Lawrence Ferlinghetti  

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"Although in style and theme Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s own writing is very unlike that of the original New York based Beat circle, he had important associations with the Beat writers, who made City Lights Bookstore their headquarters when they were in San Francisco. He has often claimed that he was not a Beat, but a bohemian of an earlier generation. A married war veteran and a bookstore proprietor, he didn’t share the high (or low) life of the beats on the road. Jack Kerouac wrote Ferlinghetti into the character “Lorenzo Monsanto” in his autobiographical novel Big Sur (1962), the story of Jack’s stay at Ferlinghetti’s cabin in the wild coastal region of Big Sur. Kerouac depicts the Ferlinghetti figure as a generous and good-humored host, in the midst of Dionysian revels and breakdowns."--Sholem Stein

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti (March 24, 1919 – February 22, 2021) was an American poet, painter, social activist, and the co-founder of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers.

Ferlinghetti was best known for his first collection of poems, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) with sales of more than one million copies.

As the owner of the City Lights bookstore, Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl, which resulted in a lengthy First Amendment trial.

Contents

Early life

Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti was born on March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, New York.

Shortly before Lawrence's birth, his father, Carlo, a native of Brescia, died of a heart attack. His mother, Clemence Albertine (née Mendes-Monsanto), of Sephardic Jewish descent, was committed to a mental hospital shortly afterward. He was raised by an aunt, and later by foster parents.

He attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he earned a B.A. in journalism in 1941. He began his career in journalism by writing sports for The Daily Tar Heel, and he published his first short stories in Carolina Magazine, for which Thomas Wolfe had written.

Following service in the U.S. Navy throughout World War II, Ferlinghetti earned a master's degree in English literature from Columbia University in 1947 with a thesis on John Ruskin and the British painter J. M. W. Turner. From Columbia, he went to Paris to continue his studies and earned a doctoral degree in comparative literature with a dissertation on the city as a symbol in modern poetry.

Ferlinghetti met his future wife, Selden Kirby-Smith, granddaughter of Edmund Kirby-Smith, in 1946 aboard a ship en route to France. They both were heading to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. Kirby-Smith went by the name Kirby.

He moved to San Francisco in 1951 and founded City Lights in 1953, in partnership with Peter Martin, a student at San Francisco State University. The both put up $500 dollars. As the owner of the City Lights bookstore, Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl, which resulted in a lengthy First Amendment trial.

Poetry

Ferlinghetti published many of the Beat poets and is considered by some as a Beat poet as well. Yet Ferlinghetti does not consider himself to be a Beat poet, as he says in the 2013 documentary Ferlinghetti: Rebirth of Wonder: "Don't call me a Beat. I was never a Beat poet."

Ferlinghetti penned much of his early poetry in the vein of T. S. Eliot. Ferlinghetti told poet and critic Jack Foley, "Everything I wrote sounded just like him." Yet, even in his poems inspired by Eliot such as Ferlinghetti's "Constantly Risking Absurdity," Ferlinghetti is ever the populist as he compares the poet first to a trapeze artist in a circus and then to a "little charleychaplin man."

Critics note that Ferlinghetti's poetry often takes on a very visual dimension as befits this poet who is also a painter. As the poet and critic Jack Foley states, Ferlinghetti's poems "tell little stories, make 'pictures'." Ferlinghetti as a poet paints with his words pictures full of color capturing the average American experience as seen in his poem "In Golden Gate Park that Day: "In Golden Gate Park that day/ a man and his wife were coming along/ ... He was wearing green suspenders ... while his wife was carrying a bunch of grapes." In the first poem in A Coney Island of the Mind entitled, "In Goya's Greatest Scenes, We Seem To See," Ferlinghetti describes with words the "suffering humanity" that Goya portrayed by brush in his paintings. Ferlinghetti concludes his poem with the recognition that "suffering humanity" today might be painted as average Americans drowning in the materialism: "on a freeway fifty lanes wide/ a concrete continent/ spaced with bland billboards/ illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness."

Ferlinghetti takes a distinctly populist approach to poetry, emphasizing throughout his work "that art should be accessible to all people, not just a handful of highly educated intellectuals." Larry Smith, an American author and editor, stated that Ferlinghetti is a poet, "of the people engaged conscientiously in the creation of new poetic and cultural forms."

Reflecting his broad aesthetic concerns, Ferlinghetti's poetry often engages with several non-literary artistic forms, most notably jazz music and painting. William Lawlor asserts that much of Ferlinghetti's free verse attempts to capture the spontaneity and imaginative creativity of modern jazz; the poet is also notable for frequently incorporating jazz accompaniments into public readings of his work.

Political engagement

Soon after settling in San Francisco in 1951, Ferlinghetti met the poet Kenneth Rexroth, whose concepts of philosophical anarchism influenced his political development. He self-identified as a philosophical anarchist, regularly associated with other anarchists in North Beach, and he sold Italian anarchist newspapers at the City Lights Bookstore. A critic of U.S. foreign policy, Ferlinghetti has taken a stand against totalitarianism and war. While Ferlinghetti has said he is "an anarchist at heart", he concedes that the world would need to be populated by "saints" in order for pure anarchism to be lived practically. Hence he espouses what can be achieved by Scandinavian-style democratic socialism.

