Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poet, Publisher, Activist and Bedrock of the Beat Generation dead at 101.


 Lawrence Ferlinghetti,,poet, painter, activist, publisher (and co-owner) of the world-famous City Lights Bookstore and literary icon  died on Monday at his home, his son Lorenzo Ferlinghetti said. A month shy of his 102nd birthday, Ferlinghetti died " in his own room," holding the hands of his son and his son's girlfriend, "as he took his last breath." The cause of death was lung disease. Ferlinghetti had received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine last week, his son said Tuesday Ferlinghetti epitomized the soul of San Francisco counterculture for generations of artists and writers. As the founder of City Lights, a bookstore and publisher that grew from a small, avant-garde press to a literary institution, he provided a bedrock of support for scores of groundbreaking writers, from the Beat Generation onwards, staunchly defending the work that risked erasure and oppression from authorities.
 
 “We intend to build on Ferlinghetti’s vision and honor his memory by sustaining City Lights into the future as a center for open intellectual inquiry and commitment to literary culture and progressive politics,” City Lights said in a statement“Though we mourn his passing, we celebrate his many contributions and give thanks for all the years we were able to work by his side. 
 
We love you, Lawrence.
 
 Often concerned with politics and social issues. Ferlinghetti's  work countered the literary elites definition of art and the artists role in the world. Though  imbued with the commonplace, his poetry cannot be simply described as polemic  or personal protest, for  it stands  on his craftmanship, thematics and grounding in tradition. An  activist who was  brave enough and daring to challenge peoples beliefs.His life  saw him act as a catalyst for numerous literary careers and for the Beat movement itself, publishing the early work of Allen Ginsberg,Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder.
Making poetry accessible to all, with his lucid views he has long watered my senses. I've admired his work since getting hold of copy of Penguin Modern Poets No 5 (where he was alongside Ginsberg and Gregorry Corso)https://teifidancer-teifidancer.blogspot.com/2019/04/penguin-modern-poets.html His bookstore quickly became an iconic literary institution that  has embodied social change and literary freedom. A truly remarkable person, and a great inspiration.
The youngest of five children he was born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling in Yonkers, N.Y., on March 24, 1919. His Italian father, an estate agent who changed the family name after arriving in America, died before Lawrence was born. Soon after, his mother was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown and his family was split up.
Lawrence was sent to live with an uncle, Ludovic Monsanto, and his French-speaking wife, Emily, when he was 2. When the Monsantos’ marriage collapsed, Emily took Lawrence to France. When they returned to New York, she put Lawrence in an orphanage (of which his sole memory was "undercooked tapioca pudding") but later retrieved him. 
She took him to live in the Bronxville household of the wealthy Bisland family, which had hired her as a governess. But his life was ruptured again when Emily disappeared mysteriously, never to return.
The Bislands, who had lost a son, coincidentally named Lawrence, raised him like their own. They nurtured a love of books and sent him to private schools, but they were emotionally reserved and Lawrence, who would later dub himself the “Director of Alienation” in one of his poems, often felt lonely.
His happiest time came during the Depression when the Bislands sent him to board with another family, the Wilsons, and attend a Bronxville public school. He formed a close bond with one of the Wilson sons, played sports, had a paper route and was a Boy Scout. He also engaged in minor hooliganism with a group of street youths called the Parkway Road Pirates, whose activities brought certain ironies into his young life:

