Spiritual godfather of the Beat movement, Lawrence Ferlinghetti laid its base in the modest independent book haven now formally known as City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. City lights, on Columbus Avenue, a self-described “literary hangout” founded in 1953 and situated on the edge of the sometimes glitzy and sometimes seedy North Beach neighborhood, soon became such an important part of the music scene. San Francisco like the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf. (The city board of supervisors designated it a historic landmark in 2001).
Although he was older and did not practice their lighthearted lifestyle, Ferlinghetti befriended, published, and championed many of the leading Beat poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Michael McClure. His connection with the work of the latter was exemplified – and cemented – in 1956 with the publication of Ginsberg’s most famous poem, the procacious and revolutionary “Howl”, an act that led to the arrest of Ferlinghetti, accused of printing “indecent writings” in a “voluntary and libidinous way”.
With a significant ruling based on the First Amendment, he was acquitted and “Howl” became one of the best-known poems of the 20th century. (The trial was the centerpiece of the 2010 film “Howl,” in which James Franco played Ginsberg and Andrew Rogers played Ferlinghetti.)
In addition to being a champion of the Beats, Ferlinghetti was also a prolific writer of varied abilities and interests whose work was not easy to define, mixing charming simplicity, sharp humor and social conscience.
“Every great poem satisfies a longing and restores life,” he wrote in a “non-lecture” in 2003 after receiving the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America. A poem, he added, “must rise to ecstasy somewhere between speech and song.”
Critics and other poets never agreed on whether Ferlinghetti should be considered a Beat poet. He didn’t think he was.
“In a way, what I really did was take care of the store,” he told The Guardian in 2006. “When I came to San Francisco in 1951 I was wearing a beret. In any case, I was the last of the Bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.”
Yet he shared the Beats’ taste for political upheaval. Poems such as “Tentative Description of a Dinner Promoting President Eisenhower’s Impeachment” enshrined him as an unapologetic defender of, as the title of one of his books says, “Poetry as Insurgent Art.”
He never lost his desire for provocation. “You are supposed to get more conservative the older you get,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1977. “Apparently, I am becoming just the opposite.”
His most successful collection, A Coney Island of the mind (1958), drew attention when one of the poems was branded blasphemous by a New York congressman, Steven Derounian, who requested that a state university where it was taught be investigated, saying that the poem ridiculed the crucifixion of Christ.
The poem begins like this: “At some point / in eternity / some guys appear / and one of them / who appears very late / is a kind of carpenter / from somewhere in the fourth / like Galilea / and begins to moan / already say it’s in. ” Despite the controversy it generated – or perhaps, at least in part, because of it – A Coney Island of the mind caused a sensation. It became one of the most successful American poetry books ever published. It has been translated into multiple languages and according to City Lights more than a million copies have been printed.
A provocative life would have been difficult to predict for Lawrence Monsanto Ferling, the youngest of five children born in the placid surroundings of Yonkers, New York, on March 24, 1919, after World War I. His father, an Italian immigrant who had founded a small real estate company, had shortened the family name; As an adult, Lawrence would change it again.
His parents met in Coney Island – an encounter he later imagined had occurred in the bumper cars – but the veneer of normalcy quickly faded. His father, Charles, died before Lawrence was born, and his mother, Clemence Mendes-Monsanto Ferling, was admitted to a state mental hospital before he was two years old.
Lawrence was taken in by a relative – Aunt Emily called her, although the family relationship was complicated – and she took him to Strasbourg, France, where he learned French, a language he spoke before English. When they returned to the United States, the difficulties also returned. He was briefly placed in an orphanage while Aunt Emily was looking for work.
The turning point came when she began working as a governess for Presley and Anna Bisland, a wealthy couple living in nearby Bronxville, New York, who saw promise in the boy.
In his care, Lawrence flourished. According Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Time, a 1990 biography written by Barry Silesky, became a voracious reader who devoured the classics in the Bislands’ library and earned silver dollars for memorizing epic poems.
When he was involved in juvenile delinquency – he was arrested and charged with shoplifting around the same time he was reaching Eagle Scout (the highest grade of Scouts) – he was sent to Mount Hermon, a strict private all-boys high school in Massachusetts. .
