He was born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling on March 24, 1919 in Yonkers, New York. His father, an Italian immigrant, had shortened the family name upon arrival in America.
When Ferlinghetti discovered the lengthier name as an adult, he took it as his own. He had a tumultuous youth, parts of which were spent in France, an orphanage in Chappaqua, New York, and in the mansion of the wealthy Bisland family in Bronxville, New York. He attended Riverdale Country Day School, Mount Hermon, a preparatory academy in Massachusetts, and the University of North Carolina, where he majored in journalism.
Upon graduating, he joined the US Navy. After his discharge, Ferlinghetti took advantage of the G.I. Bill to continue his education. He earned his MA from Columbia University in 1948, and completed his PhD at the University of Paris in 1951.
He then moved to San Francisco, California, where played a key role in sparking the San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1950s and was essential to the establishment of the subsequent Beat movement. In 1998, he was named the first poet laureate of San Francisco.
Ferlinghetti’s most famous collection, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), has sold well over one million copies in America and abroad. He was the author of over 30 other collections of poetry . . . . Ferlinghetti’s numerous awards and honors included the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, the Robert Frost Memorial Medal, and the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award, among others. He was elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2003, and in 2007, he was named commandeur of the French Order of Arts and Letters.
Throughout his career, Ferlinghetti consistently challenged the status quo, asserting that art should be accessible to all people, not just a handful of highly educated intellectuals.
His poetry engages readers, defies popular political movements, and reflects the influence of American idiom and modern jazz. In Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poet-at-Large, Larry Smith noted that the author “writes truly memorable poetry, poems that lodge themselves in the consciousness of the reader and generate awareness and change. And his writing sings, with the sad and comic music of the streets.”
Smith observed that, from his earliest poems onward, Ferlinghetti writes as “the contemporary man of the streets speaking out the truths of common experience, often to the reflective beat of the jazz musician.” Such sentiments found an appreciative audience among young people of the mid-20th century who were agonizing over the arms race and Cold War politics. New Pages contributor John Gill asserted that reading a work by Ferlinghetti “will make you feel good about poetry and about the world—no matter how mucked-up the world may be.”
In 1953, two years after his arrival in San Francisco, Ferlinghetti partnered with Peter D. Martin to publish a magazine, City Lights. In order to subsidize the publication, Martin and Ferlinghetti opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop in a neighborhood on the edge of Chinatown. It became a popular gathering place for San Francisco’s avant-garde writers, poets, and painters.
The bookstore’s publishing arm, the City Lights Pocket Poets series, offered a forum for Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen and Gregory Corso. Ferlinghetti’s slim volume Pictures of the Gone World (1955) was the first publication in the series.
By 1955, Ferlinghetti counted among his friends poets such as Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen, as well as the novelist Jack Kerouac.
Ferlinghetti was in the audience at the watershed 1955 poetry reading “Six Poets at the Six Gallery,” at which Ginsberg unveiled his poem “Howl.” Ferlinghetti immediately recognized it as a classic, and in 1956, he published the first edition of Howl and Other Poems in the Pocket Poets series.
The collection sold out quickly, and the second shipment of the book—seized by US customs, then released—occasioned the infamous Howl trial. The San Francisco Police Department arrested Ferlinghetti on charges of printing and selling lewd and indecent material.
Ferlinghetti engaged the American Civil Liberties Union for his defense and welcomed his court case as a test of freedom of speech. He won the suit on October 3, 1957. The publicity generated by the case energized the San Francisco renaissance and Beat cause, and was vital in establishing definite principles to the various movements’ often disparate aims.
Ferlinghetti aimed to redeem poetry from the ivory towers of academia and offer it as a shared experience with ordinary people.. . .
One reviewer suggested that . . . Ferlinghetti “enlarged his stance and developed major themes of anarchy, mass corruption, engagement, and a belief in the surreality and wonder of life. …was a revolutionary art of dissent and contemporary application which jointly drew a lyric poetry into new realms of social—and self-expression. It sparkles, sings, goes flat, and generates anger or love out of that flatness as it follows a basic motive of getting down to reality and making of it what we can.”
Two other collections of Ferlinghetti’s poetry provide insight into the development of the writer’s overarching style and thematic approach: Endless Life: Selected Poems (1981) and These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955-1993. The poems in Endless Life reflect the influences of E.E. Cummings, Kenneth Rexroth, and Kenneth Patchen, and are concerned with contemporary themes, such as the antiwar and antinuclear movements. In Western American Literature, John Trimbur noted that Ferlinghetti writes a “public poetry to challenge the guardians of the political and social status quo for the souls of his fellow citizens.”
. . .Ashley Brown, who, in World Literature Today, called Ferlinghetti “the foremost chronicler of our times,” commented, “Ferlinghetti writes in a very accessible idiom; he draws on pop culture and sports as much as the modern poets whom he celebrates.”
Ferlinghetti also published acclaimed fiction. His last novel was Little Boy (2019), which Ron Charles described as “a volcanic explosion of personal memories, political rants, social commentary, environmental jeremiads and cultural analysis” in the Washington Post. Ferlinghetti’s widely celebrated novel Love in the Days of Rage (1988) takes place in Paris in 1968, during the student revolution; it chronicles a love affair between an expatriate American painter and a Portuguese banker and anarchist. . . .
Ferlinghetti’s often short, surrealistic plays have been performed in theaters in San Francisco, and he exhibited paintings and drawings in numerous galleries.
He died in early 2021, at the age of 101. He lived in San Francisco, where a street is named in his honor.
A poem & an excerpt . . .
Sometime During Eternity . . .
Sometime during eternity
some guys show up
and one of them
who shows up real late
is a kind of carpenter
from some square-type place
and he starts wailing
and claiming he is hip
to who made heaven
and that the cat
who really laid it on us
is his Dad
It’s all writ down
on some scroll-type parchments
which some henchmen
leave lying around the Dead Sea somewheres
a long time ago
and which you won’t even find
for a coupla thousand years or so
or at least for
nineteen hundred and fortyseven
to be exact
and even then
nobody really believes them
for that matter
they tell him
And they cool him
They stretch him on the Tree to cool
And everybody after that
is always making models
of this Tree
with Him hung up
and always crooning His name
and calling Him to come down
and sit in
on their combo
as if he is the king cat
who’s got to blow
or they can’t quite make it
Only he don’t come down
from His Tree
Him just hang there
on His Tree
looking real Petered out
and real cool
according to a roundup
of late world news
from the usual unreliable sources