A Lost ‘Little Boy’ Nears 100: Poet And Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti
BY TOM VITALE
For Lawrence Ferlinghetti, living to be 100 is no fun. Speaking from his home in San Francisco recently, Ferlinghetti said he’s practically blind now — he can’t read, and he’s skipping his big birthday bash at the bookstore he co-founded, City Lights in San Francisco.
“They’re going to have quite a celebration,” he says. “But I won’t be there. It’s no use, my appearing in public, because I couldn’t speak. I mean, I could speak, but on account of my eyesight it would be” — he pauses to laugh — “I don’t know what it would be.”
Nevertheless, Ferlinghetti — who will turn 100 this Sunday, March 24 — has a lot to celebrate. Once a standout poet of the Beat Generation, his bookstore has become a popular landmark and the small press of the same name is still in business after more than 60 years. And he’s just published a new novel.
His 1958 book of poetry A Coney Island of the Mind sold more than a million copies. In it, he compares the horrors depicted in Goya’s paintings of the Napoleonic Wars to scenes of post-World War II America:
We are the same people / only further from home / on freeways fifty lanes wide / on a concrete continent / spaced with bland billboards / illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness
Gerald Nicosia is a Bay Area critic who has written extensively about the Beat writers. He says Ferlinghetti is notable for writing poetry in everyday language.
“His language and his humor, and the things he was saying were things that appeal to, could be understood by the average man on the street,” Nicosia says. “A poet in the American voice. And that was one of the breakthroughs, of course, of the ’50s, was: taking poetry away from academia, away from this rarified aesthetic language that nobody could understand, and writing in the voice of ordinary people.”
Critics, however, didn’t consider Ferlinghetti on par with the other Beat writers he called his friends: Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. Ferlinghetti doesn’t want to talk about his past now, but in 1994, he told me that even though he was raised in New York, he never met those East Coast writers until he moved to San Francisco and opened City Lights.
“A bookstore is a natural place for poets to hang out,” Ferlinghetti said. “And they started showing up there.”
City Lights became a magnet for West Coast intellectuals, and later, a tourist destination. Ferlinghetti also started the small press called City Lights Books. In the fall of 1956, he published a little 75-cent paperback: the first edition of “Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg.
“Howl” was a new type of poetry that became an anthem for the nascent counterculture. It begins: “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 …”
“‘Howl’ knocked the sides out of things,” Ferlinghetti said. “Just the way rock music in the ’60s knocked the sides out of the old music world.”
“Howl” includes passages of homosexual imagery, and Ferlinghetti was arrested in 1957 on charges of publishing obscene material. After a long federal trial, he was acquitted.
Gerald Nicosia, the critic, says Ferlinghetti’s two greatest accomplishments were fighting censorship, and inaugurating a small press revolution.
“Up until that point, getting published was a difficult thing,” Nicosia says. “If you were a radical, an innovative writer, you would be rebuffed by mainstream publishers. By creating this press out of nothing, City Lights press, he said, ‘Look, you don’t need these big publishers in New York.'”
Ferlinghetti has always been an advocate for the underdog, in part because of his own life story — and it’s a tale right out of Dickens. His father died shortly before he was he was born, and his mother was committed to a mental hospital shortly after. He was raised by an aunt, and then by foster parents.
His new autobiographical novel, Little Boy, begins like this: “Little Boy was quite lost. He had no idea who he was or where he had come from.”
Ferlinghetti enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor. He served as an officer at Normandy on D-Day, and at Nagasaki after the atomic bomb. That experience turned him into a lifelong pacifist.
He began writing poetry at a revolutionary time in arts and music. And in 1994, at least, he still believed art could make a difference.
“I really believe that art is capable of the total transformation of the world, and of life itself,” Ferlinghetti said. “And nothing less is really acceptable. So if art is going to have any excuse … beyond being a leisure-class plaything, it has to transform life itself.”
That’s what Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been doing for most of a century. As for the secret to his longevity?
“Have a good laugh and you’ll live longer,” he says, laughing.
Tom Cole edited this story for broadcast.