American Sages: Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Pete Seeger

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, global activist and indie publisher extraordinaire, turns 90 years old today. Here's his Litkicks biography page, and here's the poem we've been running on this site for many years:

       The pennycandystore beyond the El
       is where I first
                       fell in love
                              with unreality
       Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom
       of that september afternoon
       A cat upon the counter moved among
                                 the licorice sticks
                      and tootsie rolls
              and Oh Boy Gum

       Outside the leaves were falling as they died

       A wind had blown away the sun

       A girl ran in
       Her hair was rainy
       Her breasts were breathless in the little room

       Outside the leaves were falling
                            and they cried
                                         Too soon!  too soon!

The great folksinger Pete Seeger will also turn 90 on May 3, and New York City will celebrate him in big style on this date at Madison Square Garden featuring performers like Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Arlo Guthrie, Dave Matthews and John Cougar Mellencamp. That's going to be some hootenanny birthday party. Pete Seeger and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are two American sages, feisty, stubborn and deeply politically engaged. What blacklisted Communist Pete Seeger and embattled Howl publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti had in common is that they both loved to fight for their causes. They both wore out their competition.

It's easy to see these two spirited nonagenarians in a proud American lineage of contrarian anti-conformity, idealism and nature consciousness that includes Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Robert Frost. Long happy lives are their just rewards. Happy birthday to Lawrence Ferlinghetti (today) and Pete Seeger (soon)!

22 Responses to "American Sages: Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Pete Seeger"

by Duncan Brown on

Arthur Miller, Dorothy Parker and Paul Robeson could be worthwhile inclusions in the 'lineage of contrarian anti conformity' of all American counter heroes.
Great to hear Lawrence is still kicking like a mule.

by Dan on

Ferlinghetti has been a hero of mine since I first read Coney Island of the Mind in the sixties. The obscenity trial of Howl resulted in one of several landmark decisions that resulted in the freedom to read and write in this country that we now take for granted.

Congratulations and many more, Larry!

by Tim Barrus on

Although I have come to despise books and most of the people who make them, it used to be a treat to shop at City Lights. Until you submit a manuscript to them (and never, ever, ever send them a blog or the howling will be heard all the way to Coney Island) at which time they will demand to know why you are annoying them and you will be regarded as beneath contempt. Ferlinghetti may not himself be a suit (I am seriously not sure about that). But his publishing staff are publishingsuits from an age no one remembers that is far, far, far older than either Rome or the Beats. In fact, they win the High Snobbery Rudeness and Abuse Award (I was nominated twice) awarded annually by the Arrogant Book Mafia (ABM). The disconnect between Ferlinghetti's public image and his publishing staff of evil old crones is breathtaking. The urban legends that swirl and surround this supposedly hip historical group include such quaint notions as freedom of speech, Charles Bukowski, and crocodiles in the sewers of San Francisco. I know some publishing suits at City Lights I would like to feed them to. Happy birthday. -- Tim Barrus, Amsterdam

by Levi Asher on

Tim, are you going to let Pete Seeger off that easy, or do you have anything for him too?

I've been in a room with L. Ferlinghetti but never met him, and never tried to publish a book with City Lights. I do admire him, though I'm sure with over 50 years in the publishing biz he's probably pissed a lot of people off. He runs a beautiful bookstore, anyway.

by Dan Barth on

Thanks Levi, it has been awhile.

Hey Tim, maybe you're the guy I met on the street before writing this poem.

For the Brown-Haired Brown-Eyed Waitress Who Serves Larry Ferlinghetti His Spaghetti

I met an angry poet on the street,
North Beach, San Francisco.
He had just stolen a book of poems
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
from City Lights Bookstore.
"Yeah," he growled,
"I like to see what the big shots are up to."


After all is said and done, that pennycandy poem is one of the greatest ever!

confection perfection

by dlt on

I sent manuscripts to City Lights in the early eighties. I was in a hurry, thought I wouldn't make thirty (or even twenty-five). I'm glad none of them were published.

