Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poet, playwright, publisher, andactivist Lawrence Ferlinghetti died of interstitial lung disease on February 22, 2021.

(This post compiled from various online sources.)

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 GinsbergKenneth 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
                                              like Galilee
          and he starts wailing
                                          and claiming he is hip
            to who made heaven
                                       and earth
                                                      and that the cat
                   who really laid it on us
                                                 is his Dad
          And moreover
             he adds
                         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
                                                      of them
                            to be exact
                                             and even then
         nobody really believes them
                                                   or me
                                                            for that matter
          You’re hot
                         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
                                                             and also
                   according to a roundup
                                                    of late world news
             from the usual unreliable sources

                                                               real dead


An excerpt from his poem

Autobiography

I am leading a quiet life
in Mike’s Place every day
watching the champs
of the Dante Billiard Parlor
and the French pinball addicts.
I am leading a quiet life
on lower East Broadway.
I am an American.
I was an American boy.
I read the American Boy Magazine
and became a boy scout
in the suburbs.
I thought I was Tom Sawyer
catching crayfish in the Bronx River
and imagining the Mississippi.
I had a baseball mit
and an American Flyer bike.
I delivered the Woman’s Home Companion
at five in the afternoon
or the Herald Trib
at five in the morning.
I still can hear the paper thump
on lost porches.
I had an unhappy childhood.
I saw Lindbergh land.
I looked homeward
and saw no angel.
I got caught stealing pencils
from the Five and Ten Cent Store
the same month I made Eagle Scout.
I chopped trees for the CCC
and sat on them.
I landed in Normandy
in a rowboat that turned over.
I have seen the educated armies
on the beach at Dover.
I have seen Egyptian pilots in purple clouds
shopkeepers rolling up their blinds
at midday
potato salad and dandelions
at anarchist picnics.
I am reading ‘Lorna Doone’
and a life of John Most
terror of the industrialist
a bomb on his desk at all times.
I have seen the garbagemen parade
in the Columbus Day Parade
behind the glib
farting trumpeters.
I have not been out to the Cloisters
in a long time
nor to the Tuileries
but I still keep thinking
of going.
I have seen the garbagemen parade
when it was snowing.
I have eaten hotdogs in ballparks.
I have heard the Gettysburg Address
and the Ginsberg Address.
I like it here
and I won’t go back
where I came from. . . .

9 thoughts on “Lawrence Ferlinghetti”

    1. Errol: “In 1998, he was named the first poet laureate of San Francisco.” That was from a biographical sketch; is it in error?

      1. Thanks! I had just finished reading some of this in this morning’s Concord Monitor by Jonathan Baird. You included a poem , a necessary addition. Wonderful

  1. Another iconic Voice gone. Ferlingetti has always spoken to my condition. “Sometime During Eternity” has always been a fav.

    First heard a recording of “Howl” in upper elementary school, our teacher, another Mary Oliver poet, taught us to write haikus. I did not know about 1957 Howl courtcase, so I have Ferlinghetti & ACLU to thank for beginnings of undoing censorship in the arts. So that Mrs Oliver could expose her public school students to cutting edge comtemporary creations.

  2. Thanks for this, Chuck. I fell in love with his poetry when I was a young teen in the mid-60s, what seems like an eternity ago. I didn’t realize he lived to such a great age.

  3. I met him in 2019 (seems like an eternity) at his photography exhibition two blocks from my home. Still alert, he radiated beauty. It was a modest show that noted his turn to pacifism after visiting Nagasaki when still in the navy, shortly after the bombing. Truly beloved in The City and beyond.

    1. Thank you for this Chuck.
      At 88 yrs of age I remember my days in Greenwich Village fondly. Only there and then did I ever feel comfortable to express my poetry (with piano and drums accompanying
      me one time)
      Always objected to the term “beat generation”. We were the opposite. Only now do I have both a pony tail and beard. Only beard then.

  4. Thank you for this Chuck.
    At 88 yrs of age I remember my days in Greenwich Village fondly. Only there and then did I ever feel comfortable to express my poetry (with piano and drums accompanying
    me one time)
    Always objected to the term “beat generation”. We were the opposite. Only now do I have both a pony tail and beard. Only beard then.

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