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Lawrence Ferlinghetti, ‘the spiritual godfather of the Beat movement’

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, ‘the spiritual godfather of the Beat movement’
Lawrence Ferlinghetti. (Photo: Flickr)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, American poet, bookstore owner, publisher, and intellectual freedom fighter died at the age of 101 on 22 February after a long, influential and personally creative life.

San Francisco’s informal poet laureate, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, died this week at the age of 101. Yes, 101. He had been around so long that he while he had been a kind of spiritual leader for the “Beat poets” of the 1950s and ’60s, he often preferred to describe himself as one of the last of the bohemians from an earlier age, rather than one of those Beat poets he had done so much to support. Perhaps he saw himself sipping absinthe in the Les Deux Magots in Paris with his fellow bohemian writers and artists, with other US expatriate writers looking on from a nearby table, and maybe EE Cummings, or even Walt Whitman watching with interest. 

Describing Ferlinghetti’s unease with being pigeon-holed so easily as a leading light of the Beat generation, The Guardian noted Ferlinghetti said he “disliked being associated with the Beats, though he benefited from it and, despite his love of Ginsberg, was apt to lament the commercialisation of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg, he said, ‘fabricated the whole thing out of his imagination’. But, happily contradicting himself, he could add, as late as 1996, ‘It’s still the only rebellion around’.” 

But commenting on Ferlinghetti’s impact on US literature and society, The New York Times summed up his life, saying, “The spiritual godfather of the Beat movement, Mr. Ferlinghetti made his home base in the modest independent book haven now formally known as City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. A self-described ‘literary meeting place’ founded in 1953 and located on the border of the city’s sometimes swank, sometimes seedy North Beach neighborhood, City Lights, on Columbus Avenue, soon became as much a part of the San Francisco scene as the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf. (The city’s board of supervisors designated it a historic landmark in 2001.)

“While older and not a practitioner of their freewheeling personal style, Mr. Ferlinghetti befriended, published and championed many of the major Beat poets, among them Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Michael McClure, who died in May. His connection to their work was exemplified — and cemented — in 1956 with his publication of Ginsberg’s most famous poem, the ribald and revolutionary ‘Howl,’ an act that led to Mr. Ferlinghetti’s arrest on charges of ‘willfully and lewdly’ printing ‘indecent writings.’ 

“In a significant First Amendment decision, he was acquitted, and ‘Howl’ became one of the 20th century’s best-known poems. (The trial was the centerpiece of the 2010 film ‘Howl,’ in which James Franco played Ginsberg and Andrew Rogers played Mr. Ferlinghetti.)”

To describe his political feelings, Ferlinghetti could point to his personal support for aspects of left ideas, right along with a sometimes-idiosyncratic, anarchic vision, all coupled with his intolerance for any regulation of free expression. 

As The Guardian noted, “Ferlinghetti expressed disappointment in other Beat writers for their unstructured approach to politics. He decided to travel to Cuba to see the Castro regime for himself and later wrote One Thousand Words for Fidel Castro, which ends, ‘Fidel … I give you my sprig of laurel.’ Another political poem evoked a surrealistic scene by Goya, showing ‘freeways 50 lanes wide’, with ‘fewer tumbrils / but more maimed citizens / in painted cars’. In 2012 he declined an award from the Hungarian Pen club, in protest at the policies of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán.” 

Talking with my wife, I was somewhat surprised to learn that Ferlinghetti’s fascination with Goya’s horrific images through poems with lines like: 

“In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
‘suffering humanity’…”  

had sometimes had a deep effect on artistically inclined young black South Africans back in the 1960s. Ferlinghetti would almost certainly have been pleased to have learnt that bit of information.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti at Caffe Trieste, in 2012. (Photo: Flickr / Christopher Michel)

Ferlinghetti’s place in literature remains secure through his own free-form, multi-layered, allusion-filled, often-sensual ballads. But there was also his creation of the legendary City Lights Bookstore and his powerful contribution to the pathbreaking New Directions Books, with its vastly popular, still-ongoing, “Pocket Poets” series. And Ferlinghetti was also a prolific painter with a kind of expressionism that drew on the names of poets and their works. 