Ferlinghetti's work challenges the definition of art and the artist's role in the world. He urged poets to be engaged in the political and cultural life of the country. As he writes in Populist Manifesto: "Poets, come out of your closets, Open your windows, open your doors, You have been holed up too long in your closed worlds ... Poetry should transport the public / to higher places / than other wheels can carry it ..."

On January 14, 1967, he was a featured presenter at the Gathering of the tribes "Human Be-In," which drew tens of thousands of people and launched San Francisco's "Summer of Love." In 1968, he signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.

In 1998, in his inaugural address as Poet Laureate of San Francisco, Ferlinghetti urged San Franciscans to vote to remove a portion of the earthquake-damaged Central Freeway and replace it with a boulevard. "What destroys the poetry of a city? Automobiles destroy it, and they destroy more than the poetry. All over America, all over Europe in fact, cities and towns are under assault by the automobile, are being literally destroyed by car culture. But cities are gradually learning that they don't have to let it happen to them. Witness our beautiful new Embarcadero! And in San Francisco right now we have another chance to stop Autogeddon from happening here. Just a few blocks from here, the ugly Central Freeway can be brought down for good if you vote for Proposition E on the November ballot." The result was Octavia Boulevard.

In March 2012 he added his support to the movement to save the Gold Dust Lounge, a historic bar in San Francisco, which lost its lease in Union Square.

Painting

Alongside his bookselling and publishing, Ferlinghetti painted for 60 years and much of his work was displayed in galleries and museums throughout the United States.

In 2009, Ferlinghetti became a member of the Honour Committee of the Italian artistic literary movement IMMAGINE&POESIA, founded under the patronage of Aeronwy Thomas. A retrospective of Ferlinghetti's artwork, 60 Years of Painting, was staged in Rome and Reggio Calabria in 2010.

Jack Kerouac Alley

In 1987, he was the initiator of the transformation of Jack Kerouac Alley, located at the side of his shop. He presented his idea to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors calling for repavement and renewal.

Death

Ferlinghetti died of interstitial lung disease on February 22, 2021 at his home in San Francisco at age 101.

In popular culture

The Italian band Timoria dedicated the song "Ferlinghetti Blues" (from the album El Topo Grand Hotel) to the poet, where Ferlinghetti recites one of his poems. Recordings of Ferlinghetti reading want ads, as featured on radio station KPFA in 1957, were recorded by Henry Jacobs and are featured on the Meat Beat Manifesto album 'At the Center'. Ferlinghetti gave Canadian punk band Propagandhi permission to use his painting The Unfinished Flag of the United States, which features a map of the world painted in the stars and stripes, as the cover of their 2001 release Today's Empires, Tomorrow's Ashes. Before this, the same painting was used for the cover of Michael Parenti's 1995 book, Against Empire, which was published by City Lights.

Ferlinghetti recited the poem Loud Prayer at The Band's final performance. The concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as a documentary entitled The Last Waltz, which included Ferlinghetti's recitation. Julio Cortázar, in his Rayuela (Hopscotch) (1963) references a poem from A Coney Island of the Mind in Chapter 121. He appears as himself in the 2006 comedy film The Darwin Awards. Bob Dylan used Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" on the Baseball show of Theme Time Radio Hour. Roger McGuinn, the former leader of the Byrds, referred to Ferlinghetti and "A Coney Island of the Mind" in his song "Russian Hill", from his 1977 album Thunderbyrd. Cyndi Lauper was inspired by A Coney Island of the Mind to write the song "Into the Nightlife" for her 2008 album Bring Ya to the Brink. Seamus McNally's 2007 filmed adaptation of Jacques Prévert's "To Paint the Portrait of a Bird" uses Ferlinghetti's English translation as its narrative text. The Residents mention Ferlinghetti in the lyrics of their song "Sinister Exaggerator" (from the EP Duck Stab!).

The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps's 2008 marching show was entitled "Constantly Risking Absurdity", with movements entitled after various lines in Ferlinghetti's poem. The corps took second place at the Drum Corps International Finals. Aztec Two-Step is an American folk-rock band formed by Rex Fowler and Neal Shulman at a chance meeting on open stage at a Boston coffee house, the Stone Phoenix, in 1971. The band was named after a line from the poem "A Coney Island of the Mind" by Ferlinghetti. Bristol Sound band Unforscene used Ferlinghetti's poem "Pictures of the Gone World 11" (or "The World is a Beautiful Place ...") in the song "The World Is" on its 2002 album New World Disorder.

In 2011, Ferlinghetti contributed two of his poems to the celebration of the 150th Anniversary of Italian unification: Song of the Third World War and Old Italians Dying inspired the artists of the exhibition Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Italy 150 held in Turin, Italy (May–June 2011).

Christopher Felver made the 2013 documentary on Ferlinghetti, Lawrence Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder.

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Lawrence Ferlinghetti" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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