In 1980, Lawrence Ferlinghetti published the epic poem Factory by the poet known as Antler as the 38th installment in the City Lights Pocket Series. Moving through physical and mental landscapes with Whitmanian long lines (and so at the time compared to Allen Ginsberg’s style in his early collections like Howl and Other Poems and Kaddish), Antler’s first book was pared down from a much longer manuscript by City Lights. Its final version however (64 pages in 13 parts with a 2-page afterword) is quite the visionary piece, as Ginsberg himself said at the time, “The most enlightening & magnanimous American poem I’ve seen since “Howl” of my own generation, and I haven’t been thrilled by any single giant work by anyone of 60’s & 70’s decades as I was by [Antler’s] continuing inventions and visionary transparency.”
Factory‘s sensibility adheres more toward the paranoia and fear of “Moloch” from part II of “Howl”, that is, an extremely personal and articulate mistrust of the system. But unlike “Howl” this point of view is, to borrow Ginsberg’s word, “transparent”, not as dramatic and fiery but more of a sustained tone in one long piece.
The “factory”, opposed to a natural order, draws out all of the reactions and expressions of the poet toward its cold, institutional function – this creates a brand of hell out of time (in fact, a place that could outlive time) where one finds himself/herself without any choice. And these “factories” are also compounded in specific ways, down to the streets we walk on, the products we consume, and so on. By and large the poem explores this telescopic relationship. Here follows an excerpt of the first printed page of the City Lights edition from 1980.
The machines waited for me.
Waited for me to be born and grow young,
For the totempoles of my personality to be carved,
and the slow pyramid of days
To rise around me, to be robbed and forgotten,
They waited where I would come to be,
a point on earth,
The green machines of the factory,
the noise of the miraculous machines of the factory,
Waited for me to laugh so many times,
to fall asleep and rise awake so many times,
to see as a child all the people I did not want to be,
And for suicide to long for me as the years ran into the mirror
disguising itself as I grew old
in eyes that grew old
As multitudes worked on machines I would work on,
worked, ceased to exist, and died,
For me they waited, patiently, the machines,
all the time in the world,
As requiems waited for my ears
As naked magazines for my eyes
Antler’s Factory was a key work in environmentalist poetry – and a major work in a long tradition of labor-conscious poetry such as Muriel Rukeyeser’s U.S. 1 or more recently Mark Nowak’s Shut Up Shut Down. To this day, Antler proclaims himself an “explorer of wilderness, without and within” and continues to be active in the literature community in and around his home state of Wisconsin.
In 1985, Antler received the Walt Whitman Award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, with the committee remarking, “[Antler’s] poems make audible the words of the earth, with original energy, insouciance, and affectionate comradeliness toward all beings.” Antler was the poet laureate of Milwaukee from 2002-2003, and this coming Saturday will be hosting a workshop with new Milwaukee Poet Laureate, Jeff Poniewaz whose poem “September 11, 2001” Lawrence Ferlinghetti said was “the best poem I’ve seen about 9/11.”
Antler’s official website and information can be found here.