In Golden Gate Park that day a man and his wife were coming along thru the enormous meadow which was the meadow of the world If you were walking through North Beach in San Francisco, you might make your way to the historic City Lights bookstore. If you walked in, you’d be suddenly immersed in a countercultural intellectual history. City Lights was the quiet heart of a loud revolution. It’s a transformative spot in the city, and one that has evolved from emergent and rebellious into an institution, but without ever losing its original driving goals. It’s a piece of history, a throwback to another era, when Beats created a new American voice and the New Left began to make its opinions loudly heard. Were you to walk around the neighborhood, seemingly thrust back into modernity, you might notice an older man coming out of a nearby 2nd-story walkup. You may be impressed by his vigor, still taking those stairs with grace and ease, and wonder if he had any memories of when City Lights was turning culture on its head. You may be shocked to know that this man isn’t just a tangential part of this neighborhood—he’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, author, activist, publisher, and founder of City Lights, and one of the men most responsible for the still-beating rebel culture of San Francisco and the Bay Area. And he hasn’t slowed down a bit.
Ferlinghetti and City Lights: Changing a Changing WorldLawrence Ferlinghetti wasn’t always a part of San Francisco. Born March 24th, 1919, in Yonkers, he started writing poetry at an early age. In 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, his country called and he answered. Lawrence was a Navy officer, seeing action both at the storming of Normandy and in the Pacific, during the final days against a desperate Japan. He was stationed in Nagasaki mere weeks after the war ended, and these experiences drove him toward a life of pacifism and activism. After bouncing around Paris for a while, he found his way to San Francisco, which, along with New York and Denver, was the gathering place for a new and still-unformed literary scene. This movement would later be known as the Beat Generation, a yowling and ecstatic literary style celebrating freedom after the trauma of the war. Its best-known adherents included Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and William Carlos Williams. In 1953, Ferlinghetti opened a bookstore called City Lights. It was named after the Charlie Chaplin movie from 1931, one of the last major silent movies. It is somewhat astonishing to think that Chaplin was still making silent pictures a mere 20 years before Ferlinghetti opened his store; the world had changed so much, so soon, and his literary movement was riding that turbulence. And it would soon contribute some turbulence of its own. In 1956, he published Howl and Other Poems, by Allen Ginsberg, which immediately went on trial for obscenity. Ferlinghetti won the case, with Judge Horn ruling that if a work has even the “slightest hint” of redeeming social value, it could not be considered obscene, no matter the material. It was a ruling that would have a huge impact on freedom of speech in America. Oddly enough, Ferlinghetti never considered himself a Beat Poet, telling NPR last year that his poetry was “less frenetic” than the Beats. It was true—the man who helped push a wild and free-form literary movement was a careful poet, almost gentle and wryly observational. That was among the many contradictions of his life. He helped inspire a generation of peace activists and radicals without ever raising his voice or growing his hair out. He made youth culture seem thrilling for people who were born 30 years after him. He was an outsider in a city that formed around his image.
Ferlinghetti in a Peaceful TwilightLawrence Ferlinghetti is currently working on a novel, as he told NPR. It’s a stream of consciousness novel that may never be finished, but it’s a testament to his creative spirit that he is trying a new form of writing and expressing himself in his tenth decade. He demonstrates that we never have to stop finding something new in ourselves. The book, by the way, has a working title of A Portrait of the Artist As An Old Red, a cheeky homage to Joyce’s book that was, incredibly, published a mere three years before Ferlinghetti was born. Ferlinghetti is pushing 97 in a few weeks, but that hasn’t slowed down his productivity. He still writes articles, essays, and the occasional poem. In September of last year, WW Norton published a travel book of his, called Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journeys 1960-2010 (covering his travels from approximately age 40 to age 90). It wasn’t his only recent publication, either. That was just a capstone to a bust decade, which saw four books of new poems and essays come out, including:
- Poetry as Insurgent Art (2004)
- Americus, Book I (2007)
- Time of Useful Consciousness (2012)
- Blasts Cry Laughter (2014)