On The Life of a Titan: Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)
On Monday, February 22, 2021, Lawrence Ferlinghetti left the Earth at the age of 101. For those who care about independent publishing, avant-garde poetics, and progressive politics, it’s not much of a stretch to say that it’s been a Ferlinghetti Century—for the last seven decades he was an institution in and of himself, even as he always remained suspicious of institutionalization. He was an outsized champion of writers and artists; an uncompromising advocate for free expression in the face of reactionary, uninformed calls for censorship; and an iconic artist who worked fluently across genres: he was an innovative, prolific, and best-selling poet who dabbled in novel writing, a painter adept also in the language of art criticism, a manifestoist, travel writer, playwright, provocateur, tireless correspondent, and visionary editor.
The broad strokes of Ferlinghetti’s life are well known to his admirers. Born in Yonkers in 1919, Ferlinghetti’s earliest years were characterized by turmoil and frequent moving. His father, Charles, died of a heart attack before Lawrence was born, and his mother, Clemence, then suffered a mental breakdown that led to her being committed to the State Hospital in Poughkeepsie when Lawrence was still a baby. He was sent for a brief period to live with relatives in France—he once noted that his first language was French—and then around age six was returned to Bronxville, New York. Long reticent about his childhood, Ferlinghetti would later reflect on these years in the poetry collection Open Eye, Open Heart (1973) and in an impressionistic, memoir-like novel, Little Boy (2019), published when he was a mere 100. He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, reportedly because Thomas Wolfe, an early literary hero of his, had gone there, and graduated with a degree in journalism in 1941. After college he served in the Navy as the Second World War raged. Eventually he would witness first-hand the aftermath of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki (nicknamed “Little Boy”). He would later recall that seeing Nagasaki then “was just like walking around in some landscape that wasn’t on Earth. It was an unearthly feeling.” He said while he had written poetry prior to that experience, seeing the destruction made him “political.”
A healthy distrust of governments and politicians of various stripes would inform much of his life, and would be a recurring theme in his poetry—as he wrote in Poetry As Insurgent Art (2007), he felt poets should “be subversive, constantly questioning reality and the status quo,” an urgent stance given that “the master class starts wars; the lower classes fight them. Governments lie. The voice of the government is often not the voice of the people.” Having survived the war, Ferlinghetti earned an MA at Columbia—overlapping with Allen Ginsberg and his so-called “Libertine Circle,” but not meeting them until the mid-1950s—and then a PhD in comparative literature at the Sorbonne in Paris (his thesis on modern poetry was written in French). Ferlinghetti’s time in Paris provided fodder for his first novel, Her (1960), an underrated work of late Surrealism. Published at the height of Beat mania in the United States, Her takes on—and sends up—the Künstlerroman, and includes an unforgettable scene in which a “wailing wild ragged band of American poets from the Rue Git-le-Coeur [location of the famed “Beat Hotel”] rushed out . . . singing and shouting that the Poetry Police were coming to save them . . . all from death.”
In 1951, following his time in France, Ferlinghetti was married in Florida to Selden Kirby-Smith, known as Kirby, and the couple would have two children together, Lorenzo and Julie. Soon after their marriage, Lawrence and Kirby made what was surely the most important move of his life, to San Francisco. During the couple’s early days in the city, Ferlinghetti wrote art criticism for Art Digest, book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle, and established himself on the literary and cultural scene there, meeting Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Robert Duncan, among others. He was also working on his own poetry, prose, and translations, and sent some of his translations of French poet Jacques Prévert to City Lights, a review out of North Beach. City Lights was edited by Peter Martin, a sociology instructor at San Francisco State. Ferlinghetti and Martin would meet and become friends, and Martin had the idea of opening a bookstore together that would have, as Ferlinghetti told David Meltzer, “nothing but the best pocket books and . . . all the political magazines, from left to right, which you couldn’t get anywhere else.” While today stocking paperbacks may not sound like a particularly radical idea, in the 1950s it amounted to a conscious rebuke of the publishing establishment, which put out “serious” books in expensive hardcovers while paperbacks were reserved for romance novels or lurid true crime pulps. “Paperbacks weren’t considered real books,” Ferlinghetti recalled. With the idea of stocking quality, accessible paperbacks, Ferlinghetti and Martin opened City Lights Pocket Book Shop in June, 1953.
