Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights in 2007
Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights in 2007
Born(1919-03-24) March 24, 1919 (age 95)
Yonkers, New York, U.S.
OccupationPoet, activist, essayist, painter
Literary movementBeat poetry
SpouseSelden Kirby-Smith (1951–1976)[1]
ChildrenJulie and Lorenzo[1]
 
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Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights in 2007
Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights in 2007
Born(1919-03-24) March 24, 1919 (age 95)
Yonkers, New York, U.S.
OccupationPoet, activist, essayist, painter
Literary movementBeat poetry
SpouseSelden Kirby-Smith (1951–1976)[1]
ChildrenJulie and Lorenzo[1]

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born March 24, 1919) is an American poet, painter, liberal activist, and the co-founder of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. Author of poetry, translations, fiction, theatre, art criticism, and film narration, he is best known for A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), a collection of poems that has been translated into nine languages, with sales of over one million copies.[2]

Early life[edit]

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Bronxville, New York on March 24, 1919.[3] His mother, Albertine Mendes-Monsanto (born in Lyon, France) was of French/Portuguese Sephardic Jewish heritage. His father, Carlo Ferlinghetti, was born in the province of Brescia, Italy on March 14, 1872. He immigrated to the United States in 1894,[4] was naturalized in 1896, and worked as an auctioneer in Little Italy, NYC. At some unknown point, Carlo Ferlinghetti shortened the family name to "Ferling," and Lawrence wouldn't learn of his original name until 1942, when he had to provide a birth certificate to join the U.S. Navy. Though he used "Ferling" for his earliest published work, Ferlinghetti reverted to the original Italian "Ferlinghetti" in 1955, when publishing his first book of poems, Pictures of the Gone World.

Ferlinghetti's father died six months before he was born, and his mother was committed to an asylum shortly after his birth. He was raised by his French aunt Emily, former wife of Ludovico Monsanto, an uncle of his mother from the Virgin Islands who taught Spanish at the U.S. Naval Academy. Emily took Ferlinghetti to Strasbourg, France, where they lived during his first five years, with French as his first language.

After their return to the U.S., Ferlinghetti was placed in an orphanage in Chappaqua, N.Y. while Emily looked for employment. She was eventually hired as a French governess for the daughter of Presley Eugene Bisland and his wife Anna Lawrence Bisland, in Bronxville, New York, the latter being the daughter of the founder of Sarah Lawrence College, William Van Duzer Lawrence. They resided at the Plashbourne Estate.[5] In 1926, Ferlinghetti was left in the care of the Bislands. After attending various schools, including Riverdale Country School, Bronxville Public School, and Mount Hermon School (now Northfield Mount Hermon School). During these years, Ferlinghetti became an Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America.[6][7][8] He attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he earned a B.A. in journalism in 1941. His entry to the world of journalism was writing sports for The Daily Tar Heel,[9] and he published his first short stories in Carolina Magazine, for which Thomas Wolfe had written.

World War II[edit]

In the summer of 1941, he lived with two college mates on Little Whale Boat Island in Casco Bay, Maine, lobster fishing, and raking moss from rocks to be sold in Portland, Maine, for pharmaceutical use. This experience gave him a love of the sea, a theme that runs through much of his poetry. After the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ferlinghetti enrolled in Midshipmen’s school in Chicago, and in 1942 shipped out as junior officer on J. P. Morgan III's yacht, which had been refitted to patrol for submarines off the East Coast.

Ferlinghetti was next assigned to the Ambrose Lightship outside New York harbor, to identify all incoming ships. In 1943 and 1944 he served as an officer on three U.S. Navy subchasers used as convoy escorts. As commander of the subchaser USS SC1308, he was at the Normandy invasion as part of the anti-submarine screen around the beaches. After VE Day, the Navy transferred him to the Pacific Theater, where he served as navigator of the troop ship USS Selinur. Six weeks after the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, he visited the ruins of the city, an experience that turned him into a lifelong pacifist.

