Home > Uncategorized > Celebrating Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021) – posted 2/28/2021

Celebrating Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021) – posted 2/28/2021

In America, poets remain largely unknown. Most write in obscurity. It is a rare poet who breaks through and develops a mass audience. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died on February 22 was one of those rare poets who had a mass, non-academic audience. He was a major force in 20th century American culture.

A poet, a painter, a publisher and a progressive activist, Ferlinghetti lived in San Francisco in the North Beach neighborhood. Probably, most famously, he was a co-founder of City Lights Bookstore which both sold books and had a publishing wing. If Ferlinghetti had a mission it was to democratize literature and make it accessible to all. He wrote:

“From the beginning the aim was to publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic, and not publishing (that pitfall of the little press) just ‘our gang’. I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment.”

Ferlinghetti regarded poetry as a powerful social force and not one reserved for an intellectual elite. He always supported writers and poets who were outsiders, not part of any mainstream.

Like many, I discovered Ferlinghetti in the late 1960’s. Somehow, I got my hands on a copy of his book Coney Island of the Mind. I remember the lines:

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
If you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun

If you don’t mind a touch of hell

now and then

just when everything is fine…

Coney Island sold over a million copies. Next to Allen Ginsberg’s book, Howl and Other Poems, it has been the most popular book of modern American poetry.

I have been fortunate to get to the Bay Area a few times and I always made a bee-line to City Lights. Opened in 1953, it was the first paperback bookstore. Back in the 1950’s, paperbacks weren’t considered real books. The poet, Tess Taylor described City Lights:

“To enter that bookstore was and is a joy, the kind of thing that will set your mind on fire and your heart thumping.”

I remember the large banner outside the store “Dissent is not un-American”. No one got pestered or kicked out of that store for looking at books. There were chairs and sofas and you could browse for as long as you wanted.

City Lights was a hangout and a mecca for the literary community. Among others, Ferlinghetti played a role in promoting the careers of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder. He later inspired a Ferlinghetti Poetry Fellowship at the University of San Francisco which supports emerging poets whose work embodies a concern for social justice and freedom of expression. Ferlinghetti touched and inspired countless young aspiring poets and writers.

Ferlinghetti’s background is not what you might expect. He had an unhappy childhood and he grew up essentially an orphan. His father died before he was born. When he was very young, his mother was committed to a mental hospital. He was raised by an aunt who worked as a governess for a wealthy family in Bronxville, New York. His aunt then disappeared, leaving Lawrence with an unrelated family.

The family took him in as foster parents and raised him. They sent him to a private boy’s school. Lawrence escaped into reading.

After attending the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he joined the Navy. As a naval officer he commanded a sub chaser in the North Atlantic. He witnessed the Normandy invasion from offshore in the English Channel. He was part of the anti-submarine screen around the beaches. He was later transferred to the Pacific theater. He saw the ruins of Nagasaki seven weeks after the atomic bombing. It turned him into a pacifist and a lifelong opponent of nuclear weapons.

After the war, he got doctorates at Columbia and the Sorbonne on the GI bill. He started to write poetry. He had a journalism degree but he decided journalism in the New York area was impossible. He moved to San Fransisco. He liked the Mediterranean feel of the city.

Once there, he started to listen to the poet Kenneth Rexroth who had a show on KPFA radio. Rexroth had soirees on Friday nights and Ferlinghetti started going. Rexroth was a great poet in his own right and he was also a philosophical anarchist. Rexroth played a big role in Ferlinghetti’s political education.

In 1955 Ferlinghetti met Allen Ginsberg at a reading of Howl. Very enthused, he pushed Ginsberg for permission to publish it. Howl was printed in Britain and shipped to San Francisco where Ferlinghetti displayed it prominently at City Lights. Two undercover cops from the San Francisco police juvenile bureau walked into the store, bought a copy of Howl and then busted Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg for “willfully and lewdly publishing obscene writing”.

Ferlinghetti said:

“I wasn’t worried. I was young and foolish. I figured I’d get a lot of reading done in jail and they wouldn’t keep me in there forever. And anyway it really put the book on the map.”

The ACLU defended Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. They challenged both the arrests and the legal basis for the case against obscenity. After a lengthy trial in municipal court, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg won. The verdict set a precedent, weakening obscenity laws and heralding a new freedom for book publishers.

Ferlinghetti remained an uncompromising voice of integrity. He embodied the (now declining) bohemian spirit of San Fransisco. He never sold out. He always cared that the average person not get screwed over. In 1977, he said:

“You’re supposed to get more conservative the older you get, I seem to be getting just the opposite.”

He was somewhat pessimistic though. Toward the end of his life he told the Guardian that he still hoped for a political revolution but said:

“…the U.S. isn’t ready for a revolution… It would take a whole new generation not devoted to the glorification of the capitalist system…a generation not trapped in the me, me, me.”

San Francisco named March 24, 2019, Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day. It was his 100th birthday. In 1998, San Francisco had named Ferlinghetti the first poet laureate of the city. The city also designated City Lights a historic landmark. During his life, Ferlinghetti wrote 50 volumes of poetry, novels and travel journals.

I like this advice he offered:

“If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.”

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