Seeger wasn't alone: he didn't like it at 1965 Newport, when Dylan went electric

by TKG on

Pete Seegar. What a creep.

What the bleep does "her breasts were breathless mean?"

Loved City Lights. Spent many hours there in my youth.

Paul Robeson was great. His poor old joe and loch lomand were pure beauty.

I love City Lights bookstore too. It's my favorite place in San Francisco. But it's too damned hot on the top floor where the poetry is. Is it a test or something? 'If you can last in this hothouse room then you are worthy of the poetry.'

by CMDW on

great poem. buddha-smile.

It means when she ran into the store, she was panting from the physical activity, and man, you naturally couldn't look away from that healthy chest moving up and down and I bet she smelled like clean rain, too.

by Steve Plonk on

Happy birthday to both sages: Lawrence Ferlinghetti and in advance to Pete Seeger. My great Aunt and Uncle knew Pete Seeger when they were neighbors briefly in NYC, before he and his oriental wife moved upstate.
I've met Pete Seeger at one of the early Newport festivals and have seen him in concert many times also with Arlo Guthrie. Never met Ferlinghetti, but I have several of his books and enjoy his poetry which is outstanding. I visited City Lights Bookstore once when I was in Frisco in 1972.

by dlt on

The bald
Live long

by catalyst on

Dare I pull an ace from my sleeve, dear db, is that a "true" story!? cool poem.

One of the best things that Pete Seeger was in was a group called the Almanac Singers back in the 40s. The group consisted of Seeger, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, and the one and only Woody Guthrie. I happed to pick up a CD with their stuff on it when I was in Europe. All topical, political, pro-union stuff. Very good. There's a tune on it about union organizing by Seeger called "Talkin' Union" that is pretty good.

Speaking of the Wood-man (Guthrie that is), I was listening to some of his songs the other day and they are ready to be brought out and re-sung today, in light of our problems with the financial sector. This lyric is as true today as it was during the depression: "as I go through this world I see lots of funny men/ some will rob you with a six gun/ and some with a fountain pen", and this one "oh the gamblin' man is rich/while the workin' man is poor/and I ain't got a home in this world anymore."

Happy birthday Ferlinghetti, and happy upcoming birthday Pete! And Woody, wherever you are, god bless you.

by AMD on

So, Tim, do you just cut-and-paste the anti-publishing screeds, or do you actually make them up each and every time? Either way, it's turning into an old song, not terribly well sung.

As opposed to work by either Ferlinghetti or Seeger, both very definitely The Real Thing.

by Duncan Brown on

Of course its true. Would I tell Joe Mccarthy's to you.
(This is a genuine forgery)

by Duncan Brown on

Pete the Paradox could't get off his steam train.
The end of the line was in the 1960's
When everything went electric.
And Pete became famous for being the Newport axeman.

by dlt on

How about Scorcese's Last Waltz, where Ferlinghetti reads his Lord's Prayer?

Seeger's like the character in the Tom Petty--ever hear Johnny Cash's Rick Rubin produced version?--song. He won't Back Down

by Duncan Brown on

Michael McClure reading the Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, was special.

Likewise Janis Joplin singing his 'Mercedez Benz'.

by TKG on

Thanks Bill.

I loved hot dog gum when I was a little boy and this poem is wonderfully American in this way. Everyone's got a little candy store, usually a drug store, they remember best from there youth.

Another thing I'll always remember about Ferlinghetti is that he described Kerouac as "just another stumblebum on the the scene."

That was before Kerouac became bank. I think Ferlyboy has changed his tune since then.

by dlt on

"stumblebum on the scene." I think that was the Rexroth Gallery reading, where Ginsberg KO'd everybody w/ Howl. Kerouac was supposed to read that night but was too frightened, hollering
"Go!" from the audience/chorus, gulping wine/courage

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