Columbia University and The Sorbonne[edit]

After the war, he worked briefly in the mailroom at Time magazine, in Manhattan. The G.I. Bill then enabled him to enroll in the Columbia University graduate school. Among his professors there were Babette Deutsch, Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and Mark Van Doren. In those years he was reading modern literature, and has said he was at that time influenced particularly by Shakespeare, Marlowe, the Romantic poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and James Joyce, as well as American poets Whitman, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, and American novelists Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos. He earned a master’s degree in English literature 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 lived in the city between 1947 and 1951, earning a Doctorat de l’Université de Paris, with a "mention très honorable." His two theses were on the city as a symbol in modern poetry and on the nature of Gothic.[10]

He met his future wife, Selden Kirby-Smith, granddaughter of Edmund Kirby-Smith, in 1946 aboard a ship en route to France. They were both heading to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. Kirby-Smith went by the name Kirby.[10]

San Francisco – City Lights Books[edit]

After marrying in 1951 in Duval County, Florida, he settled in San Francisco in 1953, where he taught French in an adult education program, painted, and wrote art criticism. His first translations, of poems by the French surrealist Jacques Prévert, were published by Peter D. Martin in his popular culture magazine City Lights.

In 1953, Ferlinghetti and Martin founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country. Two years later, after the departure of Martin, Ferlinghetti launched the publishing wing of City Lights with his own first book of poems, Pictures of the Gone World, the first number in the Pocket Poets Series. This volume was followed by books by Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Marie Ponsot, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams, and Gregory Corso. Although City Lights Publishers is best known for its publication of Beat Generation writers, Ferlinghetti never intended to publish the Beats exclusively, and the press has always maintained a strong international list.

City Lights Publishers expanded its list from poetry to include prose, including novels, biography, memoirs, essays and cultural studies. In 1972, City Lights published a collection of short stories by Charles Bukowski, Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (since republished in two volumes, Tales of Ordinary Madness and The Most Beautiful Woman in Town). Subsequently it took over publication of Bukowski's collection of "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" columns for Open City from the pornography publisher Essex House in the early 1970s. Since then, it has published a sequel to Notes and a book of ephemera by Bukowski.

Other prose works include Neal Cassady's memoir The First Third, Edie Kerouac-Parker's memoir of her life with Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs's The Yage Letters to Allen Ginsberg and other ephemera. It has also published political books by prominent authors, including Noam Chomsky, Tom Hayden, and Howard Zinn. Books published in translation include such authors as Georges Bataille, Bertolt Brecht, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The Howl trial[edit]

Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the Grolier Bookshop in Harvard Square in 1965 with Gordon Cairnie, the owner of the store at the time. Photo by Elsa Dorfman.

The fourth number in the Pocket Poets Series was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Ferlinghetti was in attendance at the now-famous Six Gallery reading where Ginsberg first performed Howl publicly. The next day Ferlinghetti wired Ginsberg: "I greet you at the beginning of a great literary career," subsequently offering to publish his work.

The book was seized in 1956 by the San Francisco police. Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao, the bookstore manager who had sold the book to the police, were arrested on obscenity charges. After charges against Murao were dropped, Ferlinghetti, defended by Jake Ehrlich and the American Civil Liberties Union, stood trial in SF Municipal court. The publicity generated by the trial drew national attention to San Francisco Renaissance and Beat movement writers. Ferlinghetti had the support of prestigious literary and academic figures, and, at the end of a long trial, Judge Clayton W. Horn found Howl not obscene and acquitted him in October 1957. The landmark First Amendment case established a key legal precedent for the publication of other controversial literary work with redeeming social importance.

In 2010, Andrew Rogers portrayed Ferlinghetti in the film Howl.[11]

The Beats[edit]

Although in style and theme Ferlinghetti’s own writing is very unlike that of the original NY 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. Kerouac wrote Ferlinghetti into the character “Lorenzo Monsanto” in his autobiographical novel Big Sur (1962), the story of Jack’s stay (with the Cassadys, the McClures, Lenore Kandel, Lew Welch, and Philip Whalen) 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.

Over the years Ferlinghetti published work by many of the Beats, including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Diane diPrima, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Bob Kaufman, and Gary Snyder. He was Ginsberg’s publisher for over thirty years. When the Indian poets of the Hungryalists literary movement were arrested in 1964 at Kolkata, Ferlinghetti introduced the Hungryalist poets to Western readers through the initial issues of City Lights Journal.