I got caught stealing pencils

from the Five and Ten Cent Store

the same month I made Eagle Scout

The shoplifting incident ended his idyll with the Wilsons. He was enrolled at the Mount Hermon prep school in Massachusetts, where he led a disciplined life of prayer, work and study. He discovered the work of Thomas Wolfe and later studied at Wolfe’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Ferlinghetti earned a bachelor’s degree in 1941.
Later that year, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the Navy. He commanded a 30-man submarine chaser, part of the so-called "Donald Duck Navy" of tiny wooden craft, which were nonetheless entitled to call in as many supplies as a battleship – a loophole he used to request a full set of the Random House Modern Library and copious amounts of "medicinal" brandy. The war went by with Ferlinghetti "enjoying every minute of it", until as part of the American occupation in Japan, he toured Nagasaki after the atomic blast that killed 70,000 of its residents. The monstrous sights (“hands sticking out of the mud broken tea cups hair sticking out of the road”) turned Ferlinghetti into a pacifist and political activist.
After the war, he earned a master’s degree on the GI Bill at Columbia University.In 1946 he moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne where he received a doctorate.he met his future wife, Kirby, on the ship over. They had two children, Julie and Lorenzo, and separated in 1973, but remained close until Kirby's death in 2012. Though Ferlinghetti settled with Lorenzo in North Beach, for much of his life he travelled compulsively. "Why do I voyage so much? And write so little?" he once wrote, on a bus to Mexico. The answer may come from his nomadic childhood., Ferlinghetti moved several times during his childhood. 
In 1951, he arrived in San Francisco, where his work would pave the way for a national literary movement while stoking a vibrant local literary scene.In San Francisco, Ferlinghetti taught French, painted, wrote art reviews and translated the poetry of Jacques Prevert and Guillaume Apollinaire. In a 2019 interview with The Paris Review, he described what he first encountered there:
 
When I arrived in town the only bookstores were like Paul Elder’s, downtown. None of them had periodicals. I felt right from the beginning there was no locus for the literary community. These bookstores all closed at five o’clock, they weren’t open on the weekend. What’s a literary person supposed to do, where is he supposed to go? From the beginning, when Peter Dean Martin and I started City Lights Bookstore in 1953, our idea was to create a locus for the literary community. We used to run a one-inch ad in the San Francisco Chronicle saying, “A literary meeting place since 1953.” That was our original line.
 
He also launched a friendship with Kenneth Rexroth, dean of the avant-garde poets driving the city’s literary scene. whose show on the Berkeley community radio station KPFA captured his imagination. He told Interview in 2012:
 
He didn’t just review books, he knew every possible field-geology, astronomy, philosophy, logic, classics. It was a total education listening to him. It was a radical position. I used to go to his soirees on Friday nght. There were a lot of poets that would show up. He lived in the Fillmore District, which was black at that time. He lived at 250 Scott Street, above Jack’s Record Cellar. Anyway, Friday night soirees at his house were old and young, but just poets. That’s where I met Kerouac and [Neal] Cassady and Gregory Corso . . .
 
Ferlinghetti and Martin each invested $500 to open City Lights Pocket Book Shop in 1953 at 261 Columbus Avenue. The store sold only paperbacks, a bold choice for a time when publishers were not particularly invested in the format; the decision reflected Ferlinghetti’s belief in making literature accessible to a mass audience.The bookshop, renowned for its bohemian atmosphere and vast collections of international poetry, fiction, progressive political journals and magazines  in 1956 spawned a literary press, City Lights Publishers, aiming to encourage an “international, dissident ferment.”
He first encountered Allen Ginsberg’s "Howl" at a reading that same year.https://teifidancer-teifidancer.blogspot.com/2017/10/7th-october-1955-allen-ginsbergs-first.html The following year, City Lights published it. (Ferlinghetti had given notice to the American Civil Liberties Union in advance.) Then, on June 7, 1957, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an intriguing headline on page two: "Bookshop Owner Surrenders." A warrant had been put out for Ferlinghetti's arrest, for printing and selling "obscene" materials.
The prosecutor, a self-proclaimed "specialist in smut cases", ignored Ginsberg's tragic, era-defining portrait of "the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked", instead totting up the four-letter words. Unexpectedly, the judge – a conservative Sunday school teacher – found Ferlinghetti not guilty, declaring that unless a book "is entirely lacking in 'social importance' it cannot be held obscene".


