiness of animals on earth—
or their unhappiness—
their loneliness perhaps
(for are the cries of birds
cries of ecstasy
or cries of despair?)
Ah but the earth is still
so passing fair
in the heart of all our days

The trees in their eternal silence
    follow the dawn
                   out of the night
And all is not lost
    when a tree can still
                in first light
        spread its autumn branches
             and let go its ochre leaves
                                 in pure delight

How lovely the earth
and all the creatures in it
Shining in eternity
in dearth and death of night
as the sun
       the sun
          shakes out its shining hair
                                of streaming light

The birds slept in this morning
Not a word out of them
until sun up
Usually they're out there
just before light
tuning up
chirring away to themselves
about the nature of light
for which they're always yearning
or about the earth
and why it never stops
Big questions
for birds to settle
and tell us
in single syllables
before breakfast

Thrushes in the underbrush

Shy birds
never let themselves be seen
in their little birdcalls

And always the same notes
(and the same message?)
over and over:
Hello again! hello again! hello?

Clouds sailing over—
Ah there's Magritte's lips
faded out in the rosy dawn!
No time to kiss
as the wind
blows them away

And the earth turns away
and turns away

The moon stayed full last month—
Every night looking in my window
the moon was still full
And the night itself
seemed endless
but went on
like the moon
sailing through its dark seas
a lighted ship at sea
Once in a while a plane winged by
flashing its human signal
in the night of the sky
And the moon sailed on
listing a bit to starboard
looking almost as if
it might capsize
overloaded as it always was
with the reflected
imagined love
of the world
And then at the final end of night
the sea turned white
as the too-full moon
still beat seaward
through its white night
too loaded to land anywhere
with its precious
perishable cargo


The moon
after much reflection says
Sun is God


The sky full of leaves & pollen
in the high wind
sows trees!


The tree believes
its panoply of leaves
will save it from acid rain
(Think again)


Will the rains ever end?
Basho claps together
His muddy clogs


Will the world ever end?
Dawn and the sun
runs its fingers
over the land


Phallus in vulva
And a divine spasm
Shakes the universe

Excerpted from "How to Paint Sunlight: New Poems" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Copyright © 2001 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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