Authors: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American poet and publisher of the Beat generation

March 24, 1919

Yonkers, New York

Biography

Though not usually associated with the beginnings of the Beat Generation in New York City following World War II, Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti is a central figure in the Beat literary movement of the 1950’s. The nucleus of this movement was constituted by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, and to this nucleus Ferlinghetti added his own force, energy, spirit, and determination. Ferlinghetti’s industry as a writer, his inventiveness in combining poetry and jazz, his success in establishing the first bookstore to sell only paperbacks, and his uncompromising efforts in publishing works that tested the limits of law and social acceptance make him not only an important figure in the bohemian struggle but also a major figure in twentieth-century literature.

Ferlinghetti’s father died before the birth of his son, and shortly afterward his mother entered a state hospital, leaving five sons in desperate circumstances. Ferlinghetti’s maternal grand-aunt, Emily Mendes-Monsanto, took Lawrence with her to France for five years, but after her return to New York her marital situation made it necessary for her to place him temporarily in an orphanage. Seven months later she reclaimed him and helped arrange for his upbringing and education with the help of two affluent families.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

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By Gianpiero Actis (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

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Christopher Michel [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1933 Ferlinghetti began high school at Mount Hermon, a private school in Massachusetts, where his interest in Thomas Wolfe developed. In 1937 he began college at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where the program made it possible for him to meet such renowned artists as Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay. After a four-year tour in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Ferlinghetti began life in New York City, studying for a master’s degree at Columbia University and mixing with intellectuals in Greenwich Village. In 1947 he went to Paris, and in 1949 he completed a doctoral degree at the Sorbonne. Around this time, he wed Selden Kirby-Smith; they had two children, before divorcing in 1973. In the early 1950’s Ferlinghetti and his wife settled in San Francisco, where he struggled to find artistic direction. His friendships with Kenneth Rexroth and Peter Martin led him in the direction of writing, bookselling, and publishing.

In 1955 Ferlinghetti launched the Pocket Poets series with his own poetry collection Pictures of the Gone World. The poems reveal sophistication and surreal sensuality, but they also address the quiet struggle of ordinary people. Ferlinghetti shows freedom in the way he distributes lines on the page, and he is inventive with word play and rhyme.

The Pocket Poets series continued with works by Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen, but the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and Other Poems (1956) following the famous reading at the Six Gallery in 1955 brought Ferlinghetti’s press to national attention. Ginsberg’s book faced problems with U.S. Customs when an edition printed in England arrived in San Francisco in 1957, and problems continued when the San Francisco Police arrested Ferlinghetti and his partner, charging that they had published an obscene book. The American Civil Liberties Union, which defended Howl, and Other Poems, brought many recognized artists and literary authorities to testify to the poem’s merit and worth. The court’s decision vindicated Ferlinghetti, and when the Beat movement consequently became associated with freedom of expression, Ferlinghetti was acknowledged as a key player in the achievement of that freedom.

A Coney Island of the Mind became Ferlinghetti’s most perennially popular book. The volume includes poems selected from Pictures of the Gone World and a special series of poems intended for oral presentation with jazz accompaniment. The title poems represent what Ferlinghetti calls “a kind of circus of the soul.” The voice in these poems is personal and richly allusive, yet the poems also reveal surrealism and social commentary.

Although A Coney Island of the Mind is Ferlinghetti’s most enduring work, his novels, plays, poetry, travel journals, and other writings demonstrate his continuing productivity. These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955-1993 reveals his characteristic combination of old and new work in successive publications. In a 2015 interview, the ninety-six-year-old Ferlinghetti said he was working on an ongoing stream-of-consciousness novel that might never be completed.

Overall, Ferlinghetti’s work is inventively lucid, delightfully humorous, and subtly persuasive. An effective presenter of his work, he often does readings, as well as exhibiting his expressionist paintings.

Over the years, Ferlinghetti has been recognized for his contributions to literature, both through his writing and his publishing. In 1998, Ferlinghetti was named the first poet laureate of the city of San Francisco. He has also received an Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Book Critics Circle, the 2003 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, and the 2005 Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation, among others. In 2012, Ferlinghetti initially accepted but eventually declined the 2012 inaugural Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize because it was partially funded by the Hungarian government, which he sees as oppressive.

