San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
Owner of City Lights bookstore an icon in S.F.’s literary history
Artists, friends and fans remember Ferlinghetti.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was an essential part of San Francisco’s literary scene from 1953, the year he and Peter Martin opened City Lights Pocket Book Shop, to Feb. 22, 2021, when he died at the patriarchal age of 101. Not even Herb Caen, who filed his daily Chronicle columns for nearly 60 years, can match the longevity of Ferlinghetti’s influence on their beloved (and in both cases, adopted) city.
Ferlinghetti was a unique figure in San Francisco literary history because he wore so many hats — and because his timing was perfect. He was a poet, he was a publisher, he ran the city’s preeminent literary meeting place, and he was a connector, a godfather, a friend, a mentor, and a grownup to the most unruly and obstreperous generation of poets and writers ever to storm the Parnassian heights. But perhaps most important, Ferlinghetti ferried into San Francisco at the perfect moment to catch the Beat wave.
The Beats were that rarest of literary movements, one that changed society. Ferlinghetti, along with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia and the rest of the writers labeled as part of the “Beat Generation” may have had little in common as writers other than a preference for vocally based poetic forms and a distaste for academic and recondite ones, but that didn’t matter. To a generation of post
A Tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Hosted by The Chronicle via Zoom. 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 28. Free. To RSVP, go to bit.ly/ferlinghetti-chron -tribute.
World War II youths searching for authenticity, jazzlike spontaneity and a kind of existential heroism, the Beats offered kicks and rebellion, served up with style. They were dangerous pied pipers, and a generation heeded their call.
As Ferlinghetti wrote, “young poets and dreamers, visionaries and vagabonds and wanderers … saw the chance to escape from buttondown conformism, consumerism, and boredom. And they began hitchhiking and catching freights, or driving coast to coast, discovering a new America.”
“City Lights revolutionized the way books are experienced and the way a bookstore is experienced: what else goes into that pot is the energy of the people taking in this art. The poetry room is a place where the mouth and the ear and a thousand miles and a million years meet. It leaves an energy for all of us to define ourselves as artists and to determine our reality from. That’s the best contribution anyone involved in art can make.” — San Francisco poet laureate Tongo EisenMartin
If this “new America” had an address, it was an old Italian neighborhood in San Francisco called North Beach. And Ferlinghetti was largely responsible for setting up this bohemian P.O. box — because he opened City Lights in the heart of the neighborhood, because his own poetry reached a remarkably wide audience (his 1958 collection, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” remains one of the bestselling books of poetry ever published) and because he tirelessly published, promoted and encouraged the Beats.
Ferlinghetti had a complex relation with the movement with which he remains inextricably associated. “I never was a Beat,” he once proclaimed. A shrewd and hardheaded man who took literary craft seriously, he recognized the shortcomings of some of the work spewed out in the name of holy spontaneity. But he also admired and shared the Beats’ rejection of what he called “a repressive conformist culture,” and he generously supported them as fellow writers. A vociferous critic of the establishment — of the state and of capitalism — Ferlinghetti used his platform as poet and publisher to simultaneously denounce America’s spiritual malaise and celebrate a poetic liberation from it.
And the most important — and fortuitous — salvo in that long war was his publication of the Beat Generation’s urtext, Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
On Oct. 7, 1955, Ginsberg gave his nowlegendary reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street. Like everyone present on that delirious night, Ferlinghetti recognized the work’s significance. In a letter that consciously echoed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s letter to Walt Whitman after
“He railed righteously in his poems, and in his letters to the editor and public speeches — pretty much all of which took the shape of poems, just as his poems took the shape of letters that spoke and looked outwardly, into the world. For me, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a person at once living and mythical. I’ve lived my life in a world he helped bring into existence. He published Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ when I was 3. His millionselling ‘A Coney Island of the Mind’ was published when I was 5; two of those copies are still on my shelves. Worldchanger is something that can be said of a very few poets, but some.” — Poet Jane Hirshfield
reading “Leaves of Grass,” Ferlinghetti wrote to Ginsberg, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”
The brandnew publishing arm of City Lights published “Howl” in 1956 as No. 4 of its Pocket Poets series (No. 1 was Ferlinghetti’s own fine collection “Pictures of the Gone World”). The initial press run was 1,000 copies, and Ginsberg nervously asked Ferlinghetti if he thought “we will actually sell the thousand.”
An unexpected group of critics in blue uniforms ensured that they would. In 1957, San Francisco police officers arrested City Lights manager Shigeyoshi Murao, and later Ferlinghetti himself, on charges of selling obscene literature. The subsequent trial, at which a judge ruled that a work could not be considered obscene if it had “the slightest redeeming social significance,” made Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and City Lights worldfamous. It was one of the most fortunate busts in literary history.
Ferlinghetti and City Lights were launched, and they never looked back. For the next 60plus years, the young man who had arrived on a ferry in San Francisco in 1951 was a key, feisty, irrepressible part of the city’s — and the world’s — literary life. He and his celebrated bookstore, renamed City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, never abandoned their tradition of publishing radical and subversive works. And he kept working almost to the very end.
On his 100th birthday, San Francisco officials honored Ferlinghetti by planting a tree in his name in his beloved North Beach. Like all the honors he received over the years, it was well deserved. When Ferlinghetti died, there was a spontaneous gathering outside his famous bookstore. But the most moving tribute to Ferlinghetti took place a few weeks after his death, when his old friend, North Beach resident and fellow poet Jack Hirschman, organized a virtual reading in his honor, featuring poets, writers and artists from around the world.
As heartfelt tributes and beautiful poems and songs by Mexican and American and Greek and French and Italian writers and musicians poured in, Ferlinghetti’s true legacy was revealed — as a poet, as a publisher, as a friend, as a colleague, and yes, as a San Franciscan.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti left his mark on this city in many ways, but one of his greatest achievements is intangible. Through changing times and tides, he helped ensure that somewhere deep in its heart, San Francisco is still a city of poets.
Gary Kamiya is the author of the bestselling book “Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco,” awarded the Northern California Book Award in creative nonfiction. His new book, with drawings by Paul Madonna, is “Spirits of San Francisco: Voyages Through the Unknown City.”
“Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a literary, San Francisco and North Beach icon. He dared us all to dream big and create a better world for each other. Lawrence also embodied the hardworking spirit of Italian Americans, starting a business with just $500 that lives to this day and inspires the next generation.” — Bill Mastrangelo, president of the San Francisco Italian Heritage Parade
“He was a consistent, powerful, gentle presence in the neighborhood, one of the last godfathers of the creatives around here. Lawrence was a big jazz fan, as far as me being a fan of his, of course, as a singer who treasures multitudinous subtext in a lyric, the beauty and power of his words were never lost on me. He was very lyrical and powerful, much more accessible than other Beat poets. I don’t even want to put him in the category of Beat poets. He far outlived the Beats.” — Singer and North Beach resident Kitty Margolis