Poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti recently declined a Hungarian literary prize worth $64,000, citing the right-wing authoritarian policies of that country’s government as his reasoning. In June 2011, the conservative Fidesz party passed a number of authoritarian and nationalistic laws in parliament protecting their majority-holding status. The unpopular laws also expanded the voting system in a way that favors the Fidesz party. They also reduced speaking time in parliament to fifteen minutes for all minority parties. Police broke up civil protests of the laws and former socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany was detained. This summer, the government also passed laws limiting the freedoms of the country’s media. I am sure the Fidesz party is guilty of other relatively evil doings but that’s all the research I felt like conducting for the sake of this blog article.
At first I wanted to applaud the 93 year-old poet’s political protest. That’s a lot of cash for a poet and bookstore owner, even one as esteemed and financially successful as Ferlinghetti and his City Lights Books, but then I got to thinking. If it wasn’t for McCarthyism and fascism, 50s beatnik poetry wouldn’t have had anything to howl against. It’d be nothing more than indulgent, pseudo-jazzy free verse. Ferlinghetti and company needed an oppressive reality. They needed corporatism. They needed the consumer materialism of the nuclear family. They needed the House Committee on Un-American Activities. They needed an excuse for all that drug-altering awareness and avant-garde line breaks. Ferlinghetti declining the award from fascists is sort of like Jesus not letting Pontius Pilate into heaven. Pontius Pilate did Jesus a huge favor. As a result of the crucifixion, Jesus owes the man big time. Ditto for Ferlinghetti and tyranny.
If anything, Ferlinghetti should thank the Hungarian government for their fascist ways. Perhaps he should even donate a percentage of his earnings to the McCarthy family. As no Pulitzer was given in fiction this year, literary awards are becoming increasingly difficult to come by. Ferlinghetti should be thankful that there are still tyrannical forces in the world. Writing against such forces seems to be the only role left for an aging beatnik poet. Ferlinghetti would be out of a job otherwise. What would he have left to say? Literature needs its oppressors. Writers also need money. Fascist governments paying poets is like McDonald’s paying heart surgeons. I’m lovin’ it!
Boston native Eugenio Volpe is a PEN Discovery Award winner and Pushcart nominee. He teaches creative writing at Arizona State University’s Piper Studio. His short stories have appeared in publications such as Salamander, New York Tyrant, Post Road, Solstice Literary Magazine, and dozens more.