Author Works Poetry: Pictures of the Gone World, 1955, revised 1995 (with 18 new poems) A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958 Starting from San Francisco, 1961 An Eye on the World: Selected Poems, 1967 The Secret Meaning of Things, 1969 Tyrannus Nix?, 1969 Back Roads to Far Places, 1971 Open Eye, Open Heart, 1973 Who Are We Now?, 1976 Landscapes of Living and Dying, 1979 A Trip to Italy and France, 1981 Endless Life: Selected Poems, 1981 Over All the Obscene Boundaries: European Poems and Transitions, 1984 These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955-1993, 1993 A Far Rockaway of the Heart, 1997 San Francisco Poems, 1998 How to Paint Sunlight: Lyric Poems and Others, 1997-2000, 2001 Back Roads to Far Places after Basho, 2003 (art by Stephanie Peek) Americus: Book I, 2004 Time of Useful Consciousness, 2012 (Americus: Book II) Blasts Cries Laughter, 2014 Shards: Fragments of Verses by Lorenzo Chiera, 2015 (with Massimiliano Chiamenti) Long Fiction: Her, 1960 Love in the Days of Rage, 1988 Drama: Unfair Arguments with Existence, pb. 1963 Routines, pb. 1964 Nonfiction: The Mexican Night, 1970 Literary San Francisco: A Pictorial History from Its Beginnings to the Present Day, 1980 (with Nancy J. Peters) Leaves of Life: Drawing from the Model, 1983 Poetry as Insurgent Art, 2007 (rpt. as What Is Poetry?, 2010) I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997, 2015 (Bill Morgan, editor) Writing across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010, 2015 (Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson, editors) Translations: Selections from “Paroles” by Jacques Prévert, 1958 Roman Poems, 1988 Edited Text: City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology, 2015 (60th anniversary edition) Bibliography Cherkovski, Neeli. Ferlinghetti: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Reviews the wrenching dislocations of Ferlinghetti’s childhood, his stint in the U.S. Navy, his studies at Columbia and in Paris, and the development of his artistic and political commitments, always emphasizing the theme of the poet’s search for a self. Cherkovski’s writing style is uninspired, but the book still manages to provide much information that will be of interest to students of Ferlinghetti. Illustrated with photographs. Provides a primary and a secondary bibliography; indexed. Felver, Christopher. Ferlinghetti Portrait. Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1998. Primarily a pictorial work with some poetry. Contains Ferlinghetti’s autobiographical poem. Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. "Lawrence Ferlinghetti." Interview by Christopher Bollen. Interview, vol. 42, no. 9, Dec. 2012–Jan. 2013, pp. 66–155. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rch&AN=84396879&site=eds-live. Accessed 7 Apr. 2017. Covers City Lights' history, the origin of Time of Useful Consciousness, Ferlinghetti's politics, the Howl trial, the Beats' substance use, and changes in the book industry. Gonzales, Richard. "At 96, Poet and Beat Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti Isn't Done yet." Morning Edition, NPR, 11 June 2015. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rch&AN=6XN201506111004&site=eds-live. Accessed 7 Apr. 2017. Mentions Ferlinghetti's unpublished novel, pacifism, and works then being published. Kherdian, David. Six Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance: Portraits and Checklists. Fresno, Calif.: Giligia Press, 1967. Kherdian provides a bio-bibliography of six poets operating in the San Francisco area in the 1960’s. Chief among them is Ferlinghetti, who operates the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, which continues to be a mecca for readers seeking foreign or avant-garde literature. For all students. Kush, S. S., videographer and ed. Ferlinghetti, City Lights, and the Beats in San Francisco: From the Margins to the Mainstream. Video. 5 cassettes. San Francisco: Cloud House Poetry Archives, 1996. Ferlinghetti’s life as a publisher of the Beats, younger writers influenced by the Beat movement, and a lecture by Ferlinghetti. Nine hours covering a key period in the history of twentieth century American poetry and one of its major avatars. Meltzer, David. The San Francisco Poets. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971. Meltzer provides interviews with six modern poets whose vision is curiously shaped by their avant-garde life in San Francisco. A must for any student of the San Francisco poetry movement of the 1960’s. Includes a bibliography. Silesky, Barry. Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Time. New York: Warner Books, 1990. A chatty biography, written with the informality and punchiness of a popular-magazine article. Based on extensive interviews with Ferlinghetti and his associates. Silesky leaves critical appraisal of the poetry to numerous poets and critics interviewed in the book’s final chapter; they include Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Paul Carroll, Ralph Mills, Diane Wakoski, and Gary Snyder. Features a selected bibliography, an index, and photographs. Skau, Michael. “Constantly Risking Absurdity”: Essays on the Writings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1989. A brief monograph, illustrated, on Ferlinghetti’s works. Smith, Larry R. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poet-at-Large. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. This well-written book has one particularly interesting feature: a multicolumned chronology that parallels events in Ferlinghetti’s personal life, his writing achievements, and City Lights publishing history. After presenting a “biographic portrait,” Smith argues that Ferlinghetti is best placed within a European rather than American literary tradition. Smith provides a thoughtful treatment of Ferlinghetti’s poetic themes and devices, and surveys the prose writings and drama as well. Contains photographs, notes, a selected bibliography, and an index. Stephenson, Gregory. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Contains the chapter “The ‘Spiritual Optics’ of Lawrence Ferlinghetti,” which offers a general view of Ferlinghetti’s writings.

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