Born March 24, 1919 in Yonkers, New York, Lawrence Ferlinghetti earned a doctoral degree in poetry at the Sorbonne in Paris with a dissertation entitled ‘The City as Symbol in Modern Poetry: In Search of a Metropolitan Tradition’. In fact he was about to become part of a metropolitan tradition himself, because after leaving Paris he moved to San Francisco, which was about to discover the Beat Generation.
Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin started a magazine there called ‘City Lights,’ named after the Charlie Chaplin movie. He and Martin established their offices on the second floor of a building on Broadway and Columbus in North Beach. They decided to open a bookstore on the floor below as a side venture, naming it after the magazine. The City Lights Bookstore became one of the most famous bookstores in the world, and still stands proudly in its original location.
Doing double-time as a businessman and a poet, he began publishing original books by himself and others under the City Lights name, most notably the ‘Pocket Poets Series.’ The idea of Pocket Poets was to make poetry books easily affordable, and the small attractive paperback volumes are still a common sight today. Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg‘s ‘Howl‘ as Pocket Poets Number Four, and was tried on obscenity charges for this. He was declared innocent, a landmark victory for free speech.
Ferlinghetti’s own poems are simple and speak plainly, and they remain popular with a wide range of readers. In 1958 he published a volume with one of my all-time favorite titles, ‘A Coney Island of the Mind’ (and in 1997 published a follow-up volume named after a beach town in south Queens, not far from Brooklyn’s Coney Island, ‘A Far Rockaway of the Heart.’)
In the early 60’s Ferlinghetti owned a rustic cabin in Bixby Canyon, Big Sur that became the focal point of Jack Kerouac‘s 1962 novel ‘Big Sur.’ Ferlinghetti appears in the book as the sensible Lorenzo Monsanto, who urges the drunken celebrity author based on Kerouac to go on a nature retreat to stop drinking, with terrible results.
Ferlinghetti was one of the more politically-minded of the Beats, and has been continually active on behalf of liberal causes. He attributes his pacifist consciousness partly to his wartime experiences: he had been sent to Nagasaki, Japan six weeks after the city was destroyed by the world’s second atomic bomb.
Ferlinghetti is still active today as a poet and as the proprietor of City Lights. Two of his poems can be read here and here. I hope I won’t seem politically incorrect for saying this, but after immersing myself in the writings of the guilt-obsessed asexual Jack Kerouac, the ridiculously horny Allen Ginsberg and the just plain sordid William S. Burroughs … it’s nice to read a few poems by a guy who can get excited about a little penny candy store under the El or a pretty woman letting a stocking drop to the floor.