Located on Columbus Avenue in the heart of the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco, City Lights quickly became a haven for both readers and writers, a place to find books and periodicals other stores wouldn’t stock, a gathering spot and venue where one could hear readings from up-and-coming writers. To this day, City Lights remains one of the great independent bookstores in the United States, and a cultural institution in San Francisco; on the occasion of Ferlinghetti’s death, the New York Times observed that City Lights has “become as much a part of San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf.”Speaking personally, some of my fondest memories from my college days was going to City Lights and browsing the eclectic titles on offer. By that time, the store was renowned, hallowed ground for some, a tourist attraction even, but I could spend hours paging through the strange zines tucked into an alcove by the stairs. I would then climb those stairs to the second floor, where a whole wall of “Beat Literature” awaited. I had read On the Road in high school, but didn’t know much about other Beats. From that wall at City Lights I pulled down more Ginsberg, and books like Gregory Corso’s Gasoline, Bob Kaufman’s Golden Sardine, and Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. Encountering the books curated at City Lights was formative for me, as I’m sure it’s been formative for thousands of other readers. I still have in my office a poster of Ferlinghetti at City Lights in 1967, staring straight ahead in the domain he created, a painted sign to his left reading “I am the Door.” The phrase comes from the Gospel of John, and Ferlinghetti had apparently discovered the sign when a loose piece of plywood revealed a long-forgotten basement to the building that had once been used for Christian prayer meetings. He repurposed the sign, expanded into the basement, and in the context of the poster and Ferlinghetti’s frank gaze, I always took those words to mean City Lights itself was the door to better worlds.
Indeed, many of those books I read were not merely stocked by City Lights, but published by City Lights. In 1955, Ferlinghetti bought out Martin’s stake in the bookstore and then launched the publishing wing of his enterprise, City Lights Books, with the aim of bringing out works overlooked by traditional New York publishers, and printing them in affordable paperback formats. The Pocket Poet Series remains the most well-known series published by City Lights Books. It was inaugurated with Ferlinghetti’s own first collection of poetry, Pictures of the Gone World (1955), and would achieve notoriety with the fourth volume in the series, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956). The Pocket Poet Series became one of the most significant on-going poetry series of the last seventy years, and a key venue for the dissemination of Beat writing. Included in the series are seven volumes of Ginsberg’s work; three volumes of Jack Kerouac’s work, published after his death; as well as work by Corso, di Prima, Kaufman, Philip Lamantia, Harold Norse, Peter Orlovsky, Janine Pommy-Vega, among others.
But it was Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems that put City Lights and the Pocket Poet Series in the national spotlight, establishing Ferlinghetti’s reputation as an avant-garde publisher and champion of free expression. On October 7, 1955, Ginsberg read “Howl” publicly for the first time at the now-famous 6 Gallery reading, an event described in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums (1958). Ferlinghetti was in the audience that night and, bowled over by what he heard, sent Ginsberg a telegram echoing what Ralph Waldo Emerson had said to Walt Whitman about a hundred years prior: “I GREET YOU AT THE BEGINNING OF A GREAT CAREER. WHEN DO I GET THE MANUSCRIPT OF ‘HOWL’?” He did get the manuscript, and publishing it would change the course of his career, and the trajectory of American letters in the second half of the 20th century.
