Born on March 24, 1919 Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrates his 93rd birthday today, still active and apparently in reasonably good health. Can’t keep a good poet down. And for my money Ferlinghetti is the super-nova in the constellation of Beat poets even including other bright spots like Alan Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gary Snyder—all of whom he befriended, mentored and published.
The poet was born in Yonkers, New York. His father was an Italian immigrant auctioneer who had shortened the family name to Ferlin. Young Larry did not know his real family name until he entered the Navy in 1942. His mother was of mixed French, Portuguese, and Sephardic Jewish extraction. He only began using the original family name for his published work until 1955 when his first published collection, Pictures of the Gone World was published.
His father died before he was born and his mother when he was at an early age. He was raised largely by a French aunt Emily who took her charge with her to France while she worked as a governess there for several years. French became his first language.
Upon returning to the United States he was placed for a time in a Chappaqua, New York orphanage until his aunt could find a new position. She was hired as governess to the daughter of Presley Eugene Bisland and Anna Lawrence Bisland, in Bronxville, New York. Anna was the cultured daughter of the founder of Sarah Lawrence Academy. The couple took a shine to the bright boy and eventually became virtual parents to him. He stayed on their estate after Emily left.
The Bislands paid for his tuition at smart day and prep schools and at the University of North Carolina where the young man became interested in journalism and wrote for the college paper.
While on summer vacation in 1940 he and two classmates lived on an island off the coast of Maine making a living lobstering, fishing, and beach combing. The experience cemented a lifelong love of the sea and the seacoast.
When World War II broke out, Larry naturally enlisted in the navy and was educated as a Midshipman and first shipped out as a very junior officer on J.P. Morgan’s former yacht which had been fitted out for anti-submarine patrol along the East Coast when those waters were among the most dangerous in the world. He advanced and later served on three larger anti-sub ships. He was Captain of the subchaser USS SC1308 which served in the fleet protecting the Normandy invasion. Later he transferred to the Pacific where he was navigator on a troop ship.
After his ship moored in Japan and transferred its troops to occupation duty, the young officer took time to visit devastated Nagasaki. He was shocked, even traumatized to what he saw only weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped on the civilian population. He became a lifelong, committed pacifist.
After the war he enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University in New York City with the help of the GI Bill. He read widely and deeply in both the classics of English literature and was influenced by modern American poets like Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Marianne Moore, and E. E. Cummings he also devoured American novelists Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos. He was searching for an authentically American, democratic voice. Instructors at Columbia included a who’s who of the New York literati-- Babette Deutsch, Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and Mark Van Doren. He earned his master’s degree in 1947.
Then it was off for further study at the Sorbonne in Paris. He lived and studied in the City of Lights until getting his doctorate with honors in 1951. One of his two main theses was on the city as symbolism in poetry, another recurring theme in future work.
In 1953 Ferlinghetti and his wife, Selden Kirby-Smith who he had married after returning to the States from France, settled in San Francisco. He taught and tutored French and spent most of his time painting and free lancing as an art critic. His first foray into poetry was as a translator of work in French published by Peter Martin in his City Lights magazine. It was the beginning of a close collaboration that really blossomed when the two men joined forces to open City Lights Bookstore in the heart of the bohemian North Beach area. It was the first all paperback bookstore in the U.S. and specialized in poetry, literary fiction, and a good supply of the latest European literature.
Martin opted out of the partnership in 1955 and Ferlinghetti expanded operations by launch its own publishing house. The first volume in what would become the famous Pocket Poet series was Pictures of the Gone World. It would be followed by volumes by Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levitov, William Carlos Williams, and Gregory Corso.
City Lights was never intended to be exclusively a Beat imprint—it issued work by a number of European writers and Williams who represented an avante garde of an earlier era—but it became the most important publisher of the movement. He also published prose by Charles Bukowski, Neil Cassady and others and leftist essays by Noam Chomsky, Tom Hayden, and Howard Zinn. Under Ferlinghetti’s still active supervision, it continues to be an important source of culturally cutting edge work.
Ferlinghetti first heard New York based Alan Ginsburg read Howl at the famous Six Gallery Reading in October 1956 which was the formal introduction of the Beat movement to the San Francisco arts community. The next day Ferlinghetti sent Ginsburg a wire that began, “I greet you at the beginning of an illustrious career.” Howl became the fourth volume in the Pocket Poet series. It also became a famous cause célèbre.
Ferlinghetti and his book store manager were arrested by San Francisco police and charged with obscenity for publishing and selling the book. The case against the manager was dropped, but the city vigorously went after the publisher. It was a long trial and Ferlinghetti was represented by an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer. Major literary and academic figures testified about the artistic merit of the book. In the end judge Clayton Horn acquitted Ferlinghetti and ruled that Howl had significant artistic merit. It was one of the cases that finally broke the back of censorship of literature.
The book that cemented Ferlinghetti’s own reputation as a poet was not published by City Lights. A Coney Island of the Mind was published by New Directions, a prestigious New York in 1958. It was both a critical and a popular success. In a country that has largely rejected poetry as a popular medium, it has sold over a million copies over the last fifty plus years and has never gone out of sight.
Ferlinghetti’s masterpiece, perhaps my own favorite book of poetry, was unlike the work of most of the beats. It was lyrical and often told a story. But then the poet often said he didn’t personally consider himself a Beat, despite his fondness for them, but considered himself a bohemian in the tradition of Williams, E.E. Cummings, and Ezra Pound.
The prolific writer has since produced dozens of book of poetry, poetry broadsides, plays, criticism, and political writing most recently 50 Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti 50 Images by Armando Milani in 2010.
Ferlinghetti always considered his art an extension of his personal anarcho-pacifist philosophy and socialist politics. He echoed one of his heroes, Vachel Lyndsay in his Populist Manifesto, “Poets, come out of your closets, Open your windows, open your doors, You have been holed up too long in your closed worlds…Poetry should transport the public to higher places, than other wheels can carry it.”
Meaning what he wrote, he has often brought his poetry to the forefront of the struggle to peace and disarmament, civil rights, and justice.
Ferlinghetti still lives in California. He travels widely. He continues to paint and recently had a 50 year retrospective exhibit of his works on canvas.
Way to go, master. May we all live so long and so well.
Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)
Constantly risking absurdity
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of day
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
for what it may not be
For he's the super realist
who must perforce perceive
before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
to start her death-defying leap
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
—Lawrence Ferlinghetti from A Coney Island of the Mind