His successful defence of his publishing and distributing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems against obscenity charges became a major milestone in defence of free speech and freedom of the press in the US and made him a nationally recognised figure back in the 1950s.

Ferlinghetti had a difficult upbringing. His father died at about the time of his birth, his mother, unable to care for their large brood of young children, passed him along to an aunt, who then emigrated back to France where he was raised for years, until they returned to the US. By that point, French had actually become his first language. His aunt then passed him along to the family where she had been working as a maid, for them to care for the young Ferlinghetti. When he entered university, he selected the University of North Carolina because that was where novelist Thomas Wolfe, whose work he now idolised, had also studied.

After combat service in the navy during World War II in both the Pacific and European theatres of war, he returned home to do an MA at Columbia. Then it was back to France, to the Sorbonne, for a PhD where his thesis was on the symbolism of the city of light as a character in literature.  

His return thereafter to the US in the early 1950s carried him to California where he took up residence in San Francisco’s North Beach, back then, largely a working class, predominantly Italian-American neighbourhood. Soon Ferlinghetti was busy establishing his bookstore and building New Directions into a powerful voice. The original business plan called for only the stocking of paperback books (then still a new approach to publishing) to make the store’s stock more easily accessible to readers. It was, in fact, the first bookstore in the country to take that approach. Ferlinghetti had signs put up encouraging browsers to take their time and read books in the store if they wished to, thereby turning book buying into an experience rather than a simple purchasing pit stop.

That bookstore, and a group of art galleries in the city soon became gathering points for poets, musicians, other writers, and would-be writers, where live readings became an increasingly important part of the avant garde cultural life of the city. Within just a few years, New Directions was carrying an authors’ list that included authors such as Charles Baudelaire, Jorge Luis Borges, Gregory Corso, Gustave Flaubert, André Gide, Hermann Hesse, Christopher Isherwood, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Denise Levertov, Carson McCullers, Ezra Pound, Henry Miller, Boris Pasternak, Arthur Rimbaud, Kenneth Patchen, William Carlos Williams, and the Buddha, among numerous others. 

Staking his claim to the power of poetry, Ferlinghetti had written on the back cover of his vastly popular volume, “A Coney Island of the Mind”, (my own well-thumbed copy was purchased way back in the mid-1960s while I was still in high school), “The printing press has made poetry so silent that we’ve forgotten the power of poetry as oral messages. The sound of the streetsinger and the Salvation Army speaker is not to be scorned.” The impact of public readings on their audiences by poets like Yevgeny Yevtushenko in the Soviet Union or South Africa’s Sipho Sepamla, Wally Serote, and Oswald Mtshali could similarly imbue much of the same power to their words recited to eager audiences.

A number of Ferlinghetti’s own books of poetry were sold with vinyl recordings of him reading his own works, such as one of his most frequently enjoyed, popular works, Underwear.

 Or in the printed version:

Underwear
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I didn’t get much sleep last night
thinking about underwear
Have you ever stopped to consider
underwear in the abstract
When you really dig into it
some shocking problems are raised
Underwear is something
we all have to deal with
Everyone wears
some kind of underwear
The Pope wears underwear I hope
The Governor of Louisiana
wears underwear
I saw him on TV
He must have had tight underwear
He squirmed a lot
Underwear can really get you in a bind
You have seen the underwear ads
for men and women
so alike but so different
Women’s underwear holds things up
Men’s underwear holds things down
Underwear is one thing
men and women have in common
Underwear is all we have between us
You have seen the three-color pictures
with crotches encircled
to show the areas of extra strength
and three-way stretch
promising full freedom of action
Don’t be deceived
It’s all based on the two-party system
which doesn’t allow much freedom of choice
the way things are set up
America in its Underwear
struggles thru the night
Underwear controls everything in the end
Take foundation garments for instance
They are really fascist forms
of underground government
making people believe
something but the truth
telling you what you can or can’t do
Did you ever try to get around a girdle
Perhaps Non-Violent Action
is the only answer
Did Gandhi wear a girdle?
Did Lady Macbeth wear a girdle?
Was that why Macbeth murdered sleep?
And that spot she was always rubbing—
Was it really in her underwear?
Modern anglosaxon ladies
must have huge guilt complexes
always washing and washing and washing
Out damned spot
Underwear with spots very suspicious
Underwear with bulges very shocking
Underwear on clothesline a great flag of freedom
Someone has escaped his Underwear
May be naked somewhere
Help!
But don’t worry
Everybody’s still hung up in it
There won’t be no real revolution
And poetry still the underwear of the soul
And underwear still covering
a multitude of faults
in the geological sense—
strange sedimentary stones, inscrutable cracks!
If I were you I’d keep aside
an oversize pair of winter underwear
Do not go naked into that good night
And in the meantime
keep calm and warm and dry
No use stirring ourselves up prematurely
‘over Nothing’
Move forward with dignity
hand in vest
Don’t get emotional
And death shall have no dominion
There’s plenty of time my darling
Are we not still young and easy
Don’t shout 