City Lights published Howl and Other Poems in November 1956. In March 1957, San Francisco Collector of Customs Chester MacPhee seized copies of the book, claiming that it was obscene. In June, an employee at City Lights, Shigeyoshi Murao, was arrested for selling a copy of Howl and Other Poems to undercover inspectors, and Ferlinghetti was arrested as the book’s publisher a few days later. Ferlinghetti contested the charges, the ACLU got involved, and in September, a trial was held to determine if he was guilty of publishing obscene material (the charges against Murao had been dropped). The central question of the trial became whether Howl and Other Poems had any literary merit. In order to determine this, Ferlinghetti’s defense brought in an array of luminaries, from Rexroth to UC-Berkeley professor Mark Schorer to novelist Walter Van Tilburg Clark. The trial attracted the interest of the national media, according far more attention to Howl and Other Poems and City Lights than would have been likely under normal circumstances. Ferlinghetti emerged victorious, with Judge Clayton Horn—a sometime Sunday School teacher—concluding that Howl and Other Poems had “redeeming social importance” and that its use of “coarse and vulgar” words was justified since “life is not encased in one formula whereby everyone acts the same or conforms to a particular pattern.” The decision was a landmark in the struggle for free expression, and an important moment in postwar literary history insofar as it expanded received wisdom on what could constitute “good” or “worthwhile” literature. Ferlinghetti became a symbol of shifting cultural attitudes, and was at the same time connected in the public imagination to the Beats, harbingers of the “new consciousness” in American letters who were just then breaking onto the national scene thanks to the “Howl” trial and the concurrent publication of On the Road that September.
But beyond his growing reputation as an anti-establishment publisher, by the latter 1950s, Ferlinghetti was also gaining recognition for his own poetry. He published A Coney Island of the Mind with New Directions in 1958, a book that has since become a classic of postwar American poetry, having sold over 1,000,000 copies. That collection contains often-anthologized poems such as “Constantly risking absurdity,” which memorably compares poetry writing to high-wire acrobatics (I remember encountering the poem in a textbook in high school and having the power of extended metaphor dawn on me while still needing to look up “entrechats”). Coney Island also showcases new forms Ferlinghetti had been working in, notably what he called “oral messages,” pieces “conceived specifically for jazz accompaniment” that he wanted “considered as spontaneously spoken ‘oral messages’ rather than as poems written for the printed page.” Such commitment to spontaneity was an abiding feature of various strands of Beat work, but the idea was still radical in the 1950s, when academic thinking went that good poetry must be controlled and measured and “unified.” Ferlinghetti’s “oral messages” are by contrast what his biographer Neeli Cherkovski calls “loose and fluid,” and “arranged on the page with the eye of the reader in mind.” The best of these oral messages, such as “Autobiography” and “Junkman’s Obbligato,” do have an intimacy and immediacy to them, as well as a humorous undercurrent designed to delight audiences at places like The Cellar, a San Francisco club where he read his “messages” to jazz accompaniment with Kenneth Rexroth, later releasing an LP recorded there, Poetry Readings in the Cellar. In his well-known oral message, “Dog,” we’re treated to a dog’s-eye view of San Francisco, one that apprehends reality without the arbitrary discriminations grafted on this reality by human beings: “The dog trots freely in the street / and sees reality . . . He doesn’t hate cops / He merely has no use for them.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Ferlinghetti kept up a frenetic travel schedule as national and international demand for his work grew, and his presence was requested at various conferences and gatherings. Sometimes these demands took him far afield, as when in 1959 he was invited to a writer’s conference at the University of Concepción in Chile, or when he participated in the International Poetry Reading given to overflowing crowds at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1965. That event was captured by filmmaker Peter Whitehead in his documentary Wholly Communion. Ferlinghetti read his long poem “To Fuck is to Love Again (Kyrie Eleison Kerista), or The Situation in the West, followed by a Holy Proposal.” At other times, Ferlinghetti became part of cultural watersheds in his own backyard. In 1967, he read and chanted at the “gathering of tribes,” the Human Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, a major event of the 1960s counterculture. In 1976, he appeared on stage at The Band’s farewell concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The 57 year-old was by that time a literary icon, and his presence lent an anti-establishment legitimacy to the concert, which was immortalized by Martin Scorsese in his documentary The Last Waltz (1978). Ferlinghetti read his poem the “Loud Prayer,” and was one of two poets featured in the film (the other was Michael McClure, who recited from the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, in Middle English; Lenore Kandel and Diane di Prima also read poetry that night, but were cut from Scorsese’s film). And yet despite his growing reputation, Ferlinghetti maintained a sense of humor about his fame; as he wrote in The Secret Meaning of Things (1968): “I take a trip to the Harvard Co-op / and overhear a bird ask / for ‘books by Ferlinghetti’ / (They dint have none).”
