As poet, playwright, publisher, and activist, Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped to spark the San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1950s and the subsequent “Beat” movement. Like the Beats, Ferlinghetti felt strongly that art should be accessible to all people, not just a handful of highly educated intellectuals. His career has been marked by its constant challenge of the status quo; his poetry engages readers, defies popular political movements, and reflects the influence of American idiom and modern jazz. In Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poet-at-Large, Larry Smith noted that the author “writes truly memorable poetry, poems that lodge themselves in the consciousness of the reader and generate awareness and change. And his writing sings, with the sad and comic music of the streets.”
Ferlinghetti was essential to the establishment of the Beat movement. His City Lights bookstore provided a gathering place for the fertile talents of the San Francisco literary renaissance, and the bookstore’s publishing arm, the “Pocket Poets” series, offered a forum for Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Patchen and Gregory Corso. As Smith noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “What emerges from the historical panorama of Ferlinghetti’s involvement is a pattern of social engagement and literary experimentation as he sought to expand the goals of the Beat movement.” Smith added, however, that Ferlinghetti’s contribution far surpasses his tasks as a publisher and organizer. “Besides molding an image of the poet in the world,” the critic continued, “he created a poetic form that is at once rhetorically functional and socially vital.” Ferlinghetti himself alleges that he never wrote “Beat” poetry. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle reporter Heidi Benson, Ferlinghetti explained why he preferred the term “wide-open”: “Wide-open poetry refers to what Pablo Neruda told me in Cuba in 1950 at the beginning of the Fidelista revolution: Neruda said, ‘I love your wide-open poetry.’ He was either referring to the wide-ranging content of my poetry, or, in a different mode, to the poetry of the Beats…”
Ferlinghetti was born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling. His father, an Italian immigrant, had shortened the family name upon arrival in America. Ferlinghetti discovered the lengthier name and took it as his own when he was an adult. Ferlinghetti had a tumultuous youth, parts of which were spent in France, a state orphanage in New York, and in the mansion of the wealthy Bisland family in Bronxville, New York. Young Ferlinghetti endeared himself to the Bislands to such an extent that when his aunt, their governess, disappeared suddenly, he was allowed to stay. Ferlinghetti’s formal education included the elite Riverdale Country Day School, Mount Hermon, a preparatory academy in Massachusetts, and the University of North Carolina where he majored in journalism and worked with the student staff of the Daily Tarheel. Upon graduating, he joined the U.S. Navy. After his discharge Ferlinghetti took advantage of the G.I. Bill to continue his education. He received his master’s degree from Columbia University in 1948, and completed his doctoral degree at the University of Paris in 1951.
Ferlinghetti left Paris in 1951 and moved to San Francisco. In 1953 he joined with Peter D. Martin to publish a magazine, City Lights. In order to subsidize the magazine, Martin and Ferlinghetti opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop in a neighborhood on the edge of Chinatown. Before long the City Lights Book Shop was a popular gathering place for San Francisco’s avant-garde writers, poets, and painters. “We were filling a big need,” Ferlinghetti told the New York Times Book Review. “City Lights became about the only place around where you could go in, sit down, and read books without being pestered to buy something. That’s one of the things it was supposed to be. Also, I had this idea that a bookstore should be a center of intellectual activity; and I knew it was a natural for a publishing company too.”
In addition to his new career as an entrepreneur, Ferlinghetti was busy creating his own poetry, and in 1955 he launched the City Lights Pocket Poets publishing venture. First in the “Pocket Poets” series was a slim volume of his own, Pictures of the Gone World. In Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Smith observed that, from his earliest poems onwards, the author writes as “the contemporary man of the streets speaking out the truths of common experience, often to the reflective beat of the jazz musician. As much as any poet today he…sought to make poetry an engaging oral art.” Such sentiments found an appreciative audience among young people of the mid-twentieth century who were agonizing over the arms race and cold war politics. By 1955 Ferlinghetti counted among his friends such poets as Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen, as well as the novelist Jack Kerouac. Ferlinghetti was in the audience at the watershed 1955 poetry reading “Six Poets at the Six Gallery,” at which Ginsberg unveiled his poem “Howl.” Ferlinghetti immediately recognized it as a classic and offered to publish it in the “Pocket Poets” series. The first edition of Howl and Other Poems appeared in 1956 and sold out quickly. The second shipment of the book—seized by U.S. customs, then released—occasioned the infamous “Howl” trial when the San Francisco Police Department arrested Ferlinghetti on charges of printing and selling lewd and indecent material. Ferlinghetti engaged the American Civil Liberties Union for his defense and welcomed his court case as a test of freedom of speech. Not only did he win the suit on October 3, 1957, he also benefitted from the publicity generated by the case. The case was vital in energizing the San Francisco renaissance and Beat cause, establishing definite principles to the various movements’ often disparate aims.
