Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died last month just 30 days shy of his 102nd birthday, lived a life of fascinating contradictions. From a Dickensian childhood — his father died before he was born, and his mother was institutionalized when he was only two years old — Ferlinghetti eventually landed with wealthy foster parents who nurtured his love of literature and art. He was a World War II naval officer who went to Normandy on D-Day and Nagasaki six weeks after the atomic blast, but was forever afterwards dedicated to anti-war writing, activism, and publishing. He was a counterculture icon whose sartorial style included button-down shirts and a bowler hat; and an Ivy League-educated intellectual who wrote poetry that was intentionally populist, in the truest sense of that word: written for the many rather than the few.
But one contradiction stands above the rest. The man who cofounded City Lights bookstore and press and wrote the million-selling poetry collection Coney Island of the Mind, a seminal text in the Beat canon alongside classics like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, did not consider himself a Beat. As he told an interviewer in the 2013 documentary Ferlinghetti, “I never was a Beat. It wasn’t until City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 that the Beats arrived.”
Ferlinghetti famously overcame obscenity charges after publishing Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems when the Supreme Court acknowledged the book’s “redeeming social value.” The ruling has provided context for First Amendment battles ever since — from Vladimir Nabokov to N.W.A — and attracted left-leaning writers, musicians, and young people to San Francisco in droves. Today, although Ferlinghetti is justly praised for helping the Beat Generation and hippie counterculture find a place to thrive, that legacy has overshadowed his reputation as a writer.
Sixty-five years since Howl, the muscular Beat and Beat-influenced style of the young writers Ferlinghetti published — like Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Diane DiPrima — remains a staple of lit classes and anthologies, while Ferlinghetti gets less credit for his gentle manifestoes (“The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it. / If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic,” he wrote in “Poetry as Insurgent Art [I am signaling you through the flames]”).
While Ginsberg’s long-lined, incantatory declarations spotlight the speaker and require impressive lung power, Ferlinghetti’s jazz-inspired poems read like a conversation, leaving plenty of space to breathe and reflect. They invite the listener to respond. No wonder, then, that his work is beloved by so many musicians, who considered him both an influence and a peer.
David Amram, the genre-crossing multi-instrumentalist and composer of film scores including The Manchurian Candidate and Splendor in the Grass, was a longtime friend and collaborator of Ferlinghetti’s. In 1995, Amram composed and played music to accompany Ferlinghetti’s new project, a recording of his earliest book, Pictures of the Gone World.
“Playing with Lawrence, you couldn’t go wrong,” Amram tells Rolling Stone. “In all of Lawrence’s poetry, he manages to put it in the context of telling a story, so that you feel he is speaking to you in the poem. And then of course like great music of all genres, it not only tells a story, but you see how the story is told. And when you look at his work, it seems deceptively simple, but actually, when you read it yourself, you can read it over and over, like hearing Beethoven or Charlie Parker, and you see that there’s something else there — a sense of structure and time and pace.”
Amram, a key innovator in adding instrumentation to the genre of “jazz poetry” in performances with Jack Kerouac dating back to the 1950s, described his collaboration with Ferlinghetti this way: “The good thing about Lawrence is, he was able to approach it spontaneously, and allow me to try to do my best. I think he knew I was going to try to do something that would hopefully fit into his poem and leave space — rather than having music grinding away as if you were in an elevator or supermarket, trying to have it on occasion and having it be something that would be part of the whole story.”
Over the years, Ferlinghetti shared the stage with other musicians including The Grateful Dead at 1967’s legendary “Human Be-In” in Golden Gate Park, ushering in San Francisco’s Summer of Love, and he performed in Martin Scorsese’s concert film The Last Waltz (1978). When the Bay Area festival Litquake presented Ferlinghetti with its Barbary Coast Award in 2010, Patti Smith, Steve Earle, and Tom Waits all showed up to play. Waits even set a section of Coney Island of the Mind to music — a moment surreptitiously captured by an audience member and shared on YouTube.
Ferlinghetti’s penchant for bringing diverse voices and causes together is most clearly expressed by City Lights. The wedge-shaped store at the corner of Columbus Avenue and Broadway, on the southern edge of North Beach where it crosses paths with Chinatown and the Financial District, was intersectional long before that term had arrived at its current meaning, and it remains a magnet for aspiring writers, tourists, and progressive thinkers from around the world as well as just across the bridge.
As a teenager and aspiring writer growing up in a working-class East Bay suburb in the mid-1990s, I would escape to San Francisco every weekend, taking the commuter train that runs under the bay, exiting at the Powell Street BART Station, and walking uphill to City Lights Bookstore — choosing to spend what little cash I had on books instead of cable car fares. I would trudge up the old wooden stairs to the Poetry Room in the garret, filled wall to wall with pocketbooks, hand-stitched chapbooks, and hefty tomes, sitting for hours in the room’s comfy chairs, pausing to peer out the window at neighboring fire escapes and laundry lines. Twenty years before my first book of poems was published, City Lights was my first creative writing course.
One weekend in 1994 during one of my uphill walks, by pure chance I saw Lawrence Ferlinghetti. City officials, tourists, and literati had gathered at the dedication ceremony for the newly named Via Ferlinghetti, a quaint alleyway near the store. In my memory, the audience was handed Xeroxed lyrics to the song “San Francisco,” and we were all asked by the emcee to sing along (“San Francisco, open your Golden Gate / You’ll let no stranger wait outside your door”). It seemed corny to me at the time, but in hindsight, it was appropriate for a celebration of the man who had inspired so many young people to move there, and who was an outspoken advocate for open borders and immigrants’ rights. In fact, the only migrants Ferlinghetti decried were those who came to San Francisco not with flowers in their hair but “bags full of cash and no manners,” pricing out poets, artists, and low-income residents.
Ferlinghetti remained incisive and prescient to the end, as witnessed by new generations of readers and writers. As poet and journalist Emily Sernaker has observed, “Ferlinghetti knows how to press pause and let a moment ring. This lesson feels especially relevant to our moment: that it’s possible to be both a frustrated activist and a joyful human being.” One of his last poems, published in The Nation in 2017, was about Donald Trump. In it, Ferlinghetti imagines a “Trojan horse / From which all the President’s men / Burst out to destroy democracy.”
It saddens me to think of Ferlinghetti surviving the Trump term only to die just 32 days into a new presidency. But then, Ferlinghetti never looked to new administrations for comfort — he wrote poems criticizing international policies under Eisenhower, Nixon, Clinton, and Obama alike. The man of many contradictions, who refused to be categorized as a Beat or be cowed by the threat of imprisonment, would certainly not have slowed down for Biden. He would have read the room, given us all a moment to breathe, then started creating new music.