 This victory for freedom of expression would  set a legal precedent for other authors who faced obscenity charges in subsequent years, including William S. Burroughs, D.H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller and cemented the idea of the Beat Generation. .
 Ferlinghetti pointed out that the Beats were self-mythologising from the start, because Ginsberg "was a very clever publicist for his group of poets. Without Allen Ginsberg there would not have been the Beat Generation. It was a creation in Allen Ginsberg's mind."
 He notably did not think of himself as a Beat poet, though others would assign him the label throughout his life; in a 2006 interview with The Guardian, he called himself “the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.” 
When Ginsberg tried to push  Ferlinghetti to publish more of his friends, he replied: "I'm not out to run a press of Poets That Write Like Allen Ginsberg." To his credit, he didn't. City Lights soon established itself as a vital publisher of progressive, experimental, and high-quality literary projects, City Lights' eclectic list ranged from Denise Levertov. Malcolm Bradbury, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Patchen and Pablo Picasso. As editor, Ferlinghetti had an eye for talent, sensitivity and patience. He wrote Frank O'Hara https://teifidancer-teifidancer.blogspot.com/2017/07/frank-ohara-poet-of-intensity-and.html postcards for five years saying he would "starve" without a full manuscript for his Lunch Poems, before O'Hara finally handed one over. ("I am very happy that you have stayed hungry," wrote O'Hara. "Lunch is in toaster and I hope you like it.") 
Gregory Corso who he also published,https://teifidancer-teifidancer.blogspot.com/2009/11/gregory-corso-wayward-geniusan.html ( once raided the shop till; Ferlinghetti calmly deducted the cash from his royalties).
Ferlinghetti would also release Jack Kerouac's Book of Dreams, prison writings by Timothy Leary and Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems. Whist Ferlinghetti had risked prison for Howl, he rejected William Burrough's  classic Naked Lunch worrying that publication would led to 'sure premeditated legal lunacy.
As a gathering space for artists and intellectuals, the City Lights Bookstore its events, along with Ferlinghetti himself, became a hub of collaboration, artistic invention, and literary dialogue.City Lights became a meeting point for Bohemian writers who refused to accept what Ferlinghetti dubbed the "Coca-Colonization" of America. 
City Lights' goal was not to promote "our gang" but to start "an international, dissident, insurgent ferment", open to hepcats and "Red Cats" (Soviet poets) alike. Shunning the "Beat" label, Ferlinghetti always preferred the term "wide-open" – which is how Pablo Neruda, another City Lights poet, described Ferlinghetti's verse when they met in Cuba in 1960.
There, over dinner, Ferlinghetti looked up to see a "big guy with beard wearing fatigues and smoking cigar come out of restaurant kitchen". It was Fidel Castro. The poet realised they had an acquaintance in common: "Soy amigo de Allen Ginsberg." This was enough to win him a "big smile" and a "soft handshake".
A self confessed moral anarchist and socialist, Ferlinghetti  never shied away from making his political beliefs known and using avenues such as poetry to express them. He has been credited with helping to bring poetry out of the academic arena and back to the public. He travelled widely, and in the ensuing years, Ferlinghetti intensified his political activities. He visited Chile and Cuba. He demonstrated against the Vietnam War and was arrested with 67 others, including folk singer Joan Baez, after participating in a 1967 protest at an Oakland Army induction center. Ferlinghetti's activism did not fade away like that  psychedelic summer of '67, it lived on in his words and deeds. In 2012, he turned down a literary award partly funded by Hungary’s government due to concerns about human rights in the country.  , And on  the day in 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq, he closed the bookshop in protest.
To be disengaged is to be dead,” he once said in a critique of the Beat philosophy of detachment.
City Lights expanded in 1987 to include a revered poetry room which encourages readers to enjoy their books before purchasing. Ferlinghetti  also defied history. The internet, superstore chains and high rents shut down numerous booksellers in the Bay Area and beyond, but City Lights remained a thriving political and cultural outlet, where one section was devoted to books enabling "revolutionary competence," where employees could get the day off to attend an anti-war protest. 
"Generally, people seem to get more conservative as they age, but in my case, I seem to have gotten more radical," Ferlinghetti told Interview magazine in 2013. "Poetry must be capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic." 
The bookstore is so important to San Francisco culture that during the coronavirus outbreak, when it was forced to close and required $300,000 to stay in business. A GoFundMe campaign quickly raised $400,000.
Ferlinghetti published more than 30 books of poetry in his lifetime. His work, including the well-known poem “Tentative Description of a Dinner to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower,” often explicitly dealt with the social and political upheavals of the late 20th century,his  collection A Coney Island of the Mind  published by New Directions in 1958, received mixed reviews from critics. Typical was Harvey Shapiro’s critique in the New York Times, which called it “a grab bag of undergraduate musings about love and art, much hackneyed satire of American life and some real and wry perceptions of it.” Yet it remains one of the most-read books of modern American poetry, and is one of the best-selling poetry collections of all time, according to City Lights. A well thumbed copy is among my bookcases. In “A Coney Island of the Mind” he wrote several poems with jazz accompaniment in mind. He recorded two of the poems , “Autobiography” and “Junkman’s Obbligato” with the Cellar Jazz Quintet of San Francisco on a 1957 album with Rexroth called “Poetry Readings in the Cellar.”


