The poet and author Lawrence Ferlinghetti pictured above was born on March 24, 1919 in 1960
Lawrence Ferlinghetti died in San Francisco. He was 101 years old. Ferlinghetti is probably best known for three things: his beat poetry, his San Francisco bookstore and small press, and his defense of the First Amendment in a famous lawsuit.
His most famous work is a collection of poetry from 1958 called A Coney Island of the Mind. Inside, he compares the horrors depicted in Francisco Goya’s paintings of the Napoleonic Wars in post-war scenes in America.
A Coney Island of the Mind has been translated into nine languages and sold more than a million times. Despite his popularity, Ferlinghetti was never considered to be on par with some of the other beat writers he called his friends – Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg.
A Coney Island of the mind
Although Ferlinghetti grew up in New York, he said he didn’t meet these East Coast writers until he moved to San Francisco and opened his City Lights bookstore.
“A bookstore is a natural place where poets can hang out,” Ferlinghetti said in a 1994 interview. “And they showed up there from the start.”
City Lights became a magnet for intellectuals on the west coast and later a tourist destination.
Ferlinghetti also started a small press called City Lights Books. In the fall of 1956 he published a small 75-cent paperback, the first edition of Howl by Allen Ginsberg.
Howl was a new kind of poetry expressing an undercurrent of discontent in Dwight Eisenhower’s America. It became a hymn for the emerging counterculture.
“Before Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the state of poetry in America is a bit like it is today: poetry about poetry,” said Ferlinghetti in 1994. The 1960s have supplanted the pages of the old music world. “
Howl contained passages describing sex – both between men and women and between two men – and Ferlinghetti was arrested in 1957 for publishing obscene material. At the end of a long federal process, it was found that the poem has a redeeming social meaning and is therefore not obscene.
Literary critic Gerald Nicosia says Ferlinghetti’s two greatest achievements were fighting censorship and initiating a revolution in the petty press.
“Up until that point it was difficult to get published,” says Nicosia. “If you were a radical, innovative writer, you would be rejected by New York, by mainstream publishers. By creating this press from scratch – City Lights Press – he said, you see, you need these big publishers in New.” not York. You can do it and you can get the books out, and not only that, you can make waves. “
Ferlinghetti was always a lawyer for the outsider, also because of his own life story. He was born on March 24, 1919 in Yonkers, NY. His father died shortly before he was born and his mother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital shortly afterwards. He was raised by an aunt and then by foster parents.
Ferlinghetti joined the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served as an officer in Normandy on D-Day and in Nagasaki after the atomic bomb. This experience made him a lifelong pacifist.
After World War II, he received his PhD from Columbia University and his PhD from the Sorbonne. He began writing poetry about America in the 1950s.
Ferlinghetti began his career in a revolutionary era in art and music. In 1994 he still believed that art could make a difference. “I really believe that art is capable of total transformation of the world and life itself,” he said. “And nothing less is really acceptable. I mean, if art is to have an excuse for having to change life itself, in addition to being a recreational class toy.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote and published for more than half a century.