The daddy of them all
From inside his iconic City Lights bookstore, poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 98, has fomented an ongoing revolution in literature and thought
Ferlinghetti recently watched a man go mad. It occurred at Cafe Francisco in North Beach, a dozen blocks from City Lights. For a half hour, the tormented party took off his sweater and put it back on — over and over to the soundtrack of big-band jazz — until he finally left to warmly complete the psychic unraveling in the seal-gray San Francisco fog.
Despite suffering from glaucoma and macular degeneration that have left him nearly blind, Ferlinghetti was the only one to observe the afflicted.
“Everyone around him was on their laptops or iPhones. No one even noticed,” the former San Francisco poet laureate recalls several weeks later in the same space, an erstwhile Italian restaurant with wood-grain booths and black-and-white photos from the 1940s on the wall. “The best writing is what’s right in front of you. Sometimes, I’d walk down the street with poets and they wouldn’t see anything. I’d have to shake their arm and say, ‘Look! Look!’ ”
For the past 60 years, that forced attention has been the explicit intent of Ferlinghetti’s elegant subversion. As he wrote in 2007’s “Poetry as Insurgent Art,” the poet should “write living newspapers . . . be a reporter from outer space, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bulls---.”
His philosophy frames much of what he has pressed at his City Lights house: Charles Bukowski, Frank O’Hara, and, of course, most of the Beat Generation. But he has also published scholarly meditations on Selma, children’s books about “Rad American Women,” international literature and noir thrillers. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch” was regrettably declined because he said he was “pretty square in those days” and didn’t want to spread that “junkie mentality of death and hate.”
Ferlinghetti might be the most influential independent publisher of the past 60 years. His bookstore is a West Coast Wailing Wall that survives amid a distressed industry. His 1958 collection, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” sold a million copies. Nostalgia or senescence inflames many still alive at his age, but Ferlinghetti has become increasingly unsentimental and radical. During the George W. Bush years, he was one of the administration’s most scathing critics. Among 2016’s presidential aspirants, he was most interested in social democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “Everyone in the ruling classes is too well fed to bother about anybody proposing revolution,” he says.
Is this the dream? To live nearly a century and sustain a serrated intellect, righteous integrity and good health? His failing eyesight has been swapped for oracular vision. He looks vaguely like a bust of Socrates, bald, white-bearded and wise — except Ferlinghetti beat his charges of corrupting the youth. Beneath pudgy glasses, his eyes are hauntingly blue and compassionate. His posture remains youthful and upright. One ear is pierced, and his socks are tropical candy-striped. He’s a responsible shopkeeper and subversive arsonist rolled into one.
Shaking off the slanders of age, he carefully walked here alone, sans cane, carrying a City Lights satchel filled with advance copies of the 60th anniversary Pocket Poets Series collection and his collected letters with Ginsberg. There’s also “Writing Across the Landscape,” his travel journals from 1960-2010, published recently by a division of W.W. Norton & Company. Outside of his verse, the latter offers arguably the most interior examination of the multidimensional artist.
“I never wanted to write an autobiography because I don’t like looking back,” Ferlinghetti says, curling his lips into a half-smile. “I told my agent this is the closest he’ll get.”
His life story is littered with the twists of serial fiction. Born in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1919, Ferlinghetti’s Italian immigrant father died six months before his son’s birth. Shortly thereafLawrence ter, his mother was committed to an asylum, scattering her five sons among relatives. Her uncle’sex-wife wound up caring for the newborn, taking him to Strasbourg, France, where French became his first language.
After moving to Bronxville, N.Y., she disappeared, leaving the 5-year-old with her former employers, the Bisland family — descendants of the founder of Sarah Lawrence College. Ferlinghetti discovered the aunt’s whereabouts two decades later, when he learned of her death in a Long Island insane asylum. He’d been listed as her only survivor.
A love of Thomas Wolfe led him to the University of North Carolina, where he failed to make the basketball team (“I was only six-foot tall . . . . Too short.”), studied journalism and covered sports for the school paper. He commanded a submarine-chaser ship during the D-Day invasion and saw time in the Pacific theater, touring Nagasaki, Japan, weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped.
“The city had just vanished from the face of the earth,” Ferlinghetti wrote in a travel journal anthologized in his new book. The experience left him an ardent pacifist. “Skeletons of trees on the horizon. Not a soul in sight . . . all souls melted too.”