An inveterate traveler, Ferlinghetti would write about his explorations in travelogues such as The Mexican Night (1970), as well as in poetry collections such as Back Roads to Far Places (1971) and Over All the Obscene Boundaries: European Poems & Transitions (1984); his travel writing was later collected in Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals, 1960-2013 (2015). Ferlinghetti’s travels also connected to his support of numerous progressive political causes, from anti-nuclear proliferation to civil rights to anti-Vietnam war protests to the promises of the Fidelistas in Cuba and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He once said that “the Cuban Revolution was the Spanish Civil War of my generation,” and thought that Fidel Castro had been caricatured in the Western press as a puppet of Moscow. “You could say I was a tourist of revolutions,” he said in 2012. “In the ’50s and ’60s, I was a Fidelista. Later I became a Sandinista, and then later a Zapatista. I’m still a Fidelista.” His writing reflected his political leanings, as in the 1961 broadside One Thousand Fearful Words for Fidel Castro. In 1958, he had written the poem “Tentative Description of a Dinner to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower,” which took the president to task for ignoring the threat of nuclear weapons (later it was included on a LP of the same title). This politically-minded work continued in his 1963 broadside “Where Is Vietnam?” which opens with “Meanwhile back at the Ranch the then President also known as Colonel Cornpone got out a blank Army draft and began to fill in the spaces with men” and ends with: “the surface of this world had suddenly become very very slippery with a strange kind of red liquid that ran on it across all the obscene boundaries and this world went on spinning faster and faster in the same so predestined direction and kept on spinning and spinning and spinning and spinning!” Such pointed, acerbic humor is also present in Tyrannus Nix? (1969), his excoriation of Richard Nixon, “Bush-league President.”
Ferlinghetti was famous for not slowing down later in his long life, and he grew City Lights and expanded its influence as he continued also to publish an impressive range of work. In 1998, he published A Far Rockaway of the Heart, a sequel to his best-selling A Coney Island of the Mind. His novel Love in the Days of Rage (2001) is a kind of bookend to Her, set as it is in Paris during the student-led protests and occupations in May 1968. In addition to such work that seemed to cast a backwards glance over his own achievements, he published Americus (2004) and Time of Useful Consciousness (Americus II) (2012), his epic poetic exploration of the American mythos, works along the lines of William Carlos Williams’ multipart Paterson. For his life-long body of work, in 1998 Ferlinghetti was named poet laureate of San Francisco, and in 2019, the city declared March 24th, his birthday, “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day.” Critical recognition also ensued, and in 1979, Neeli Cherkovski wrote the first Ferlinghetti biography, which was followed by Barry Silesky’s Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Time (1990) and Christopher Felver’s documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder (2013).
For his extensive body of creative work and for his decades-long dedication to publishing those whose voices he felt were necessary, neglected, radical, and illuminating, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s legacy as a titan of American letters is secure, though it will take years to process this legacy fully. From the simple premise that, as he wrote, “Poetry is the shortest distance between two humans,” Ferlinghetti’s work both witnessed and shaped the changing face of American culture, and the direction of twentieth century letters. Of course, the man himself said it best when he wrote in his poem “Autobiography”:
I have written wild stories
I am the man.
I was there.
I have sat in an uneasy chair.
I am a tear of the sun.
I am a hill
where poets run.
Steven Belletto, March 2021