PARADIGM SHIFTING: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Life in the Trenches of Poetry

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti. | Colorized photo portrait.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s storied life came to an end Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, at the notable age of 101. I was blessed to interview him in advance of a reading he gave in Charleston WV in 1995, giving me an opening to insert a bunch of his poetry into the pages of the Charleston Gazette. (Still surprised they let me get away with it.) A version of this profile first appeared in the Gazette in March, 1995, and later in the limited-edition chapbook “In Search of Eros: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ron Whitehead, William Plumley and Douglas Imbrogno” (White Fields Press, Louisville, KE, 1995. Chapbook Series #56). In re-reading this piece, I am struck by how pertinent his insights are to this day, including his prescience about “the revenge of the white man.” Witness the foresight a quarter-century ago about the Republican party’s mission to unravel the New Deal: “It’s been their enemy since the 1930s.” NOTE: I scooped up uncredited shots of Lawrence from around the web. If one belongs to you, let me know and I will properly credit it!

By Douglas John Imbrogno

IF LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI sticks to his professed daily schedule, then someone calling him at 9:30 a.m. in San Fransisco interrupts a poet on the job. “I paint from noon to midnight,’ he says. “Midnight to noon the next day I’m writing poetry.”

And sleep?

“I don’t sleep,’ says Ferlinghetti. “That’s out.”

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic Western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world
safe for anarchy
and I am waiting for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder.

— excerpt from “I Am Waiting’ (1958)

The stream flows on

Mention Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s name and someone will instantly mention the Beat movement in American literature more than 30 years ago. A Ferlinghetti poetry reading and art show in Charleston, West Virginia in Winter 1995, is billed as “The University of Charleston presents ‘And the Beat Plays On.’

Yet in his 76 years, Ferlinghetti has written 12 books of poetry and several novels and plays. He is an accomplished painter, translator and publisher. He wasn’t even one of the original Beat crowd, who counted among their number such literary lights as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso.

Still, it’s OK to yoke his name to an era 30 years old. Beat writing isn’t a “movement” dried up and done with, but a stream that flows on, says Ferlinghetti. “Most of them are still alive and writing. Most of the Beat writers still writing are still the only rebellion around.”

Consider the national resurgence of Beat-style live poetry readings, on MTV, in poetry CDs such as Maggie Estep’s “No More Mister Nice Girl,” and in the nationwide “poetry slam” movement. “It’s a continuation of what the Beats started in poetry and jazz,” Ferlinghetti says. “I don’t see much difference, except the participants are even more alienated than they were back then.”

A Kleenex in a canyon?

Lawrence Ferlinghetti. | Colorized photo portrait.

Yet I recall what a college professor of mine said after he’d published a poetry book. Producing a new book of poems, my professor mused, “has all the impact of a Kleenex tossed into the Grand Canyon.” I pitch a variation of this gallows poet humor to Ferlinghetti, who founded San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, which publishes many other poets.

What impact can a poet hope to have when so few of the nation’s millions read poetry?

“What do you mean so few people read it?” Ferlinghetti says, his voice rising a notch on the Celsius scale. “Every time journalists call me up that’s what they say. One reason people say that is that so few newspapers run it. City Lights stocks one of the largest poetry collections in the country. We have the inventory on computer, we can track how many books of poetry we sell per month. It’s an enormous quantity.”

Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, the first all-paperback bookstore in America, was the epicenter of the Beat era at its outset.

That’s true, too. For all the reports of the death of writing and culture in the late 20th century, new poetry books sent out by publishers land regularly on bookshelves and in the book review mailbox of newspapers and magazines. And despite his wry comment, my college poetry professor poured a lot of work, and a lot of himself, into his book of Kleenex before he pitched it into the canyon.

You can be sure the poet milled about the edge listening for sounds afterward.

The little airplanes of the heart
with their brave little propellers
What can they do
against the winds of darkness
even as butterflies are beaten back
by hurricanes
yet do not die
They lie in wait wherever
they can hide and hang
their fine wings folded
and when the killer-wind dies
they flutter forth again
into the new-blown light
live as leaves.

— “Sandinista Avioncitos” (1989)

The only rebellion

Ferlinghetti’s City Lights in San Francisco helped launch the reputation and books of many a Beat writer. | John O’Hara photograph, San Francisco Chronicle

The phrase “the only rebellion around” was first coined by Time magazine in 1956. A Time staffer employed it to describe Beat writers after publication of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” led to obscenity charges. The publisher? Ferlinghetti and City Lights, the first all-paperback bookstore in America and the epicenter of the Beat era at its outset.

“I wasn’t one of the original Beats. I became associated with them by publishing them,” says Ferlinghetti. If he was ever behind the parade, he caught up quick. His first self-published poetry book, “Pictures of the Gone World” (1955), was followed by “Coney Island of the Mind” (1958). That second book has been called a modern classic, translated into nine languages with more than 750,000 copies now in print.

