We bid fond farewell to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, indefatigable poet, publisher, painter, pacifist, iconoclast, political activist, “heart of the Beat generation” and “legend of American letters, bookselling, rabble rousing, wild dreaming” who co-founded San Francisco’s iconic City Lights bookstore and became a hometown icon himself. He died Monday at 101 after a lifetime of extolling poetry as “insurgent art,” while “awaiting/ perpetually and forever/ a renaissance of wonder.” Born in Yonkers, N.Y. in 1919, he grew up essentially an orphan; after university, he became a journalist, joined the Navy during World War Two, and on the GI Bill went to work on his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he began writing poetry. In 1953, back in the U.S. he founded City Lights with a friend who left soon after; Ferlinghetti stayed, becoming to many devotees a steadfast champion of the Beats, “a psychic ballast…the keepsake of ancient dreams and dimly remembered fables.” City Lights stayed open seven days a week and late into the night, creating a home for poets, anti-war activists and other countercultural denizens with a vibrant atmosphere and its own singular principles. A sign on the wall declared, “We will not call the police for book thieves. But they may be publicly shamed.” In 1955, Ferlinghetti first heard Allen Ginsberg’s seminal, explicit poem Howl; he sent Ginsberg a telegram: “I GREET YOU AT THE BEGINNING OF A GREAT CAREER. STOP. WHEN DO I GET MANUSCRIPT OF HOWL?” After publishing it, his copies of the poem were seized and he and Ginsberg were arrested on obscenity charges in 1957. The ACLU successfully defended the poem at a months-long trial, where the judge ruled it was not obscene due to its “redeeming social significance.” In 1958, Ferlinghetti published his own first collection, A Coney Island of the Mind –written “to be performed aloud with a jazz accompaniment” – which has sold over a million copies. He went on to write more than 50 volumes of poetry, along with novels and travel journals; he dismissed the notion of “process” in his writing, arguing his poems “were born full-blown, full-grown out of the air.” As a publisher, he long focused on poetry, along with offbeat or radical books ignored by the mainstream; among the Beat legends he introduced to America were Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso. In his “Constantly Risking Absurdity,” he likened himself and his fellow poets to acrobats as they fly above the circus, seeking to perceive “taut truth” and beauty while “spreadeagled in the empty air of existence.”
In later decades, Ferlinghetti remained active at City Lights and became a hometown avatar: “He was San Francisco. He will always be San Francisco.” The city named a street after him, appointed him their first Poet Laureate, and to mark his centennial declared March 24, his birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day, with month-long events. On his 100th birthday he also published his final book, Little Boy, an autobiographical stream-of- consciousness novel; his publisher wanted to call it a “memoir,” but Ferlinghetti found the term too “genteel.” In recent years, he was nearly blind and could no longer bike and walk around his city, but he retained a busy life. At 99, he was described in an interview with The Paris Review as “still unbent, and all attempts to persuade him to adopt a cane have been rebuffed”; despite his fame, he remained “deficient in any aggrandized sense of self.” As news of his death came, New Directions, his publisher for over 60 years, declared, “May we all live so long and so well.” He was celebrated as “eternal hero, liberator of the amusement park mind, the quiet bookstore clerk as 1-man molotov.” Many thanked him for “bringing the Beat poets and other great writers up to the surface,” for introducing them to “unreality” and “a life” and poetry itself. “You’re just on another road now,” read one goodbye. “Say hi to Allen, Jack and Neal.” The most apt farewells were, somehow, the most succinct: “Bummer…My condolences to the world….Rest in poetry.” Yes.