Serious critics and even some of his friends dismissed him. Corso and others in the Beat circle “consider me a business man with a loose pen,” he wrote in a letter to Ginsberg included in the 2015 volume “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997.”
His admirers (which I definitely consider myself to be one) have been vociferous in their admiration. Well into his 80s, Ferlinghetti performed his poetry on college campuses, where audiences greeted him like a rock star, shouting out the titles of favorite poems. Hundreds showed up at City Lights for his 100th birthday in 2020. To celebrate Ferlinghetti's  birthday, its storefront displayed a line from his manifesto "Poetry as Insurgent Art" (2007): "Paper may burn but words will escape." 
 Among the events at City Lights' was a celebration of Little Boy, Ferlinghetti's newly released, stream-of-consciousness novel. Ferlinghetti had been working on the book for close to a dozen years before it was released in 2019. It was mostly written by hand, due to his dwindling eyesight, but otherwise he was known to be in fairly good health. The book was a fictionalized account of the author’s life growing up. Ferlinghetti's assistant, Garrett Caples, also an editor and poet, said in an interview back then that Little Boy showed how the author filtered through his own experiences as he wrestled with the cosmic questions facing a 100-year-old man, such as "What is life all about?" The publisher Doubesday
said it was “a story, steeped in the rhythmic energy of the beats, gleaming with Whitman’s visionary spirit, channeling the incantatory power of Proust and Joyce.”
Ferlinghetti, tall and bearded, with sharp blue eyes, could be soft-spoken, even introverted and reticent in unfamiliar situations. But he was the most public of poets and his work wasn't intended for solitary contemplation. It was meant to be recited or chanted out loud, whether in coffee houses, bookstores or at campus gatherings. "I have committed the sin of too much clarity,” he told a biographer, reflecting  on the critical neglect. Poetry, he wrote in “Americus, Book I” (2004), “is eternal graffiti in the heart of everyone.
 His other collections include Pictures of the Gone World (1955)  Endless Life(1984)  Selected Poems (1981). These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 19551993A Far Rockaway of the Heart (1997), Poetry as Insurgent Ar (2007), and Time of Useful Consciousness  (2012). He also  wrote plays, novels and broadsides, notably “Tyrannus Nix” (1969), an attack on the Richard M. Nixon presidency.
Whilst the poets of the Beat Generation garnered much of the attention at the time, Ferlinghetti’s own poetry was based firmly in the lyric, narrative traditions of the past. His theme was often the common man and the broken promise of democracy and how the individual thrives as part of the masses. 
 Few poets of the past 60 years were so well known, or so influential. His books sold more than 1 million copies worldwide, a fantasy for virtually any of his peers, and he ran one of the world's most famous and distinctive bookstores, City Lights. Although he never considered himself one of the Beats, he was a patron and soul mate and, for many, a lasting symbol. 
 Ferlinghetti began his career at a revolutionary time in arts and music. In 1994, he still believed art could make a difference. "I really believe that art is capable of the total transformation of the world, and of life itself," he said. "And nothing less is really acceptable. So I mean if art is going to have any excuse for, beyond being a leisure-class plaything — it has to transform life itself."
Through more than half a century of writing and publishing, Lawrence Ferlinghetti did. 
