On March 24, 2019, San Francisco Beat poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100. The city has turned out in his honor, and readings and events will be celebrated throughout, including an actual birthday party to be attended by the man himself at City Lights Book Store, probably the most historically famous bookstore in the world. It is there that Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” that resulted in obscenity charges, sending the poet/publisher before a judge in the now iconic “Howl Obscenity Trial,” where both Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were exonerated of publishing “filth”. It was a trial that changed the face of censorship and literature, and Ferlinghetti’s courage of conviction will always be remembered.
I heard Ferlinghetti read in Montreal, not long after I had arrived in this city. The year was 1973, just one short year after the Watergate scandal that sent Richard Nixon packing, and two short years after Ferlinghetti had published his famous “Tyrannus Nix,” a poem that put him on Nixon’s official “hate list”. Ferlinghetti read this work at Concordia (then, Sir George Williams University) before a packed hall of 500 rapt listeners. He was a tall man, balding and bearded, wearing a sailor’s cap, a fur vest, and knee-high leather boots. He read in a west coast drawl, punctuated by brief burst of curses in both English and French (Ferlinghetti had completed a PhD at the Sorbonne and so spoke impeccable French, much to the delight of his Montreal audience). He was the master of satire and irony, and the audience alternately wept with laughter and cursed in anger at the state of the world he painted for us. At the end of the reading, he went back to a favorite standard, his great poem “I am Waiting,” from his Coney Island of the Mind (first published in 1958), a book that is still to this day the best -selling volume of poetry by a living author, closing in rapidly on the one million mark. His last lines including: “I am waiting for the rebirth of wonder,” still echo in my mind to this day.
And so, Ferlinghetti:
- Owner of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, publisher of City Lights Books, the first all-paperback bookstore in the world, and head of the publishing house that published all of the Beat writers and, later, authors like Bukowski, Michelina, as well as lesser luminaries.
- Publisher of the Pocket Poet Series (poems that fit into your jacket pocket that sold for, then, 50 cents). I happened upon a signed copy of Ginsberg’s “Howl”, first edition in that series that was selling for over $8,000 at New York City’s The Strand bookstore.
- Existential absurdist, whose great ode to poetry, “Constantly Risking Absurdity and Death…” is one of the most anthologized pieces of the 20th Century.
- Political activist, who wrote an ode to Fidel Castro, travelled to Cuba with Ginsberg when it was illegal for Americans to do so, met with Castro, and then promptly urged Castro to liberate all the artists and gay writers rotting in Havana jails, after which he was unceremoniously expelled from the country.
- San Francisco activist whose poem “Dog” earned him the wrath of local politicians, and whose pet dog (named “Dog”) he put down as a write-in ballot for Mayor, and who came a close second and almost defeated the incumbent.
- Painter, novelist, and poet who first made poetry/ jazz popular before it became in vogue. There is a retrospective of his paintings in the top galleries of the city stretching through March into April of this year.
Ferlinghetti, whose generosity of spirit knew no bounds. Some years ago, I taught a course called “The Beat Generation.” I had told my students about City Lights, about Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, and more. Two of my students, identical twin brothers, loved poetry and music and decided to put out a chapbook of their own poems that they read and performed at Montreal cafés, inspired by watching Ferlinghetti’s readings and jazz performances. When they graduated, their father gave them round trip tickets to San Fran. The first thing they did upon their arrival was to make their way down to City Lights Bookstore and, after, to Vesuvio’s Bar, Jack Kerouac’s favorite haunt, just around the corner from the bookstore. When they entered the bookstore, there sat Ferlinghetti at a table, having a coffee and chatting with Allen Ginsberg. The twins, owners of massive cajones, went up and introduced themselves and showed them copies of their hand-printed chapbooks. Ferlingetti immediately put the books on prominent display in the window of his store, then made a few phone calls, and got them a gig that very evening to read their poetry before a large audience. Ferlinghetti even introduced the duo himself. That is the kind of man Ferlinghetti was and is to this day.
At the age of ninety, Ferlinghetti, an activist even in his old age, wrote a poem called “Pity the Nation.” It is a poignant plea for America to regain its spiritual and moral compass, a clarion call especially relevant in these troubled times where that nation is run by Trump, the Tea Party Republicans and Evangelicals who have coopted most of America’s positive values.
At the age of 100, Lawrence Ferlinghetti still endures, one of America’s greatest poets and a reminder to all of us of the power and the passion of words, and of how they can sometimes change the world and even alter the course of history.
Happy Birthday, and may your “circus of the soul” continue to inspire!