This writer has loved that poem since he first read it back in the early 1960s, savouring the conjoining of humour, political satire, acid-tipped social criticism, and the use of rhythm and references to other well-known works. 

Discussing Ferlinghetti’s poetry, The Guardian explained that the writer’s “own poetry is irreverent, cajoling, casual and loose-limbed, sometimes excessively so; his models were Whitman and William Carlos Williams. In partnership with [another contemporary, poet Philip] Rexroth, he took part in many poetry and jazz events on the West Coast, and the two made a record together. However, he later became disillusioned with the poetry and jazz combination – ‘The poet ended up sounding like he was hawking fish from a street corner,’ he said. His verse on the page, though, suggests a spoken origin….”

Indeed it does, never sounding like it was written to be read quietly by the fire.

Years ago, at an outdoor festival of US literature in Indonesia, I had also chosen to read Underwear to an audience of poets, students, university lecturers, and anybody else who could squeeze into a large outdoor courtyard. I’m still not sure what possessed me to do this, but because a translation was helpfully provided to audience members, attendees laughed at the right moments, and it was great fun to read aloud, alone on stage in that gentle tropical evening. 

But beyond his own poetry (and his good business sense with that bookstore and publishing house) it was Ferlinghetti’s vigorous and successful defence of free speech and a free press, early on in his career, over his publication of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems that made Ferlinghetti’s name known nationally, well beyond admirers of the new and experimental in literature. Howl, itself, began with Ginsberg’s apocalyptic vision: 

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz….

As the Shaping San Francisco Digital Archive explained the events:

“Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was written in the summer of 1955 in an apartment at 1010 Montgomery Street. His first public reading of Howl was in October, 1955 at the Six Gallery in North Beach. After this eventful performance, publisher and fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, borrowing from Emerson’s message to Whitman a century earlier, wired Ginsberg: ‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career. Please send manuscript.’ City Lights published Howl in 1956 and soon the poem, the poet, and the San Francisco Renaissance, or the Beats, were known throughout the country.

“When U.S. Customs released the paperback version of Howl that had been printed in London, Ferlinghetti and his partner, Shigeyosi Murao, were arrested by San Francisco police on obscenity charges. One newspaper headline read: ‘Cops Don’t Allow No Renaissance Here.’ After a long trial (covered in a ‘Life Magazine’ picture story) in which poets, critics, and academics testified to the redeeming social value of Howl, it was ruled not obscene and City Lights was exonerated. The decision that was handed down in the Howl obscenity trial led to the American publication of the previously censored Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The trials publicity brought the San Francisco Beat Movement into the national spotlight and inspired many would-be poets and seekers to make their way out to the West Coast.”

As The Guardian noted of Howl (and Ferlinghetti’s) success with it, “…but after a failed attempt by the police to prosecute the bookseller for peddling obscene material, the reprints could not come fast enough. Ferlinghetti joked that the police ‘took over the advertising account and did a much better job’. Howl remains the bedrock of City Lights’ publishing success and has gone through well over 50 reprints, often more than one a year.”

Seventeen years before his passing, San Francisco renamed one of its streets: Via Ferlinghetti, in honour of the poet/publisher. It matched the reward to one of Ferlinghetti’s literary colleagues, Jack Kerouac, who has also had a street named after him, Kerouac Alley. And that street, naturally enough, adjoins Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore. DM

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