Lawrence Ferlinghetti is the ”Renaissance Man” of the Beat culture, and
today, half a century after it first emerged, its ”Grand Old Man” – poet,
painter, publisher and bookseller.
Ferlinghetti, of Italian-Portuguese-Sephardi stock, was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919. Very soon after his birth his mother was committed to an asylum for the insane, and the boy was brought up in France. After five years he returned to New York, where he could start learning English. He has described himself as a conventional ”American boy”, even an Eagle scout, and yet in the 30s he lived the life of a vagabond, hopping freight trains on the transcontinental railroads. At the University of North Carolina he got to know the important modernist writers Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. During the war he served as a Lieutenant Commander in the US navy. Six weeks after the atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki he was sent to the city and witnessed the horrors of atomic warfare.
After the war Ferlinghetti finished his studies at Columbia University, New York, and the Sorbonne in Paris where he wrote a dissertation on “The City as Symbol in Modern Poetry”. In Paris he met Kenneth Rexroth, an American writer, artist and political activist, who acquainted him with the ”San Francisco Renaissance”, beginning to take place on the US West Coast. Persuaded by Rexroth to move there, Ferlinghetti soon became a leading figure in the radical life of the city as poet, art critic and founder of the increasingly famous all-paperback book-store in North Beach, named City Lights after Chaplin’s movie. (This was also where the Norwegian doctor Reidar Wennesland lived, who was later to donate his vast collection of ”Beat Art” to the Catedral School and Agder University College in his home city Kristiansand.) City Lights – described by Ferlinghetti himself as a “two-bit, one-room bookstore” – soon became a Mecca for Bohemian artists, poets and intellectuals. In 1955 he launched City Lights Publishers, starting with the well-known Pocket Book Series. This series was to include a number of American and international avant-garde works. In 1956 Ferlinghetti was tried on a charge of obscenity for having published Ginsberg’s “Howl” as nr. 4 in the series. However, he was acquitted, and the trial bought much free publicity to the young Beat movement.
During the 60s Ferlinghetti became a celebrated figure in California’s radical counter-culture. At that time he bought a cabin in the wilderness at ‘Big Sur’, and he increasingly became engaged in ecology and conservation. As well as being a productive poet and artist he has been actively involved in anti-authoritarian and liberal cultural and political issues. Ferlinghetti has received a number of awards and distinctions. He is also a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1998 he was acclaimed San Francisco’s first Poet Laureate.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti has a prodigious and long career as artist and writer, active in a number of media – poetry and prose, painting, film and theatre, art criticism and the essay. His pictures are exhibited in galleries all over the world, and regularly in the George Krevsky Gallery San Francisco. However, it is as poet that he is best known; A Coney Island of My Mind (1958) is one of America’s best-selling poetry books of all times, continually re-issued. It shows typical traits of Ferlinghetti’s poetry: everyday, down to earth themes and a vernacular style, yet with leaps of imagination and surrealist flashes. Even when the theme is serious, there is usually some humour lurking. Many of the poems are written to jazz. Often there is a combination of the poetic and the political, but without the poems becoming stridently ideological. His view of art is essentially democratic and anti-elitist, and he likes to think of himself as “the voice of the people.”
Ferlinghetti has published a number of books and the collected works, These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems 1955-1993. He has also, however, published new books in recent years, including A Far Rockaway of the Heart (1997) – a direct successor to A Coney Island of My Mind – and Americus Book I (2004), the latter described by himself as ”part documentary…part personal epic.” He has not ceased to be an unstinting champion of liberal causes, and he tirelessly upholds values such as ecology, freedom of the press, pacifism and anti-militarism.