Poetry[edit]

One of his works is intact at San Francisco's Jack Kerouac Alley, which is right next door to the City Lights Bookstore.
If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of
apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words....

—Lawrence Ferlinghetti. From Poetry as Insurgent Art [I am signaling you through the flames].

Though imbued with the commonplace, Ferlinghetti’s poetry is grounded in lyric and narrative traditions. Among his themes are the beauty of natural world, the tragicomic life of the common man, the plight of the individual in mass society, and the dream and betrayal of democracy. He counts among his influences T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, e. e. cummings, H.D., Marcel Proust, Charles Baudelaire, Jacques Prévert, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Blaise Cendrars. One of his poems, 'Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes', is now a poem studied at GCSE level in England and Wales, as part of the collection of poems in the AQA Anthology. His famous poem "Just As I Used to Say', was published in 1976, when Ferlinghetti was aged 57.

Political engagement[edit]

Soon after settling in San Francisco in 1950, Ferlinghetti met the poet Kenneth Rexroth, whose concepts of philosophical anarchism influenced his political development. He self-identifies as a philosophical anarchist, regularly associated with other anarchists in North Beach, and sold Italian anarchist newspapers at the City Lights Bookstore.[12] A critic of U.S. foreign policy, Ferlinghetti has taken a stand against totalitarianism and war.

While Ferlinghetti has expressed that 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.[13]

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.[14]

Ferlinghetti was instrumental in bringing poetry out of the academy and back into the public sphere with public poetry readings. With Ginsberg and other progressive writers, he took part in events that focused on such political issues as the Cuban revolution, the nuclear arms race, farm-worker organizing, the murder of Salvador Allende, the Vietnam War, May ’68 in Paris, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico. He read not only to audiences in the United States but widely in Europe and Latin America. Many of his writings grew from travels in France, Italy, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, Chile, Nicaragua, and the Czech Republic.

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

Painting[edit]

Ferlinghetti began painting in Paris in 1948. In San Francisco, he occupied a studio at 9 Mission Street on the Embarcadero in the 1950s that he inherited from Hassel Smith, and subsequently passed on to the artist Howard Hack. He admired the New York abstract expressionists, and his first work exhibits their influence. A more figurative style is apparent in his later work. Ferlinghetti’s paintings have been shown at various museums around the world, from the Butler Museum of American Painting to Il Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome. He has been associated with the international Fluxus movement through the Archivio Francesco Conz in Verona. In San Francisco, his work can regularly be seen at the George Krevsky Gallery.

Since 2009 he has been in the Honour Committee of Immagine & Poesia, the artistic literary movement founded in Turin, Italy, with the patronage of Aeronwy Thomas (Dylan Thomas's daughter).

60 years of painting, the exhibition held in Italy in 2010 (Rome: February–April; Reggio Calabria: May–July) is a creative journey through the twentieth century, reflecting on social and political issues and on the role of the artist nowadays.[15]

Gopakumar R. P., "Manifest Destinies", Digital Art, An inspiration from poem "Are There Not Still Fireflies" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Jack Kerouac Alley[edit]

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.[16] Since 1991, young volunteers from the Adopt-An-Alleyway Youth Empowerment Project – a program run by the Chinatown Community Development Center – have maintained the good condition of the alley, which is a bridge between Chinatown and North Beach.[17]

Awards[edit]

He has received numerous awards, including the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Kirsch Award, the BABRA Award for Lifetime Achievement, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Award for Contribution to American Arts and Letters, and the ACLU’s Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award. He won the Premio Taormino in 1973, and since then has been awarded the Premio Camaiore, the Premio Flaiano, the Premio Cavour, among other honors in Italy. Ferlinghetti was named San Francisco’s Poet Laureate in August 1998 and served for two years. In 2003 he was awarded the Robert Frost Memorial Medal, the Author’s Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2003. The National Book Foundation made him the recipient of its first Literarian Award (2005), given for outstanding service to the American literary community. In 2007 he was named Commandeur, French Order of Arts and Letters. In 2012, Ferlinghetti received the Douglas MacAgy Distinguished Achievement Award from the San Francisco Art Institute.

