Lawrence Ferlinghetti Turns 100: Hear the Great San Francisco Poet Read “Trump’s Trojan Horse,” “Pity the Nation” & Many Other Poems

It has been a sea­son of mourn­ing for lit­er­a­ture: first the death of Mary Oliv­er and now W.S. Mer­win, two writ­ers who left a con­sid­er­able imprint on over half a cen­tu­ry of Amer­i­can poet­ry. Con­sid­er­ing the fact that found­ing father of the Beats and pro­pri­etor of world-renowned City Lights Book­store, Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti, turns 100 on March 24th, maybe a few more peo­ple have glanced over to check on him. How’s he doing?

He’s grown “frail and near­ly blind,” writes Chloe Velt­man at The Guardian in an inter­view with the poet this month, “but his mind is still on fire.” Fer­linghet­ti “has not mel­lowed,” says Wash­ing­ton Post book crit­ic Ron Charles, “at all.” If you’re look­ing for him at any of the events planned in his hon­or, City Lights announces, he will not be in atten­dance, but he has been busy pro­mot­ing his lat­est book, a thin­ly-veiled auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el about his ear­ly life called Lit­tle Boy.

In the book Fer­linghet­ti describes his child­hood in images right out of Edward Gorey. He was a “Lit­tle Lord Fauntleroy” in a Bronxville man­sion 20 miles out­side New York, an orphan tak­en in and raised by descen­dants of the founders of Sarah Lawrence. “His new guardians spoke to one anoth­er in court­ly tones and dressed in Vic­to­ri­an garb,” notes Charles. “They sent him to pri­vate school, and, more impor­tant, they pos­sessed a fine library, which he was encour­aged to use.”

The poet would lat­er write he was a “social climber climb­ing down­ward,” an iron­ic ref­er­ence to how some peo­ple might have seen the tra­jec­to­ry of his career. After serv­ing in the Navy dur­ing World War II, earn­ing a master’s at Colum­bia, and a Ph.D. at the Sor­bonne, Fer­linghet­ti decamped to San Fran­cis­co, and found­ed the small mag­a­zine City Lights with Peter D. Mar­tin. Then he opened a book­store on the edge of Chi­na­town to fund the pub­lish­ing ven­ture.

The shop became a haunt for writ­ers and poets. Fer­linghet­ti start­ed pub­lish­ing them, start­ing with him­self in 1955. The fol­low­ing year he gained inter­na­tion­al infamy for pub­lish­ing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (hear Gins­berg read the poem in ’56). The book was banned, and Fer­linghet­ti put on tri­al for obscen­i­ty. If any­one thought this would be the end of Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti, they were mis­tak­en.

He has pub­lished some­where around forty books of poet­ry and crit­i­cism, nov­els and plays, been a pro­lif­ic painter for six­ty years, as well as a pub­lish­er, book­seller, and activist. He does not con­sid­er him­self a Beat poet, but from his influ­en­tial first two books—Pic­tures of the Gone World and 1958’s A Coney Island of the Mindonward, Ferlinghetti’s philo­soph­i­cal out­look has more or less breathed the same air as Gins­berg et al.’s.

Quot­ing from Coney Island, Andrew Shapiro writes, “he coun­seled us to ‘con­found the sys­tem,’ ‘to emp­ty out our pock­ets… miss­ing our appoint­ments’ and to leave ‘our neck­ties behind’ and ‘take up the full beard of walk­ing anar­chy.’” He is still doing this, every way that he can, in pub­lic read­ings, media appear­ances, and a can­ny use of YouTube. His is not a call to flower pow­er but to full immer­sion in the chaos of life, or, as he writes in “Coney Island of the Mind 1” in the “ver­i­ta­ble rage / of adver­si­ty / Heaped up / groan­ing with babies and bay­o­nets / under cement skies / in an abstract land­scape of blast­ed trees.”

Fer­linghet­ti urged poets and writ­ers to “cre­ate works capa­ble of answer­ing the chal­lenge of apoc­a­lyp­tic times, even if this mean­ing sounds apoc­a­lyp­tic… you can con­quer the con­querors with words.” Despite this stri­den­cy, he has nev­er tak­en him­self too seri­ous­ly. Fer­linghet­ti is as relaxed as they come—he hasn’t mel­lowed, but he also hasn’t need­ed to. He’s a loose, nat­ur­al sto­ry­teller and come­di­an and he’s still deliv­er­ing sober, prophet­ic pro­nounce­ments with grav­i­tas.

See and hear Fer­linghet­ti take on con­querors, bul­lies, and xeno­phobes, under­wear, and oth­er sub­jects in the read­ings here from his through­out his career, includ­ing a full, 40-minute read­ing in 2005 at UC Berke­ley, below, an album of Fer­linghet­ti and Ken­neth Rexroth, above, and at the top, a video made last year of the 99-year-old poet, in Lady Lib­er­ty mask, read­ing “Trump’s Tro­jan Horse” under a grin­ning, gray-beard­ed self-por­trait of his younger self. Hap­py 100th to him. “I fig­ure that with anoth­er 100 birth­days,” he says, “that’ll be about enough!”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bill Mur­ray Reads the Poet­ry of Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti, Wal­lace Stevens, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, Bil­ly Collins, Lorine Niedeck­er, Lucille Clifton & More

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl Man­u­scripts Now Dig­i­tized & Put Online, Reveal­ing the Beat Poet’s Cre­ative Process

The First Record­ing of Allen Gins­berg Read­ing “Howl” (1956)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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    Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary in his ideas and wish­es oth­ers should come and join togeth­er to crit­i­cize the preva­lent crony cap­i­tal­ism that cor­rodes human­i­ty slow­ly and sure­ly. His works are con­stant reminders for peo­ple that if some­thing is not done unit­ed­ly, the face of human­i­ty will be in com­plete jeop­ardy.

    A moment of joy for all who love change is a must for human­i­ty .

    A Hap­py Birth­day To LAWRENCE Fer­linghet­ti!

  • Cedar Rey says:

    Prague-based poet Lucien Zell asserts:

    Silence dreams of voic­es.
    An emp­ty cup longs for tea.
    I made no friends in the dark­ness
    until I made the dark­ness my friend.

    Fer­linghet­ti makes friends with his own dark­ness, and the world’s, becom­ing not only a City Light but a City Light­house.

  • Andrew Berger says:

    what poem are you quot­ing here?

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