Despite Ferlinghetti's eyesight being  poor in recent years,  he continued to write and to keep regular hours at City Lights. The establishment, meanwhile, warmed to him, even if the affection wasn't always returned. He was named San Francisco's first poet laureate, in 1998, and City Lights was granted landmark status three years later. He received an honorary prize from the National Book Critics Circle in 2000 and five years later was given a National Book Award medal for "his tireless work on behalf of poets and the entire literary community.
"The dominant American mercantile culture may globalize the world, but it is not the mainstream culture of our civilization," Ferlinghetti said upon receiving the award. "The true mainstream is made, not of oil, but of literarians, publishers, bookstores, editors, libraries, writers and readers, universities and all the institutions that support them."
"Poetry should be dissident and subversive and an agent for change" wrote Ferlinghetti in his 2007 book, Poetry as Insurgent Art "Question everything and everyone, including Socrates, who questioned everything, Strive to change the world in such a way there is no need to be need dissident, A natural-born nonviolent enemy of the state,"
 Ferlinghetti also suggested that every poet must decide whether birdsong is joyous or sad, "by which you will know if you are a tragic or a lyric poet". Readers of Ferlinghetti's poetry, often funny, always alive with music, and "constantly risking absurdity" – might have imagined him to be in the lyric camp. But the final words of Little Boy make his choice clear: "the cries of birds now are not cries of ecstasy but cries of despair"..
Throughout Ferlinghetti’s long life, the revolutionary poet and born maverick had been beholden to none. Part of his nonconformist side was revealed in the courage he displayed in defending freedom of the press at a time when few did so. A poet and publisher with a conscience, producing clear, direct, redeeming work about social responsibility, beauty, and spirit. Ferlinghetti’s poetry welcomed me and millions of readers to art and the idea that it can have a meaningful impact on the world.As an iconoclast and provocateur, he actually shared the same principles as the beats, in that poetry and literature and poetry can serve as a cultural counterforce for change
And though  saddened immensely by his passing, Ferlinghetti at least gracefully outlived all his flashier friends and contemporaries. He never disintergrated ,like Jack Kerouac into 'drunk uncle ; rants about how 'hoodlums and communists' were infiltrating his Beat movement,; and he never grew obsessed with his own mythology, like Allen Ginsberg, endlessly recounting how the 'best minds' of his generation just coincidentally happened to hang out with him. He was a  modest man of great dignity. And unlike many Fifties-era radicals, Ferlinghetti never shrank from promoting socialist principles on the world stage as a poet, an activist, a publisher and a businessman, repeatedly calling out the crimes of the American empire, from Eisenhower and Johnson to Obama and Trump,
Ultimately Ferlinghetti deployed his many talents in support of world peace, equality and justice, subsequently his  rich legacy is guaranteed, he will forever be remembered  as a significant figure in contributing to the betterment of society.  Ferlinghetti is survived by his son, Lorenzo; a daughter, Julie Sasser; and three grandchildren. In  these dark days  I am reminded that some manifestos still matter,  thank you Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Rest in power. 
 .
Populist Manifesto No,1 - Lawrence Ferlinghgetti  (1976) 
 
