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The poet who took poetry to the streets

  • Published at 05:38 pm March 24th, 2021
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Courtesy of citylights.com


When the tide of high modernism swept poetry away into the soaring towers of intellectualism and ambiguity, there were poets who got together to liberate poetry out of such lofty castles and take it to the streets, to the masses. In so doing, they had to challenge the literary establishment of their time and create a whole new idiom for poetic expression. Lawrence Feringhetti was at the forefront of that group, now known as the “Beat Poets”, in the 1950s American poetry scene.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the revered poet, artist, political activist, publisher and co-founder of San Francisco’s famous City Lights Bookstore, died at the age of 101 on February 22. 

Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York in 1919. His father died before he was born and his mother was committed to a mental hospital, leaving him to be raised by his aunt. Following his undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he served in the US Navy in World War II as a ship's commander. He received a Master's degree from Columbia University in 1947 and a Doctorate de l'Université de Paris (Sorbonne) in 1950. 

Also Read: Away above a Harborful: A poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

From 1951 to 1953, when he settled in San Francisco, he taught French in an adult education program, painted and wrote art criticism. In 1953, with Peter D. Martin, he founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country, and by 1955 he had launched the City Lights publishing house.

According to an article published by Poetry Foundation, Ferlinghetti’s “poetry engages readers, defies popular political movements, and reflects the influence of American idiom and modern jazz.” Quoting Larry Smith, writer of the book Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poet-at-Large, the article says, “Ferlinghetti writes as ‘the contemporary man of the streets speaking out the truths of common experience, often to the reflective beat of the jazz musician.’” Such poetry struck a chord with the young people who were tired of war rhetoric and post-World War capitalism. 

While there was no denying his City Lights “catapulted the Beat Generation” to fame, his politically charged activism soon got him into trouble. He had to stand trial on obscenity charges for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s beat manifesto “Howl”.

As aptly noted by Emma Brown in her tribute to Ferlinghetti in The Washington Post, “The trial brought attention from around the world for Ginsberg … and, by extension, the entire Beat Generation ... The ‘Howl’ episode also cast Mr. Ferlinghetti as a heroic defender of free speech and a stalwart friend of the creative fringe.”

City Lights initially focused on selling paperbacks, which were cheaper but looked down upon by the literary establishment. It also published offbeat and radical books by the likes of Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso.

Ferlinghetti wrote over 30 collections of poetry including Time of Useful Consciousness (2012), Poetry as Insurgent Art (2005), San Francisco Poems (2001), How to Paint Sunlight: Lyric Poems and Others, 1997–2000, A Far Rockaway of the Heart (1997), These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955–1993, and Endless Life: Selected Poems (1981). However, his A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) continues to be his most famous collection which has sold over one million copies across the world. 

He is survived by his two children and three grandchildren.

(Information provided by Poetry Foundation and ferlinghettiart.com has been used in preparing this article)

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