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

The Washington Post Sunday - - DRIVING DOWN BEAT ROAD - BY JEFF WEISS IN SAN FRANCISCO style@wash­

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.

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