When I am old
will they accept what I say
as the absolute truth

and call me Maestro
and pin the cross of light on me
And if they do, oh if they do
will it have been worth it after all

— excerpt “One of These Days’ (1993)

What to do with dominant paradigms

“This is not a man” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
from the Fine Arts Museums of San Fransisco website

Kerouac, front man for the Beat generation, died at age 47 in 1969, though his legend and influence barrels onward. Ginsberg has been canonized as a sort of latter-day Walt Whitman and poetic shaman. Snyder, Corso, William Burroughs and other Beat generation writers continue to write.

And “Ferlinghetti, Lawrence” is almost a full column listing in the Encyclopedia Britannica. The anonymous writer of the entry makes a game attempt to define the headlong, unfettered, wide-eyed mystical enthusiasm that charged Beat writers, who “rejected the formal and academic writing then prevalent for work that reflected immediacy of experience and feeling — fragmentary or contradictory though it might be.”

Kerouac’s listing nails the feeling a bit better.

His entry mentions the cross-country jaunts that led to his famous book “On the Road.” These were trips made “by a number of penniless people who are in love with life, beauty, jazz, sex, drugs, speed and mysticism, but have absolute contempt for alarm clocks, timetables, road maps, mortgages, pensions and all traditional American rewards for industry.”

One might also add to the Beat modus operandi a mission to “to subvert the dominant paradigm.” That line pops up in Ferlinghetti’s poetry and in descriptions of his life’s work, both written and otherwise.

Booklist once dubbed Ferlinghetti “one of our ageless radicals and true bards.”

A 1993 oil painting from his “Sing Sing Series” shows a prisoner strapped into an electric chair, black hood over his head, awaiting execution in a country where the death penalty is back with a popular vengeance. The painting’s caption reads: “This is not a man.”

In his widely distributed poem “Buddha in the Woodpile,” Ferlinghetti laments what might have happened if wisdom and compassion (“just one Taoist/just one Zen/just one Thomas Merton Trappist…”) had been in the arsenal wielded by security forces at the Branch Davidians‘ cult complex in Waco, Texas in 1993. Instead, the bristling, massed forces of the State lit a match beneath that tinderbox.

The poem was an attempt to point out “an alternative paradigm,” Ferlinghetti says. “The whole mass media of the country was reporting practically total agreement with government action. There was not one paper that published anything giving the point of view I gave in this poem, it seemed to me.”

Ageless radical

Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights in 2007 (photo from

Charlestonians can wish him a belated happy birthday when they see Ferlinghetti, although he says there’s uncertainly about his exact place and date of birth (“probably b. March 24, 1919 Yonkers, N.Y.,” says Britannica). Ferlinghetti’s father died before he was born, his mother landed in a mental hospital, and he went to France to live with a female relative, where he was raised. They came back and lived on a Long Island estate, where his relative worked as a governess.

He later served as a U.S. naval officer during World War II, and earned degrees at the University of North Carolina, Columbia University, and a doctorate at the Sorbonne in 1951. He has written poems in French, Italian and Spanish, and is multilingual enough to be interviewed in Italian a few months ago.

And, yes, now that he is older he has been called a “maestro.” Booklist has dubbed him “one of our ageless radicals and true bards.” For the ageless radical, the answer comes quick when asked what he thinks about the Republican takeover of Congress and the “Contract With America.” Is this just a cyclical turning in American politics?

“It’s sick all right,” he responds. “It’s the revenge of the white man. That’s what the Republican program is. What’s never mentioned is that the real enemy of the Republicans is the New Deal. It’s the New Deal they’re dismantling. It’s been their enemy since the 1930s.”

Charged with meaning

Speaking of enemies, aren’t they lined up against poetry itself in the soundbite era, when no TV camera shot lingers more than five seconds before shifting restlessly in search of a more exciting image? Yet though teen-age drive-by shooters and morose Gen X clerks get all the press, there still exists the breed of young person who sat behind me at Ferlinghetti’s reading, finishing the poet’s most famous lines even as he uttered them.

Ferlinghetti’s poetry collection, “The Secret Meaning of Things.”

What’s the eternal appeal of sparse lines of words sprinkled on a page? Ezra Pound once remarked: “Great literature is language charged with meaning to the utmost degree.” That lands close to poetry’s insistent appeal, language burned down to the choicest, freshest, most meaningful words and imagery. No excess, none of the white noise, the blather that routinely passes for communication.

Equally important, the poet serves the role of the fisherman, writes Ferlinghetti in his poem “Poet as Fisherman,” one who can read the weather before the rest of the world knows it’s coming:

the sky is clear to the fisherman

even if overcast
He sees it for what it is:
a mirror of the sea
about to fall on him
in his wood boat on the dark horizon
We have to think of him as the poet
forever face to face with old reality
where no birds fly before the storm
And he knows what’s coming down
before the dawn
and he’s his own best lookout
listening for the sound of the universe

and singing out his sightings
of the land of the living

— excerpt from “Poet As Fisherman’ (1988)


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