RIP Radical Poet and Revolutionary Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919–2021)

“Democ­ra­cy is not a spec­ta­tor sport,” Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti pro­claimed on the wall of his City Lights book­store, a San Fran­cis­co fix­ture since the poet, activist, and pub­lish­er found­ed the land­mark with Peter D. Mar­tin in 1953. Fer­linghet­ti, who died on Mon­day at age 101, was him­self a fix­ture, a ven­er­at­ed stew­ard of the coun­ter­cul­ture. (See him read “Last Prayer,” above, in a clip from The Last Waltz). On his 100th birth­day–on which the city insti­tut­ed an annu­al “Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti Day”–Chloe Velt­man inter­viewed him, describ­ing the poet as “frail and near­ly blind… but his mind is still on fire.” It was the same mind that start­ed a pub­lish­ing house in the 50s with the intent to stir an “inter­na­tion­al dis­si­dent fer­ment.”

Fer­linghet­ti and Mar­tin start­ed their book­store with a mis­sion: “to break lit­er­a­ture out of its stuffy, aca­d­e­m­ic cage,” Velt­man writes, out of “its self-cen­tered focus on what he calls ‘the me me me,’ and make it acces­si­ble to all.” City Lights was the first all-paper­back book­store, opened at a time, he says, when “paper­backs weren’t con­sid­ered real books.”

For Fer­linghet­ti, lit­er­a­ture and democ­ra­cy were not sep­a­rate pur­suits. The idea was rad­i­cal, and so were his patrons. “A book­store is a nat­ur­al place for poets to hang out,” Fer­linghet­ti told NPR’s Tom Vitale, “and they start­ed show­ing up there”–“They” being East Coast Beats like Gins­berg, Ker­ouac, and the great, unsung Bob Kauf­man.

Like a North­ern Cal­i­for­nia Shake­speare and Com­pa­ny, Ferlinghetti’s City Lights became the phys­i­cal embod­i­ment of a lit­er­ary move­ment, espe­cial­ly after the infa­mous pub­li­ca­tion of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl and Oth­er Poems, for which Fer­linghet­ti stood tri­al for obscen­i­ty, an event that “pro­pelled the Beat gen­er­a­tion into the inter­na­tion­al spot­light,” writes Evan Karp. “For the first and–arguably–only time, lit­er­a­ture became a pop­u­lar move­ment in the U.S.” Young peo­ple around the coun­try real­ized that poet­ry was rel­e­vant to their pol­i­tics (and lives), and vice ver­sa.

Fer­linghet­ti pub­lished his own first book of poet­ry, Pic­tures of the Gone World, in the same year he pub­lished Ginsberg’s, but he has not received his crit­i­cal due along­side the oth­er Beats, despite the fact that his sec­ond book, 1958’s A Coney Island of the Mind, “sold more than 1 mil­lion copies over the year, rank­ing per­haps sec­ond to Howl as the most pop­u­lar book of mod­ern Amer­i­can poet­ry,” Fred Kaplan notes at Slate. (See him read the book’s first poem, “In Goya’s Great­est Scenes We Seem to See…,” from his City Lights office, above.)

Fer­linghet­ti him­self nev­er want­ed to be iden­ti­fied with the move­ment. In a 2013 doc­u­men­tary, he emphat­i­cal­ly says, “don’t call me a Beat. I was nev­er a Beat poet.” He described his poet­ry as an “insur­gent art”:

If you would be a poet, cre­ate works capa­ble of answer­ing the chal­lenge of

apoc­a­lyp­tic times, even if this mean­ing sounds apoc­a­lyp­tic.

You are Whit­man, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emi­ly Dick­in­son and Edna St. Vin­cent Mil­lay, you are Neru­da and Mayakovsky and Pasoli­ni, you are an Amer­i­can or a non-Amer­i­can, you can con­quer the con­querors with words.…

His pur­pose, he writes, was to pierce a cul­ture he calls “a free­way fifty lanes wide / a con­crete con­ti­nent / spaced with bland bill­boards / illus­trat­ing imbe­cile illu­sions of hap­pi­ness.” From his Navy ser­vice in WWII–in which he saw the after­math of Nagasa­ki weeks after the drop­ping of the atom­ic bombs–to the last days of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, he kept his keen eye on Amer­i­ca’s abus­es. His “poet­ry is noto­ri­ous­ly crit­i­cal of politi­cians and the sta­tus quo,” Karp writes, and he was “unafraid to name names and take stances pub­licly” as a writer and a life­long activist.

“Ger­ald Nicosia, the crit­ic,” Vitale points out, “says Ferlinghetti’s two great­est accom­plish­ments were fight­ing cen­sor­ship, and inau­gu­rat­ing a small press rev­o­lu­tion.” What did Fer­linghet­ti him­self think of his place in the cul­ture? “In Plato’s repub­lic, poets were con­sid­ered sub­ver­sive, a dan­ger to the repub­lic,” he told The New York Times in 1998. “I kind of rel­ish that role.” As for what might final­ly shake the coun­try out of the anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic spir­it that has held its peo­ple hostage to cor­po­ra­tions and a hos­tile gov­ern­ment, he was not san­guine: “It would take a whole new gen­er­a­tion not devot­ed to the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem,” he said. “A gen­er­a­tion not trapped in the me, me, me.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

2,000+ Cas­settes from the Allen Gins­berg Audio Col­lec­tion Now Stream­ing Online

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

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

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (1)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • WW says:

    I met Fer­linghet­ti sev­er­al years ago, and speak­ing to us, one thing he said was inter­est­ing. He stat­ed he loved San Fran­cis­co, but it had gone from a Lib­er­al-dream, to a Pro­gres­sive-night­mare, and that he pined for the glo­ry-days of the 50’s-70’s. I under­stood his unex­pect­ed sen­ti­ment!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.