Postwar graduate studies followed at Columbia University (M.A. in English literature) and the Sorbonne in Paris. (His thesis: “The City as Symbol in Modern Poetry.”) Settling in San Francisco, he co-founded City Lights in 1953. The nation’s first all-paperback bookstore shared North Beach with working-class Italian neighbors, many of whom kept the fledgling shop in business by purchasing imported anarchist newspapers from the Old World. Then Ginsberg uncorked “Howl” at the Six Gallery.
“He did a lot of other ‘Howl’ readings, but the first was the most famous,” Ferlinghetti says. He recalls it in austere terms: white walls, a dirt floor, no stage, 25 to 30 folding chairs in a converted garage.
“That shows the power of ‘Howl,’ ” he continues. “No one had heard anything like that. You can tell if it’s a great work if it makes you see the world as you’ve never seen it.”
The obscenity trial — People of the State of California v. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in 1957 — made them outlaw heroes in black berets and was a First Amendment victory. Ginsberg’s eloquent transgressions and gift for publicity anointed him the Walt Whitman of the Atomic Age. Anyone within his orbit became a Beat by brand affiliation. But being nearly a decade older than the young poet, Ferlinghetti identified more with earlier Bohemianism.
“There wouldn’t have been a Beat Generation without Allen Ginsberg. There would have been certain writers along the landscape but no organized movement,” Ferlinghetti says. “As soon as he arrived in every city, he’d call up the papers and say, ‘This is Allen Ginsberg, I just arrived in town.’ Then he’d bring all his friends that he wanted to get published.”
Ferlinghetti himself benefited from the exposure, selling millions of books that combined pellucid street reporting, surrealist and modernist imagism, and damning wit. Like many closely associated with a specific era, his early efforts are what end up in anthologies. But 2004’s “Americus” and its equally brilliant follow-up, 2012’s “Time of Useful Consciousness” found the nonagenarian poet in wintry glow, eulogizing the last half millennium of America in the tradition of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams.
“I don’t know what the publisher was doing, but they never got me a single review,” Ferlinghetti quips about “Americus.” He acknowledges his modernist influences as a kiss of critical apathy, death by being ignored. Besides, he adds, “attention spans are too short.”
It’s easy to dismiss that as the aloof cantankerousness of an old man. But if you spoke to Ferlinghetti for 10 seconds, you’d realize the error. He’s as close as you can get to visiting Homer, a purblind chronicler who has seen it all. Orphaned and abandoned, scarred by the firsthand horrors of nuclear hell, crucified by grotesque bureaucrats, recovering to watch his San Francisco Poetry Renaissance save the art from arid dweebs, temporarily restoring it to a popular oral and written tradition, only to watch it evaporate.
It’s Ferlinghetti alongside Ginsberg onstage at the 1967 Human Be-In, where the latter whispers in his ear, “What if we’re wrong?”
That’s Ferlinghetti protesting all forms of hypocrisy and inequity, marching against nuclear weapons and Vietnam and in favor of environmental protections and fair treatment of farmworkers.
He’s the one reciting the “Loud Prayer” onstage with the Band in the movie “The Last Waltz.” Ferlinghetti, who never has stopped wondering what it all meant, worrying where we’re going, what will be lost to history and what may never be noticed at all.
“It’s all going to be underwater in 100 years or maybe even 50,” he says when asked what he sees for San Francisco, the beloved adopted city that partially betrayed him. “The Embarcadero is one of the greatest esplanades in the world. On the weekends, thousands of people strut up and down like it’s the Ramblas in Barcelona. But it’ll all be underwater.”
That repetition of “underwater” lingers for a second, as though it’s an anchor that he can’t stop from sinking. At that moment, it’s not hard to imagine this cafe as an Atlantean ruin, filled with drowned corpses tethered to their laptops and iPhones until the soggy finish. He halfsmiles again and shrugs, unapologetic for what he sees, as though to say one last time, don’t say that I didn’t warn you.
TOP: Accompanied by a jazz combo, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti gives a reading in 1957 at the Cellar in San Francisco. Now 98, he has traveled the entire arc of the Beat Generation.
BOTTOM: Ferlinghetti, left, and Allen Ginsberg watch as Stella Kerouac autographs one of her late husband’s books during the 1988 dedication of the Jack Kerouac Commemorative public art project in Lowell, Mass.