CITY LIGHTS DIMMED
Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti has just joined the rest of sometime during eternity, and died a month short of his 102nd birthday. A contemporary of Burroughs and Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti served in the Navy during World War Two. In 1953, he found City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, an independent store that pushed local authors and progressive politics. In 1957, he became publisher of Allen Ginsburg’s superb Howl, and was subsequently put on trial for obscenity! This was after an undercover police office bought a book in broad daylight – this was before the famous Chatterley Case in the UK, so we can’t even throw stones here. Maybe it was the Underwear. Lawrence Ferlinghetti defended himself on account of publishing works of social importance and won.
Ferlinghetti responded by publishing his first collection of his own poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, which sold over a million copies. He wrote poetry to be read aloud in time to jazz musicians, and was, as he later noted, reassuringly anti-establishment! Ferlinghetti himself however didn’t view himself as one of the Beat poets, more a publisher of Beat poets who wrote poetry. Literature public opinion on that one has sided against him. A self-confessed anarchist, he opposed the Vietnam War, and campaigned successfully to open a boulevard (Octavia) in place of a freeway after the San Francisco Earthquake.
A lifelong opponent of totalitarianism, Ferlinghetti was still writing poetry into his late 90s. In Trump’s Trojan Horse in 2017, he wrote that:
Homer didn’t live long enough
To tell of Trump’s White House
Which is his Trojan horse
From which all the President’s men
Burst out to destroy democracy
And install corporations
As absolute rulers of the world…
So you can probably guess his views on the Donald. He won the Robert Frost Memorial Medal, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2003. Two teams have followed his advice to bust the status quo by nabbing points here: Feng Shui Pig, and Old People Party of 20. He renamed a street after his friend, Jack Kerouac, after the latter’s death. San Francisco has now named a street in the memory of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
His dog once pissed on a cop’s leg, too. Although he didn’t mind the police – after all, in his own words, their attempts to prosecute him over Howl had done a better job advertising the book than he ever could!
24 March 1919 – 22 February 2021