 Poets, come out of your closets,
Open your windows, open your doors,
You have been holed-up too long
in your closed worlds.
Come down, come down
from your Russian Hills and Telegraph Hills, 
your Beacon Hills and your Chapel Hills,
your Mount Analogues and Montparnasses, 
down from your foothills and mountains, 
out of your teepees and domes. 
The trees are still falling
and we’ll to the woods no more. 
No time now for sitting in them 
As man burns down his own house 
to roast his pig
No more chanting Hare Krishna 
while Rome burns.
San Francisco’s burning, 
Mayakovsky’s Moscow’s burning 
the fossil-fuels of life. 
Night & the Horse approaches
eating light, heat & power, 
and the clouds have trousers. 
No time now for the artist to hide 
above, beyond, behind the scenes, 
indifferent, paring his fingernails, 
refining himself out of existence
No time now for our little literary games, 
no time now for our paranoias & hypochondrias, 
no time now for fear & loathing, 
time now only for light & love. 
We have seen the best minds of our generation 
destroyed by boredom at poetry readings. 
Poetry isn’t a secret society, 
It isn’t a temple either. 
Secret words & chants won’t do any longer.
The hour of oming is over, 
the time of keening come, 
a time for keening & rejoicing 
over the coming end
of industrial civilization
which is bad for earth & Man.
Time now to face outward 
in the full lotus position 
with eyes wide open, 
Time now to open your mouths 
with a new open speech, 
time now to communicate with all sentient beings, 
All you ‘Poets of the Cities’ 
hung in museums including myself,
All you poet’s poets writing poetry 
about poetry, 
All you poetry workshop poets 
in the boondock heart of America, 
All you housebroken Ezra Pounds, 
All you far-out freaked-out cut-up poets, 
All you pre-stressed Concrete poets, 
All you cunnilingual poets, 
All you pay-toilet poets groaning with graffiti, 
All you A-train swingers who never swing on birches, 
All you masters of the sawmill haiku in the Siberias of America, 
All you eyeless unrealists, 
All you self-occulting supersurrealists, 
All you bedroom visionaries and closet agitpropagators, 
All you Groucho Marxist poets 
and leisure-class Comrades 
who lie around all day and talk about the workingclass proletariat, 
All you Catholic anarchists of poetry, 
All you Black Mountaineers of poetry, 
All you Boston Brahims and Bolinas bucolics, 
All you den mothers of poetry, 
All you zen brothers of poetry, 
All you suicide lovers of poetry, 
All you hairy professors of poesie, 
All you poetry reviewers 
drinking the blood of the poet, 
All you Poetry Police –
Where are Whitman’s wild children, 
where the great voices speaking out 
with a sense of sweetness and sublimity, 
where the great new vision, 
the great world-view, 
the high prophetic song 
of the immense earth 
and all that sings in it 
And our relations to it –
Poets, descend 
to the street of the world once more 
And open your minds & eyes 
with the old visual delight,
Clear your throat and speak up, 
Poetry is dead, long live poetry 
with terrible eyes and buffalo strength. 
Don’t wait for the Revolution 
or it’ll happen without you, 
Stop mumbling and speak out 
with a new wide-open poetry 
with a new commonsensual ‘public surface’ 
with other subjective levels 
or other subversive levels, 
a tuning fork in the inner ear 
to strike below the surface. 
Of your own sweet Self still sing 
yet utter ‘the word en-masse –
Poetry the common carrier 
for the transportation of the public 
to higher places
than other wheels can carry it. 
Poetry still falls from the skies 
into our streets still open. 
They haven’t put up the barricades, yet, 
the streets still alive with faces, 
lovely men & women still walking there, 
still lovely creatures everywhere, 
in the eyes of all the secret of all 
still buried there, 
Whitman’s wild children still sleeping there, 
Awake and walk in the open air
 
 

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