“If you would be a poet, experiment with all manner of poetics, erotic broken grammars, ecstatic religions, heathen outpourings speaking in tongues, bombast public speech, automatic scribblings, surrealist sensings, streams of consciousness, found sounds, rants and raves—to create your own limbic, your own underlying voice, your ur voice.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry as Insurgent Art (2007)
I held my breath as I walked up the steps. The room echoed with the sound of my wooden clogs meeting the wooden staircase to the Poetry Room of City Lights Books & Publishers. It was early February, less than 22 days before literary giant and City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti would pass away at the age of 101 in his San Francisco home. Gently noting each nailed-in printer page and slogan marked diligently into the wall, I drank in the manifestos and one-liner quotations, reverently making my way to the wall I was there for: a row of shelves labeled “Beat poetry”.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was one of the fathers of the Beat generation. An inspired poet, social activist, and painter, Ferlinghetti championed many of the most well-known American poets to date. In 1953, he opened City Lights Books & Publishers, a literary hub and haven in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood. Having just returned from Paris during the paperback revolution, Ferlinghetti offered to sell books to help friend Peter Martin keep his literary magazine afloat. The magazine, at the time, was called City Lights, and led to the birth of one of the nation’s most impactful houses of literature.
To book lovers and Beat aficionados alike, City Lights is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Within its historic Poetry Room reside many previously censored poetry books, some penned by the Beats themselves. Across the room rests the poet’s chair, a rickety rocking-chair relic settled beneath a sign that reads, “printer’s ink is the greater explosive.” City Lights is as welcoming a place as its history is daunting, full of the triumphs of a generation who fought for freedom of speech and for the pens of the poets who still seek to, as Ferlinghetti writes, “stand up and let them have it.”
Born in 1919, Ferlinghetti was a naval officer during World War II, later attending the University of North Carolina. He received a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University and in 1951, a doctorate degree from the Sorbonne in France. Upon graduation, Ferlinghetti relocated to San Francisco, where he opened City Lights Books & Publishers. In 1955, he printed the first in a long line of the Pocket Poets Series: his own Pictures of a Gone World. In 1956, Ferlinghetti published poet and friend Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, or Howl for Carl Solomon, the book that would propel them both into the 1957 People of the State of California v. Ferlinghetti obscenity trial. This trial not only crystallized the cosmic importance of Howl, but resulted in a landmark court decision in favor of Ferlinghetti that would help defeat attempted censorship and book-banning in the years to come.
Ginsberg was not the only influential writer championed by Ferlinghetti. Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Lew Welch, Diane di Prima, and Gary Snyder were all published by Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, as well as many other authors into the present day. Snyder, for example, whose mother Lois Snyder Hennessey was a reporter for The Oregonian, attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon from 1947 to 1951, where Ginsberg would later share his first-ever public reading of Howl on February 14, 1956. After inspiring the character of Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, Snyder, who shared an affinity for Zen studies along with Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Reed alumnus Welch, was introduced to Ferlinghetti, who later referred to Snyder as the “Thoreau of the Beat generation.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped to set literature ablaze with passion and madness, saw merit in the works of the angry and the wandering, of the dazed and the dreaming; writers sweating with the muse of purpose in Caffee Trieste over refilled mugs of coffee and half-scribbled manuscripts. Ferlinghetti created the root system from which the Beat generation grew, flourished, and reigned in the cramped book stores of the Bay Area, late-night hotels of Tangiers, and Italian coffee shops of North Beach, transcribing the visions of their riotous minds into groundbreaking works that paved the way for the writers and poets of today.
Though credited widely for his contribution to the careers of other important writers, Ferlinghetti himself was an established poet formulating poignant passages of sensitivity, rebellion, and American turmoil. His astute nature and critique of contemporary consumerism is shown vividly in his works from the gleaming How to Paint Sunlight to his then-controversial and now-famous 1958 A Coney Island of the Mind, whose first poem’s final lines read:
“We are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent
spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness
The scene shows fewer tumbrils
but more strung out citizens
in painted cars
and they have strange license plates
that devour America.”
To read Ferlinghetti is to pass through the open door of simultaneous societal possibility and disgruntled self-reflection. In the heavily censored era of the ’50s, Ferlinghetti’s freethinking work was met with both emphatic and critical reception. An unapologetic and truthful writer, his work remains relevant 50 years later, reminding us that his place in literature is one of devotion and ongoing revolution, delightfully supporting the renegades of this new generation just as he did the last.
“The Beats,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1996, “were only the first phase, the first generation of a continuing protest movement, a continuing dissident movement in this country. The ’60s were a youth revolution that was essentially a continuation of ideas enunciated by the Beats, and it’s a continuing movement still.”
Toward the end of his life, Ferlinghetti kept hold of his time-honored rituals, writing well into his late nineties with the love for his “bohemia” San Francisco growing stronger still.
“My newest poems are always my favorite poems,” Ferlinghetti once said. Though he is now at rest, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s legacy will not be taken for granted. City Lights Books & Publishers will serve as a beacon for young writers seeking solace and revelation across a quickly changing West Coast, and the soul of his words will persist in their influence as a grounding force for our ever-beautiful and increasingly tumultuous world.
“The world is a beautiful placePictures of a Gone World (1955)
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time”
The afternoon after the announcement of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s death, I found myself stepping into a historic 1979 La Jolla, California, book shop, looking for a copy of Ferlinghetti’s work. “Come on back here, now,” rasped the gray-haired shopkeeper as I was led through the gate of D.G. Wills, where Ferlinghetti read in 2005, past mismatched stacks of rare and used books. Having traveled south to my hometown earlier in the month, I had left all my copies in Portland. What I acquired after perusing the shelves of Pocket Poets Series printings and new Beat redistributions was a now-priceless signed seventh edition copy of Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the Gone World, published by City Lights Publishers. That day, Ted Burke, the San Diego poet and long-time Ferlinghetti fan who sold me my first and only Beat-signed possession, lamented with me over the death of our great and beloved hero, one of the proudly self-proclaimed “last of the bohemians”: Lawrence Ferlinghetti.