In 2012, Ferlinghetti was awarded the inaugural Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize from the Hungarian PEN Club. After learning that the government of Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is a partial sponsor of the 50,000 prize, he declined to accept the award. In declining, Ferlinghetti cited his opposition to the "right wing regime" of Prime Minister Orban, and his opinion that the ruling Hungarian government under Mr. Orban is curtailing civil liberties and freedom of speech for the people of Hungary.[18][19][20][21]

In popular culture[edit]

The Italian band Timoria dedicated the song "Ferlinghetti Blues" (from the album El Topo Grand Hotel) to the poet, where Ferlinghetti himself speaks 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, mistakenly credited to Kenneth Rexroth. 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. Titled The Last Waltz, this concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as a documentary which included Ferlinghetti's recitation. Julio Cortázar, in his Rayuela (Hopscotch) (1963) references a poem by Ferlinghetti 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 it's narrative text.

The Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps's 2008 marching show was entitled "Constantly Risking Absurdity", with movements titled 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).[22]

Ferlinghetti prefers association football to American football.[23]

Bibliography[edit]

Discography[edit]

Further reading[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Lawrence Ferlinghetti Biography". Notablebiographies.com. Retrieved 2014-02-18. 
  2. ^ Mark Howell (2007-09-30). "About The Beats: The Key West Interview: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1994". Abouthebeats.blogspot.com. Retrieved 2014-02-18. 
  3. ^ "Academic.Brooklyn". Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s italianita. Retrieved October 30, 2006. 
  4. ^ "Carlo Ferlinghetti, Italy - New York immigration record 10-20-1894, Male 22 years". Italianimmigrants.org. Retrieved 2014-02-18. 
  5. ^ Phillip Seven Esser and Paul Graziano (August 2006). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: Plashbourne Estate". New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. Retrieved 2011-01-01. 
  6. ^ "Lawrence Ferlinghetti". 
  7. ^ "Lawrence Ferlinghetti-American poet, playwright, and publisher". 
  8. ^ Alex Vig. "The Lawrence Lyrics". 
  9. ^ Zinser, Lynn (January 20, 2012). "Lawrence Ferlinghetti Revives His Love of the 49ers at 92". The New York Times. 
  10. ^ a b Julian Guthrie (2012-09-24). "Lawrence Ferlinghetti's indelible image". SFGate. Retrieved 2014-02-18. 
  11. ^ Howl 2010 Film at the Internet Movie Database
  12. ^ Kelly, Kevin (Winter 1988). "Lawrence Ferlinghetti – interview". Whole Earth Review (61).  "I'm in the anarchist tradition. By "anarchist" I don't mean someone with a homemade bomb in his pocket. I mean philosophical anarchism in the tradition of Herbert Reed in England."
  13. ^ Felver, Christopher. 1996 The Coney Island of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. San Francisco: Mystic Fire Video [documentary film]
  14. ^ “Writers and Editors War Tax Protest” January 30, 1968 New York Post
  15. ^ Lawrence Ferlinghetti: 60 years of painting, edited by Giada Diano and Elisa Polimeni, Silvana Editoriale, Cinisello Balsamo (MI), 2009
  16. ^ Nolte, Carl (March 30, 2007). "Kerouac Alley has face-lift". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved November 18, 2007. 
  17. ^ "Adopt an alley". Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  18. ^ Christopher Young (October 12, 2012). "Beat this: Lawrence Ferlinghetti refuses Hungarian cash award". New York Daily News. Retrieved October 15, 2012. 
  19. ^ Carolyn Kellogg (October 11, 2012). "Lawrence Ferlinghetti declines Hungarian award over human rights". LA Times. Retrieved October 15, 2012. 
  20. ^ Ron Friedman and AP (October 13, 2012). "Following Elie Wiesel's Lead, US Poet Rejects Hungarian Award". The Times of Israel. Retrieved October 15, 2012. 
  21. ^ Harriet Staff (October 11, 2012). "Lawrence Ferlinghetti Declines 50,000 Euro Prize from Hungarian PEN Club". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved October 15, 2012. 
  22. ^ "Evento Ferlinghetti: La poesia incontra l’arte". LA STAMPA. Arte Citta' Amica. 2001-06-03. Retrieved February 18, 2014. 
  23. ^ "MMQB (cont.)". CNN. January 23, 2012. 

External links[edit]