Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti—We Thought He Might Go on Forever Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights Bookstore in North Beach.

Note—Word came yesterday that Lawrence Ferlinghetti died on Monday in the apartment over City Lights Book Store where he lived for decades.  He was just a month shy of his 102 birthday.  Somehow it seemed to many of us that he might just go on forever like a Lord of the Rings wizard.  He was active in the management of the book store until just a few years ago and sometimes made it downstairs on a good day even later.  And he continued to write including cutting piece on Donald Trump that went viral.  His death was announced by the bookstore which recently was threatened with closing until donors flooded a GoFundMe campaign with donations to keep the beloved institution alive.  The shop’s statement pledged to continue the master’s work and legacy.  The following was posted here in 2019 on his 100th birthday.

Ferlinghetti from the window of his apartment over the store.

Born on March 24, 1919 Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrates his 100th 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 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 in 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 Brisland, 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.


                                    Ferlinghetti in the Navy as Captain of a sub chaser off the coast of Normandy.

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 sub chaser 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 by 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 the classics of English literature and was influenced by 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 literatiBabette, 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.

                        Ferlinghetti's first poetry collection  Number One in City Light Books Pocket Poetry series.

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 proudly and defiantly displaying copies of Alan Ginsberg's Howl.  His obscenity trial for publishing and selling the book became a key case in ending censorship in literature.

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 issued by New Directions, a prestigious New York publisher 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 sixty plus years and has never gone out of print.

                                    I nearly wore out my copy of Ferlinghetti's Coney Island of the Mind.

Ferlinghetti’s masterpiece, one of my own favorite books 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.

50 Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti 50 Images by Armando Milani was published in 2010. The following year Ferlinghetti contributed two of his poems to the celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Italian unificationSongs of the Third World War and Old Italians Dying inspired the artists of the exhibition Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Italy 150 held in Turin, Italy.

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.”

                                        Ferlinghetti's 2019 novel/memoir.

Meaning what he wrote, he has often brought his poetry to the forefront of the struggle for peace and disarmament, civil rights, and justice. Most recently Ferlinghetti has published I Greet You At The Beginning Of A Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg 1955–1997 in 2015 and Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals, 1960-2010 the same year. Barely a week before his centennial his new novel/memoir/stream of consciousness screed Little Boy was launched.

The rise of the Age of Trump has spurred scathing poems that show none of the old fire has been quelled.

Ferlinghetti still lives above the Bookstore.  He travels as widely as he is able.  He continues to paint and in 2012 had a 50 year retrospective exhibit of his works on canvas.

Ferlinghetti has always been an artist as well as a painter.  Liberty on Earth, 1992, mixed media.

His birthday will be celebrated with an open house party at City Lights Bookstore and neighboring cafés, bars, and galleries.  San Francisco Mayor London Breed has proclaimed March 24 Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day and several other events will be held across the city including a new solo exhibition of his paintings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti: 100 Years Without a Net at the Rena Branstein Gallery and a special screening of the documentary film Ferlinghetti by director Chris Felver at the Roxie Theater.

Way to go, master.  May we all live so long and so well.

Ferlinghetti at a jazz reading in the 1950's

Constantly Risking Absurdity (#15)


Constantly risking absurdity

                                             and death

            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

    performing entrechats

                               and sleight-of-foot tricks

and other high theatrics

                               and all without mistaking

                     any thing

                               for what it may not be


       For he's the super realist

                                     who must perforce perceive

                   taut truth

                                 before the taking of each stance or step

in his supposed advance

                                  toward that still higher perch

where Beauty stands and waits

                                     with gravity

                                                to start her death-defying leap


      And he

             a little charleychaplin man

                                           who may or may not catch

               her fair eternal form

                                     spreadeagled in the empty air

                  of existence


        —Lawrence Ferlinghetti from A Coney Island of the Mind

A gathering of Beat poets in 1971.  Ferlinghetti top row center with Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, Peter Orlovsky, and others.

Pity the Nation

After Khalil Gibran


Pity the nation whose people are sheep

And whose shepherds mislead them

Pity the nation whose leaders are liars

Whose sages are silenced

And whose bigots haunt the airwaves

Pity the nation that raises not its voice

Except to praise conquerers

And acclaim the bully as hero

And aims to rule the world

By force and by torture

Pity the nation that knows

No other language but its own

And no other culture but its own

Pity the nation whose breath is money

And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed

Pity the nation oh pity the people

who allow their rights to erode

and their freedoms to be washed away

My country, tears of thee

Sweet land of liberty!


—Lawrence Ferlinghetti  from A Coney Island of the Mind


Repeating a Statue of Liberty motif that he often used in his art work, Ferlinghetti
reading Trump's Trojan Horse.

Trump’s Trojan Horse

Homer didn’t live long enough
To tell of Trump’s White House
Which is his Trojan horse
From which all the president’s men
Burst out to destroy democracy
And install corporations
As absolute rulers of the world
Ever more powerful than nations
And it’s happening as we sleep
Bow down, oh Common Man
Bow down!

—Lawrence Ferlinghetti  

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