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Analysis of Ferlinghetti’s A Vast Confusion

In a way, this poem is a verbal collage, a vast confusion of created mind images used to convey a mood, a message or just an observation. The poet uses images and sound, movement and symbols to tell us about what he believes. The poem reminds one of the short story of Isaac Asimov, The Last Question (1956) While there is plenty here to analyze, this poem should be read without analysis the first time. Much of what it says really is otherwise ineffable, that is not able to be expressed in any other way. Poetry is often like this. It carries its message, not in the words, but in the readers’ reactions to the words. This poem is aptly named, as there could easily be a vast confusion over what it says, and that is good.

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In order to completely analyze this poem, we need to deconstruct it, take it apart and look at the parts. However, it is also necessary to look at the whole, just as we would if examining a visual collage. We look at the overall impression and the story. It is my opinion that most poetry has narrative. The narrative in this poem covers the vast area of all of creation. The “I” of the first line is never named, and yet, this narrator implies that he or she (or they) was there at the first light, laying in the sand before life left the oceans and will still be there when entropy completely collapses the universe back into the singularity. Even the title implies that the poet is talking about more than just this planet by using the word “vast”. The Earth is large, but in the whole universe it is infinitesimally small.

The poet uses verbal images of sound, intellectual sound bytes, if they can be described this way, to touch the audience on a deeper level than the words alone can do. His reader has probably heard all of these sounds, at least in recordings, but probably in person: the surf, the trains, subways, the sea (maybe underwater gurgling). Then he mentions the “undersound,” and he uses onomatopoeia to describe those sounds: rumbling, roaring. He postulates that it could belong to “some enormous creature turning under sea and earth”. Is this life, itself? The reader might think of Jung’s “over-mind” (Mind Development 2008), or great collective unconscious, at this point, and that the poet is describing the sound of all life in existence, if life actually makes a sound just by being. “A billion sotto voices” again connects to another artistic creation, one of the themes of 2001, A Space Oddysey: Also Sprach Zarathustra. The image in the movie was of the birth of intelligence when the first manlike creature discovered the obelisk, and buried it, possibly to eliminate the noise it made, like a billion sotto voices. Is this the sound of the universe the poet is describing?

The next five lines describe the sounds heard across the universe: the muttering of emerging species, “the swelling stuttering”, which is the actual recorded sound of the universe as recorded by SETI, and the narrator ascribes this sound to the ocean’s speakers and the earth’s voice-box. We, the planet and everything on it, contribute to this stuttering sound of the universe. The next part is where the poet leads us into our past and our future and erases all the barriers of time. He writes of a “shocked echoing” and a “shocking shouting”. Are the echoes created by the shouting? I don’t think so, because he says the shouting is shocking, like a conversation when life recognizes itself. Hs says this is the sound “of all life’s voices/ lost in night.” The echo could be that sound life makes flowing back from the limits of the universe, lost in the vast darkness between planets, as entropy takes over from the expansion of the Big Bang, and all of these sounds and the images they incite, flows backwards. “The tape plays back/ through the moog synthesizer of time.” This has a certain sound, which is known by anyone who has heard one, rather like a pipe organ that plays all the sounds of the orchestra.

Finally the poet ends the poem at the beginning, where the chaos of the Big Bang is unscrambled, and the sounds become harmonies as all existence combines into one perfect singularity of first light.

The poet uses short lines to keep the images, which are created by the sounds, flowing in a steady rhythm, until we reach the part of the poem where he talks about the huge creature turning. Then the pace changes as we see a pattern of triple lines, one lone followed by two short, and the reading speeds up, especially if read out loud, as this poem probably is meant to be. The rhythm sort of pauses with a longer line and then speed up again until we reach the climax of this section with “of all life’s voices lost in night.”

The last part of the poem winds down with its subject. Following a pause, the speaker says that the tape is running backwards. Two even but syllabically filled lines slow the speaking, then the poem ends with the short, but quiet lines: “back to the first/ harmonies/ and the first light.” This poem is a performance piece, meant to be read out loud, and the audience would hear it the first time, not read it. Most of its impact depends upon reaction to the sounds and images, not the analysis of what he is saying. We can understand what he says by listening and we enjoy this poem much like we might enjoy “Starry Night” by Van Gogh. We just immerse ourselves in it and become a part of it. It is an experience for the audience which the poet has created, a huge mural of creation.

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Asimov, Isaac, 1056, The last Question, Web.

Mind Development, 2008, Carl Jung and Jungian Analytical Psychology, Web.

Clarke, Arthur C, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick, Stanley, 1968, MGM.

Strauss, Richard, Also Sprach Zarathustra, Vienna Philharmonic, 1968.

Van Gogh, Vincent, 2008, The Starry Night, 1889, Web.

A Vast Confusion (This is the poem with notes to the right)

Long long I lay in the sands – who is this? The original intellect of the universe?
Sounds of trains in the surf – from the surf to trains encompasses millions of years
in subways of the sea
– sounds of…erasing time

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And an even greater undersound – good idea here, cannot really say what this means, as his words are better than mine
of a vast confusion in the universe – this is more than one planet

a rumbling and a roaring
as of some enormous creature turning
under sea and earth
-jung’s overmind?

a billion sotto voices murmuring -one sound-echoes of 2001’s music-Thus Spake Zarathustra…the voices when the ape discovered the obelisk

a vast muttering-another sound
a swelling stuttering- a third sound
in ocean’s speakers- a trio of sound

world’s voice-box heard with ear to sand -back to just this planet, and the earth speaks

a shocked echoing
-has this happened before?
a shocking shouting

of all life’s voices lost in night – we are now beyond the universe, talking about the running down of creation, ebb after the flow from the big bang, everything is slowing down, entropy

And the tape of it – everything is collapsing back into the original singularity….the I of the first line, which lay in the sand is there.

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somehow running backwards now
through the Moog Synthesizer of time
Chaos unscrambled
back to the first
And the first light.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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