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Lawrence Ferlinghetti: The Icon of the Beat Movement

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An April 17 article in the Boston Globe notes that Lawrence Ferlinghetti has reached 87 and, still the symbol of the Beats, is still around. The article goes on to discuss the importance of Robert Frank’s seminal, wonderful book, The Americans which was the visual equivalent of the Beat movement, Kerouac and Sandburg and the Beat poets rolled up into picture frames.

New England Poetry Club presented its Golden Rose Award to Lawrence Ferlinghetti at Harvard’s Yenching Auditorium. Ferlinghetti, bless him, turned 87 last month: proprietor of City Lights Books, in San Francisco; author of ”A Coney Island of the Mind”; and grand old man of that least button-down of literary movements, the Beats.

Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs long ago barreled their way into the canon. They were as much a state of mind as anything else: advance scouts of the ’60s, all T-shirts, beards, and Benzedrine, at a time when ties were tied, jaws were shaven, and drugs came out of medicine cabinets…

It’s through Frank’s book that the Beats profoundly affected how we see. Frank took the leading tradition of American photography — the documentary tradition, with its reverence for the particular, the tradition of Mathew Brady, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans — and doubly enlarged it. He emblematized the particular, making it mythic; and he vastly expanded the accepted view of what constituted vernacular photography.

City Lights gives a brief biography of Ferlinghetti and of the book store that was so much a part of our youth and the Beat scene into the hippy days of light and flower power as the 60s ended and the 70s began.

A prominent voice of the wide-open poetry movement that began in the 1950s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has written poetry, translation, fiction, theater, art criticism, film narration, and essays. Often concerned with politics and social issues, Ferlinghetti’s poetry countered the literary elite’s definition of art and the artist’s role in the world. Though imbued with the commonplace, his poetry cannot be simply described as polemic or personal protest, for it stands on his craftsmanship, thematics, and grounding in tradition.

Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers in 1919, son of Carlo Ferlinghetti who was from the province of Brescia and Clemence Albertine Mendes-Monsanto. Following his undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he served in the U.S. Navy in World War II as a ship’s commander. He received a Master’s degree from Columbia University in 1947 and a Doctorate de l’Université de Paris (Sorbonne) in 1950. From 1951 to 1953, when he settled in San Francisco, he taught French in an adult education program, painted, and wrote art criticism. In 1953, with Peter D. Martin, he founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country, and by 1955 he had launched the City Lights publishing house.

Best to learn, however, is that Ferlinghetti started City Lights bookstore in 1953 (the first solely paperback bookstore in the United States) and soon after began City Lights Press. This has left City Lights bookstore as a major meeting place for writers, poets, and dissidents for something close to 50 years.

His poetry book, A Coney Island Of The Mind, is “the most popular poetry book in the U.S.” and has over one million copies in print. He was made Poet Laureate of San Francisco in 1998 and is in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The Beat Page quotes one of his poems:

A Vast Confusion

Long long I lay in the sands

Sounds of trains in the surf
in subways of the sea
And an even greater undersound
of a vast confusion in the universe
a rumbling and a roaring
as of some enormous creature turning
under sea and earth
a billion sotto voices murmuring
a vast muttering
a swelling stuttering
in ocean’s speakers
world’s voice-box heard with ear to sand
a shocked echoing
a shocking shouting
of all life’s voices lost in night
And the tape of it
someow running backwards now
through the Moog Synthesizer of time
Chaos unscrambled
back to the first
And the first light

Agulha, an online magazine of poetry, explains for our south of the border neighbors and visitors who may be picking lettuce, studying astrophysics, or trying to write like Pablo Neruda:

Su mirada, “el ojo obsceno del poeta”, siempre atento al universo, expresa sus inquietudes en una modalidad poética en la que se evidencia la intención de regresar a la práctica de los bardos, la comprensión del fenómeno poético como un evento público, donde la recuperación de la perdida capacidad del poeta para difundir su noticia resulta fundamental. No se trata simplemente de una continuidad del modelo romántico (Byron, Shelley) donde el poeta se ve a sí mismo como un héroe, sucesor de Prometeo o de Hércules, que asume roles proféticos. La intención de Ferlinghetti es la de recrear la confianza en el poder de la inspiración, y transmitirnos su fe en la noción de que el poema, con su energía crítica, operará sobre el mundo y el espíritu de los seres humanos.

Which is to end with “Ferlinghetti’s intention is the recreation of confidence in the power of inspiration and the transformation of his faith in the notion that the poem, with its critical energy, will operate over the world and the spirit of what it is to be human.” Or so I read it with my bad Spanish.

Then a really interesting little site, Poem Hunter, quotes a sweet and gentle poem of his:

Driving a cardboard automobile without a license
at the turn of the century
my father ran into my mother
on a fun-ride at Coney Island
having spied each other eating
in a French boardinghouse nearby
And having decided right there and then
that she was right for him entirely
he followed her into
the playland of that evening
where the headlong meeting
of their ephemeral flesh on wheels
hurtled them forever together

And I now in the back seat
of their eternity
reaching out to embrace them

The reason this grabbed and twisted me today when I read it is that Ferlinghetti was the icon of the Beats, a bastion of words at his bookstore and the symbol of so much of the history of the middle of the 20th century. He was also, without ever meeting him, one of the people to mold me. It was not so early (growing up in culture-free, podunk Tampa) that I began to hear of him and to have that night, Kerouac, grainy Frank photo feeling of San Francisco in the dark hiding the keys to knowledge. That was me in a Tampa high school, struggling to find my way among books that were not in the school or the library. It was me trying to understand Kerouac and Sartre when my fellow students had trouble reading short words.

Later, City Lights was a beacon in my street-people days in the late ’60s. It was a place to find books to read and warm; safety when I hitchhiked home to Oakland; my wife (later) and I lost in books in the safety of the store; it was the thought when we went to readings by the poets that were of his Beats and came after and even into the future in Woodstock when Robert Kelly, John Ashbury and Ed Saunders became friends or acquaintances.

He was a part of many of our lives and a symbol of those who marched to the sound of different drummers. Now he is old and still surviving. So am I. It is a good time to pay homage and to remind those who don’t know of him to look into his writing and his life and into the movement that was the Beats.

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  • Bliffle

    Excellent article. Thanks.