Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poet Who Nurtured the Beats, Dies at 101

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“The scene shows fewer tumbrils, but more spaced-out citizens in painted cars. And they have strange license plates and engines that devour America.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a poet, a painter, a publisher and a ceaseless political provocateur. “And I am waiting for Voznesensky to turn on with us and speak love tonight. And I am waiting for Aphrodite to grow live arms at a final disarmament conference.” He penned one of the single most popular books of poetry in print, served as San Francisco’s first poet laureate and won the National Book Award. Perhaps most famously, Ferlinghetti became the spiritual godfather of the Beat movement when he opened City Lights Books on a gritty hillside of San Francisco in 1953. “I had no idea of any poetry scene here or anything like that. But then when you have a bookstore, that’s a place where poets naturally fall into and hang out.” City Lights became a proving ground for bohemian and Beat writers and artists. Ferlinghetti soon expanded his reach by starting City Lights Press, which published the Pocket Poets Series. The first book was his own, “Pictures of the Gone World.” “The dog trots freely in the street and sees reality, and the things he sees are bigger than himself.” The fourth was Allen Ginsberg’s explosive poem “Howl,” which would shock the civilized world. “Allen Ginsberg laid his manuscript of ‘Howl’ on me one day. I told him I’d like to publish it, but we didn’t have any money. Once I heard it aloud, I realized this was going to cause a revolution in American poetry.” “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” “It was a little like with the rock revolution that happened in the ’60s. When Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ came along, you didn’t hear any more about the old academic poetry for a long time.” ‘Howl’ swept Ferlinghetti into a landmark First Amendment fight. “We were selling it at City Lights Bookstore, and two officers from the juvenile department bought a copy from Shigeyoshi Murao, who was my manager at that time. Shig was arrested, and I was indicted as the publisher and bookstore owner.” The charges? “Willfully and lewdly” publishing obscene writings. “The trial went to court. We had a marvelous lineup of witnesses on our side, the most impressive literary figures in the West. When the judge brought in his decision, he said that a book cannot be judged obscene if it had the slightest redeeming social importance or social significance. And that precedent, even though this was just in the municipal court, it held up all these years. It’s still very hard to convict someone of obscene literature these days.” When The Times spoke with Mr. Ferlinghetti in 2007, he was 88 years old and still actively provoking. “I’m waiting for the next revolution. As a publisher, I always say, you can’t publish a revolution when there isn’t any.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in 1919 in Yonkers, just north of New York City. His mother was ill, and his father died before he was born. He was raised by an aunt who worked as a servant in the home of Presley Bisland, a Southern gentleman who sparked a literary interest in the troubled boy. “He was very much like Mark Twain. He was very witty and very literate. He would get me to recite poems at the dinner table, and I would get a silver dollar if I could recite the poem perfectly. And I would start out, ‘The Syrian came down like’ — ‘No, no, young man, not like that.’ And then he would thunder forth dramatically. As I say, I had an unhappy childhood, quote, unquote, so I escaped by lyricism. When present-day life gets too awful, there’s the lyric escape. You can write a lyric poem, or you can go out and look at the moon. Or you can shack up with your best girlfriend or whatever. That’s the lyric escape.” Ferlinghetti studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating in 1941, he joined the Navy. [explosions] On D-Day, Ferlinghetti was commanding a ship that provided protection for the invasion fleet at Normandy. “We were an antisubmarine screen around the beaches. We didn’t have to land. And we could look through our binoculars and see these poor G.I.’s getting shot up on the beaches.” After the carnage in France, Ferlinghetti was transferred to Japan, arriving soon after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. “In the towering mushroom, Japan could read its doom. This was more than a routine bombing.” “As soon as I saw the devastated landscape, this burned, scorched landscape, where human flesh and teacups were melded together, and bones and fingers and faces sticking out of mud and not an erect building in sight.” “Before the blast, these were modern buildings, constructed like our own American factories.” “That made me an instant pacifist.” Ferlinghetti decided to forge one of his lyric escapes from the Navy and use the G.I. Bill to earn advanced degrees from Columbia University and the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1951, he went west to San Francisco. “I see San Francisco from my window through some old Navy beer bottles. The glass is dark. What’s it all about? Right after the Second World War, there’s so many people who had been uprooted, it was as if the whole continent had tilted up, and the population slid westward. It’s still the last frontier. I had an old second-hand car, and I was driving up Columbus Avenue. And I looked across the street at Columbus and Broadway, and there was this guy putting up a sign ‘Pocket Book Shop.’ I said, are you opening a bookstore?” Ferlinghetti decided to join forces with that man, Peter Martin, to open up a shop specializing in a new type of cheap softcover book, the paperback. “Up till then, the only paperbacks you could get were murder mysteries and some science fiction. So Peter Martin had this brilliant idea to start a paperback bookstore where you could find these books, which you couldn’t find anywhere. Right from the beginning, we had poets and writers dropping in because there was nothing else like this. If you walked into any other bookstore in town, you couldn’t just sit down and read. They wanted — the clerk would be on top of you asking you what you wanted or could I help you. We actually ignored the readers. We ignored the customers. You practically had to hit the clerk over the head to buy the book.” Ferlinghetti went solo when Martin left town after a couple of years, and the shop became the literary meeting place for Beat writers like Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and the hero of his classic “On the Road,” Neal Cassady. “Neal Cassady would dash in. He left his jalopy out front with the motor running and the door open. He would rush in and get a copy of — and rush out. Of course, these are all free books we gave the poets.” “It’s already too late. Pentagon is taking care of it all, and we’re doing this deliberately, as far as that goes.” “The Pentagon? Tell me what —” “Well, I don’t know who’s running the country. Do you?” “The bookstore from the beginning had this anarchist position, which wasn’t a bomb-throwing position. It was a pacifist position.” “Oh.” [chanting] “I mean, I remember I was at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in 1967.” [chanting] “Peace in San Francisco. Peace in Hanoi.” “And I was sitting next to Allen Ginsberg on stage, and at one moment he turns to me and he says, ‘What if we’re all wrong?’” [chanting] “I wrote a poem called ‘Tentative Description of a Dinner to Impeach President Eisenhower,’ and now I realize that Eisenhower, compared to today’s leaders in federal government — Eisenhower was an angel.” “You know, one shouldn’t put down all the things that the Beats and the hippies stood for. The expansion of consciousness, this is something completely new in poetry. Religious consciousness — they’re turning toward the Far East, for instance. The first articulation of an ecological consciousness. So many things in our culture now, which we take for granted, came out of that rebellion, that youth rebellion.” In 2001, City Lights was placed on the list of San Francisco’s historic landmarks. “Does poetry still matter today?” “What did you put the word ‘still’ in there for? Yeah, does poetry still matter today? It’s still — it’s a ‘still.’ All the disparate elements of the new civilization, the new culture of the 21st century is in this ‘still.’ And one of these days, the brew is going to coalesce into a marvelous, new, intoxicating liquor.”