Lawrence Ferlinghetti – Poet, publisher, bookseller, painter, activist
As a bookseller, Ferlinghetti’s shop, City Lights, adopted a similarly egalitarian, open-all-hours approach that made it the nexus of San Francisco’s underground Beat scene in search of late night literary fixes. City Lights was the first shop to sell cheap paperback editions of quality literature in much the same way Jim Haynes would do with his Edinburgh based book shop a few years later. Ferlinghetti fostered a speak-easy environment where it was okay for bookish young people to hang out and read at their leisure rather than be hustled into making a purchase.
As a publisher, Ferlinghetti’s City Lights imprint was put on the map with the first appearance of Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, Howl. The state’s failed obscenity prosecution opened the door for an entire generation of taboo-busting writers to be given a legitimacy they previously weren’t afforded.
Despite his associations, Ferlinghetti never considered himself a Beat writer, and his unprepossessing demeanour was as far away from the movement’s image of roaring boys free-forming their way to oblivion as it could be. Yet without the platforms he opened up , the Beats arguably wouldn’t have made the impact they did. Unlike many of his peers, throughout more than thirty volumes of poetry, as well as plays and political broadsides, Ferlinghetti lived to tell his tales.
Ferlinghetti was born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling in Yonkers, New York, the youngest of five sons to Carlo Ferlinghetti, who had shortened the family name, and Clemence Albertine. His father died before he was born, and, after his mother was hospitalised following a nervous breakdown, he was sent aged two to live with his uncle Ludovic Monsanto and aunt Emily. When their marriage collapsed, Emily moved to Strasbourg with the toddler, then on their return to New York put him in an orphanage before later retrieving him to live with the wealthy Bisland family, who hired her as a governess. When Emily disappeared, the Bislands raised Ferlinghetti as their own.
Ferlinghetti studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he wrote sports reports for the student paper, and had short stories published. After a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War Two, he studied French literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. At Columbia University, he took a master’s degree in English literature at Columbia University, and wrote his thesis on critic John Ruskin and painter J.M.W. Turner.
In 1951, Ferlinghetti married Selden Kirby-Smith, who he met on the boat travelling to France. They had two children, and were together until 1976. They moved to San Francisco, where Ferlinghetti met fellow poet Kenneth Rexroth and became politically engaged, loosely defining himself as a philosophical anarchist. Ferlinghetti’s campaigning sensibility was the flipside of the hedonistic excesses of some of his generation’s other finest minds, and marked the differing strands of counter cultural thought.
He opened City Lights in 1953 in partnership with Peter D. Martin, before becoming the shop’s sole proprietor two years later, starting its publishing wing shortly after. He used his full family name for the first time as author of his first poetry collection, Pictures of the Gone World (1955). City Lights became Ferlinghetti’s artistic base for the rest of his life. The shop became one of the epicentres of the new breed of writers, and remains open today.
In 1967, Ferlinghetti was one of the presenters at the Human Be-In, which attracted tens of thousands to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for one of the counter-culture’s largest gatherings. Ginsberg, psychedelic guru Timothy Leary and bands including Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead set the tone for what would become known later that year as the Summer of Love. A decade later, he appeared reading his poem, Loud Prayer, in The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s document of The Band’s last concert.
Ferlinghetti’s many books included The Secret Meaning of Things (1969), and two novels, Her (1960) and Days of Rage (1988), set during the student uprisings in Paris two decades earlier. In 1988, he was responsible for the renaming of ten San Francisco streets after writers associated with the city, including Jack Kerouac Alley. In 1994, he was given an even greater honour, when Via Ferlinghetti became the first street to be named after a living writer. In 1998, he began a two-year tenure as San Francisco poet laureate, a post he used in part to argue against the overwhelming force of car culture.
Ferlinghetti gave readings and remained involved in City Lights as long as he could, despite all but losing his sight. His most recent book, Little Boy: A Novel, was published in 2019. A memoir in all but name, Little Boy was a rolling, ever expanding summation of a poetic life that rippled across a century and beyond.
He is survived by his son, Lorenzo, his daughter Julia, and three grandchildren.
The Herald, March 15th 2021