Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “As poet and publisher, he challenged the literary elite’s definition of art.”

From a story by Alysia Abbott headlined “Thank You, Lawrence Ferlinghetti”:

When Lawrence Ferlinghetti died this week at age 101, many of my friends, even writer friends, expressed surprise on social media.

Ferlinghetti outlived all the younger Beat writers he once published including Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Greg Corso. When The New York Times, in a 2005 interview, asked him why, he answered, “Kerouac drank himself to death, and Burroughs, when he was young, thought the healthiest person was one who had enough money to stay on heroin all his life. I really never got into drugs. I smoked a little dope, and I did a little LSD, but that was it. I was afraid of it, frankly. I don’t like to be out of control.”…

When Ferlinghetti first opened City Lights in 1953, North Beach was still mostly Italian. “We used to get some Italian anarchist newspapers direct from Italy,” he told Interview magazine. “And the Italians on the garbage trucks would pull up in front of the store and rush in and get their copies.” His original partner, Peter Martin, was the son of Carlo Tresca, the famous editor and labor organizer who was assassinated by mafia in New York City in 1943.

But Ferlinghetti’s influence reaches well beyond that of the store he founded. As poet and publisher, he challenged the literary elite’s definition of art and the artist’s role in the world.

In 1955, he launched the City Lights publishing house, devoted to publishing avant-garde books. And in 1957 he took on obscenity charges with the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems after San Francisco local police arrested Ferlinghetti, and a City Lights clerk, charging them of having sold an “obscene book.” The American Civil Liberties Union defended Howl, bringing a series of recognized artists and literary authorities to testify to the poem’s merit and worth….

Through his work as publisher and writer, Ferlinghetti was also instrumental in bringing poetry out of the academy and back into the public sphere with readings and political activism.

Along with Ginsberg, and other progressive writers, he took part in events focusing on issues including the Vietnam War, the Cuban revolution, the nuclear arms race, the United Farm Workers of America, the murder of Salvador Allende, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the Zaptista Army of National Liberation in Mexico. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle he said about his time serving in the war, “Seeing Nagasaki made me an instant pacifist.”…

It was Ferlinghetti who pioneered poetry and jazz experiments. “A Coney Island of the Mind,” published by New Directions in 1958, included a series of poems to be read aloud accompanied by jazz performance. The title of the collection, taken from Henry Miller’s “Into the Night Life,” represented what Ferlinghetti called “a kind of circus of the soul.”…

Although considered a central figure in San Francisco, Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York. In “Literary San Francisco,” he wrote: “I grew up with the firm view that nothing west of the Hudson really existed. And in that New Yorker’s demented map of America, there was a high island sticking up at the far western edge of the great American slough: San Francisco.” Describing himself as “one of those literary carpet-baggers” he wrote that the city first appeared to him “like an island, vaguely Mediterranean, with its white buildings, a little like Tunis from the sea, not really part of America.”…

While hitchhiking and riding the rails through Mexico one summer with friends, he discovered the populist writers Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay. After a four-year tour in the navy, Ferlinghetti settled in NYC, where he pursued a masters at Columbia and circulated among the intellectuals of Greenwich Village. In 1947, he moved to Paris to complete his doctoral degree at the Sorbonne and later married Selden Kirby-Smith, aka “Kirby,” a Swarthmore graduate he met on a boat ride from New York to Paris. Together, they moved to San Francisco, where he taught French, wrote art criticism and kept a painting studio. Friendships with Kenneth Rexroth (a focal figure for West Coast poets and activists) and Peter Martin (of City Lights magazine) spurred the development of his own writing. Listening to community radio KPFA spurred his social conscience.

Since 1957, City Lights Books has published work by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, Diane DiPrima, William Burroughs, William Carlos Williams, Paul Bowles, Timothy Leary, Charles Bukowski, Philip Lamantia, and Jack Hirshman, among others. More recently City Lights published Mattilda Sycamore Bernstein’s memoir, The End of San Francisco, which won a 2013 Lambda Literary Award. Today City Lights has nearly 200 books in print….

Although “Coney Island of the Mind” is Ferlinghetti’s most enduring work, he’s published novels, plays, travel journals and other writing. In 2017, he published new poetry in the anthology “Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems.” In 2019, Doubleday published Mr. Ferlinghetti’s “Little Boy,” a book he’d been working on for two decades. Its publication coincided with Mr. Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday. Though he stayed home that day, the streets outside City Lights filled to celebrate him, with poets like Robert Hass, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Ishmael Reed reading aloud from his work.

City Lights Bookstore still feels like a holy place, and is a necessary stop whenever I return to the city. One of the greatest days of my life was launching Fairyland, a memoir of my father, at the bookstore in 2013. The upstairs poetry room where I read was at capacity. It was mid-June and hot. The stairwell leading up to the room crowded with people sitting on the steps or leaning against the wall. The reading felt like a homecoming. Even elder Beats like Jack Hirschorn attended. City Lights was thick with Ferlinghetti’s beatific energy that night. Let that spirit continue to reign over North Beach and San Francisco and the lives of so many poets who are being born every day.

Alysia Abbott’s work has appeared in Real Simple, Salon, and She is a graduate of the New School’s MFA program and was a contributing producer at WNYC radio. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and two children. She is the author of Fairyland, A Memoir of My Father (Norton).

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