“I was getting too crazy,” Ferlinghetti recalled in a 2007 interview with The New York Times. “Or it was starting to be.”
That sense of wildness shaped his taste in literary matters. Among his favorite books was Thomas Wolfe’s coming-of-age novel The angel who looks at us; Ferlinghetti applied to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he said later, because Wolfe had gone there.
He graduated from journalism in North Carolina – “I learned how to write an acceptable sentence,” he said of the impact the study of journalism had had on his poetry – and then became a naval officer during World War II, spending much of the time. conflict in a submarine fighter in the North Atlantic.
After the war, he graduated from Columbia University, where he received a master’s degree in English literature and wrote his thesis on the art critic John Ruskin and the artist JMW Turner, fostering his lifelong love of painting. After Columbia, he went to Paris, the classic hotbed of postwar bohemians, where he received his doctorate in comparative literature at the Sorbonne.
Ferlinghetti traveled west in early 1951, landing in San Francisco with a duffel bag and little else. After months in a low-cost rental apartment, he found the North Beach neighborhood, even as San Francisco itself was rapidly catching on with intellectuals and a generation of young people for whom “establishment” was a dirty word.
“This was all bohemian,” he recalls.
He was surrounded by a highly politically and artistically charged circle, but he didn’t like the Beat lifestyle. “I never dated them,” he said, noting that he led “a respectable life as a married man” after marrying Selden Kirby-Smith in 1951. They had two children, Julie and Lorenzo; the marriage ended in divorce.
In addition to Sasser, Ferlinghetti is survived by a male child and three grandchildren.
Ferlinghetti’s life changed in 1953, when he and Peter Martin opened the bookstore. City Lights Pocket Book Shop, which initially only sold paperbacks at a time when the publishing industry was beginning to take the format seriously.
The store would soon become a kind of repository for books that other booksellers ignored and a kind of lounge for the authors who wrote them, a place “where books could be found that couldn’t be found anywhere else,” he said, attributing the Credit for the concept to Martin. They each put in $ 500 and City Lights opened its doors.
“And we barely managed to open the door,” Ferlinghetti later recalled, “we couldn’t close it.”
In 1955, Ferlinghetti, who by then was the sole owner of City Lights, began publishing poems, including his own. In his first collection, Images of the past world, his style – “both rhetorically functional and socially vital,” in the words of critic Larry R. Smith – emerged fully formed.
A year later, his City Lights label published Howl and other poems of Ginsberg, and before long he was in court defending the right to freedom of expression of poets and, in the meantime, helping to gain fame for himself and for the beats he had adopted.
Through the years he would work in other media, such as painting, fiction and theater; in 1970 a program of three of his plays was produced in New York. But poetry remained the art form closest to his heart.
San Francisco was also close to his heart, especially North Beach, the traditionally Italian-American neighborhood where he lived most of his adult life. In his 1976 poem “Dying Old Italians,” Ferlinghetti spoke as much about the city he loved as it was about the changes he had seen.
For Ferlinghetti, age brought honors. In 1998, he was named San Francisco’s first Poet Laureate; in 2005 the National Book Foundation cited his “tireless work on behalf of poets and the entire literary community for more than 50 years.”
Age did not stop him; he continued to write and give interviews. In 2019, Doubleday published Niñito, a book he had worked on for two decades and that he characterized as the closest thing to the memoirs he would ever write: “an experimental novel” about “an imaginary self.”
Its publication coincided with Ferlinghetti’s centennial, which San Francisco Mayor London Breed proclaimed as Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day. A choir sang “Happy Birthday” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” from the street in front of his apartment, while in City Lights poets like Robert Hass and Ishmael Reed read aloud works by Ferlinghetti.
In the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, City Lights closed down and launched an online fundraiser in which it announced that it may not reopen. The store received more than $ 450,000 in four days. Its CEO, Elaine Katzenberger, declared to Publishers Weekly that money allowed City Lights to plan for the future.
Even at the end of his life, Ferlinghetti continued to compose poetry: “In flashes, nothing sustained,” he told The Times in 2018. The anthology Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems, published in 2017, included new work.
“My newest poems,” Ferlinghetti once told an interviewer, “are always my favorite poems.”
© New York Times / Translation: Elisa Carnelli