For Ferlinghetti, these “principles” included redeeming poetry from the ivory towers of academia and offering it as a shared experience with ordinary people. In 1958 New York’s New Directions press published Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, a work that has since sold well over one million copies in America and abroad. In Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Smith suggested that the poems in A Coney Island of the Mind demonstrate the direction Ferlinghetti intended to go with his art. The poet “enlarged his stance and developed major themes of anarchy, mass corruption, engagement, and a belief in the surreality and wonder of life,” he wrote. “It was a revolutionary art of dissent and contemporary application which jointly drew a lyric poetry into new realms of social—and self-expression. It sparkles, sings, goes flat, and generates anger or love out of that flatness as it follows a basic motive of getting down to reality and making of it what we can.” Smith concluded: “ There are some classic contemporary statements in this, Ferlinghetti’s—and possibly America’s—most popular book of modern poetry. The work is remarkable for its skill, depth, and daring.”
Two collections of Ferlinghetti’s poetry provide insight into the development of the writer’s overarching style and thematic approach: Endless Life: Selected Poems (1984) and These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955-1993 (1993). The poems in Endless Life reflect the influences of e. e. cummings, Kenneth Rexroth, and Kenneth Patchen and are concerned with contemporary themes, such as the antiwar and antinuclear movements. John Trimbur in Western American Literature noted that Ferlinghetti writes a “public poetry to challenge the guardians of the political and social status quo for the souls of his fellow citizens.” Joel Oppenheimer praised the poet in the New York Times Book Review, contending that Ferlinghetti “learned to write poems, in ways that those who see poetry as the province of the few and the educated had never imagined.” Ferlinghetti focuses on current political and sexual matters in These Are My Rivers (1993). As Rochelle Ratner noted in Library Journal, the poems are experimental in technique, often lacking common poetic devices such as stanza breaks, and they appear in unusual ways on the page, “with short lines at the left margin or moving across the page as hand follows eye.” Yet, Ashley Brown commented in World Literature Today, “Ferlinghetti writes in a very accessible idiom; he draws on pop culture and sports as much as the modern poets whom he celebrates.” Ratner averred that “Ferlinghetti is the foremost chronicler of our times.” Indeed, the collection shows “Ferlinghetti still speaking out against academic poetry just as he did when the Beat Movement began,” remarked Varner in Western American Literature. “Ferlinghetti, always the poet of the topical now, still sees clearly the 1990s,” the critic added.
Drama and fiction have also proved a fertile ground for Ferlinghetti. He has carried his political philosophies and social criticisms into experimental plays, many of them short and surrealistic. Ferlinghetti’s first novel, Her (1960) is an autobiographical, experimental work that focuses on the narrator’s pursuit of a woman. Though the novel received very little critical comment when it was published, Ferlinghetti next novel, Love in the Days of Rage (1988), won wide-spread acclaim. The chronicle of a love affair between an expatriate American painter named Annie, and a Parisian banker of Portuguese extraction named Julian, the novel takes place against the backdrop of 1968 Paris, during the student revolution that took place during that year. Alex Raksin, discussing Love in the Days of Rage in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, praised the work as an “original, intense novel” in which Ferlinghetti’s “sensitivity as a painter…is most apparent.” Patrick Burson, critiquing for the San Francisco Review of Books, explained that the book challenges the reader on several stylistic levels as it attempts to mirror the anarchistic uprising of ‘68 which briefly united intellectuals, artists, and proletariats in common cause.”
Ferlinghetti continues to operate the City Lights bookstore and travels frequently to give poetry readings. His paintings and drawings have been exhibited in San Francisco galleries; his plays have been performed in experimental theaters. He also continues to publish new poetry, including the 1997 collection A Far Rockaway of the Heart, which is to some degree a follow-up to A Coney Island of the Mind. In 2001 he published two books: How to Paint Sunlight: Lyric Poems and Others, 1997-2000 and San Francisco Poems. Poetry as Insurgent Art was published in 2005. The “collection of remarks, aphorisms and exhortations about the nature and purpose of poetry began in the late 1950s,” according a review in Publisher’s Weekly. The reviewer thought, however, that fans of Ferlinghetti are sure to find “reason and justice in these eternal verities, couched in up-to-date lingo.” The New York Times Book Review correspondent Joel Oppenheimer cited Ferlinghetti’s work for “a legitimate revisionism which is perhaps our best heritage from those raucous [Beat] days—the poet daring to see a different vision from that which the guardians of culture had allowed us.” As New Pages contributor John Gill concluded, reading a work by Ferlinghetti “will make you feel good about poetry and about the world—no matter how mucked-up the world may be.”