Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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Ferlinghetti, Lawrence 1919(?)–

An American poet, editor, playwright, essayist, novelist, and translator, Ferlinghetti was a leader of the Beat movement and the American poetry revival of the fifties that aimed to bring poetry to a wider reading public. Much of his work is political and satirical, portraying reality as fragmented and protesting violence. Strongly influenced by French existentialism and the surrealists, he has been compared with Jacques Prévert, Paul Eluard, and e.e. cummings. Ferlinghetti's poetry is often improvisational, with the spontaneous quality of jazz. He uses flexible, spoken rhythms, as well as frequent allusions to literature and art. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Jascha Kessler

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Ferlinghetti has always been addicted to spiritual posturings, to invoking the names of the gods, saints and bards in phrases such as Time magazine uses for captions, and to digging their ineffable incarnations in the apparitions of old men and boys, misfits and thugs and flowers and bums. This is San Francisco-style sentimentality, largely his own creation.

He writes merely endless sentences of flat prose, with here and there a Tibetan or Arabic formula, a prayer phrase, and breaks them up into panting lines. Headlines, that is, blown up and made to sound as significant, as portentous as headlines shouted or keened out over a mike in concert with amplified sitars and bongos and young people rocking and whining, delirious with noise and smoke and bemused by the desire to trip along. Public poetry, publicly performed.

Everywhere today the voice of the inauthentic is heard in the land, and Ferlinghetti is its prophet. [The] six poems [in "The Secret Meaning of Things"] wander lonely as a cloud through Boston, San Francisco, Germany and Russia, offering visions reminiscent of the first 15 seconds of TV commercials, before the product comes on, visions of blurbs commented on sententiously by an egotistic trifler, never a phrase or idea or rhythm original with himself.

Jascha Kessler, "Sentimental Trifles in Frisco Vein," in The Los Angeles Times (copyright, 1969, Los Angeles Times; reprinted by permission), July 20, 1969, p. 49.

Crale D. Hopkins

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[Lawrence Ferlinghetti deserves] disentanglement from the old Beat-poet characterization. His poetry cannot be dismissed either as protest polemic or as incoherently personalized lyric. His craftsmanship, thematics, and awareness of the tradition justify a further consideration. (p. 60)

By the time his later works were published, Ferlinghetti had been firmly fixed by and large in the Beat school and received little more individual attention. (p. 61)

The subject of the doctoral thesis Ferlinghetti wrote at the University of Paris was "The Symbolic City in Modern Literature." His poetry reflects this acquaintance with modern European and American literature, and this constitutes the first point at which Ferlinghetti departs from the Beat stereotype…. [In] Ferlinghetti's poetry there is no bitter anti-intellectualism [as some critics found in Beat poetry] but rather a knowledge and appreciation of traditional literary materials which are integrated into his own verse.

A second generalization has it that all Beat literature is either crippled by disengagement and a poverty of feeling…. Ferlinghetti, however, wrote some of the most sensitive lyrics of the last twenty years. In A Coney Island Of The Mind, Poem 19 … is in part a criticism of the usual Beat stance, bemoaning

            this unshaved today
                         with its derisive rooks
          that rise above dry trees
                         and caw and cry
            and question every other
                         spring and thing
                                                    (pp. 61-3)

The first published work, Pictures Of The Gone World , is largely composed of poems of lyric observation. The word "gone" in the title implies in its 50s slang sense that they are "hip" or "groovy" visions of...

(This entire section contains 1429 words.)

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the world, but it also suggests the past, the world that is gone. Thus there is one group of poems that deal with novel insights into the world…. Others are surrealistic portraits, which can be quite penetrating:

Yes Dada would have died for a day like this
                             with its sweet street carnival
     and its too real funeral
               just passing through it
      with its real dead dancer
                         so beautiful and dumb
            in her shroud
            and her last lover lost
         in the unlonely crowd
                           and its dancers darling baby
         about to say Dada
                           and its passing priest
           about to pray
                      and offer his so transcendental
Yes Dada would have loved a day like this
                     with its not so accidental

Characteristically this poem, 23, uses the short broken lines alternatingly to slow the eye and produce a detached ironic effect emphasized by the alliteration and internal rhyme. The poem ends tellingly on the dangling word "analogies," beautifully preceded by "apologies" and the completed multiple rhyme of "transcendental-accidental." These devices, and the puns on Dada, are typical of Ferlinghetti's method in presenting an ironic insight into the incongruities of life. (pp. 65-6)

The poetry of Ferlinghetti's second, and most famous collection, A Coney Island Of The Mind, is more surrealistic and has more satiric social observation. The ultimate surrealist vision of the failed American Dream is in Poem 3 …:

           with its ghost towns and empty Ellis Islands
   and its surrealist landscape of
                                mindless prairies
                                supermarket suburbs
                                steamheated cemeteries
                                cinerama holy days
                                and protesting cathedrals
   a kissproof world of plastic toiletseats tampax and taxis
        drugged store cowboys and las vegas virgins
        disowned indians and cinemad matrons
        unroman senators and conscientious non, objectors
   and all the other fatal shorn-up fragments
   of the immigrant's dream come too true
                     and mislaid
                              among the sunbathers

Some might object that this is not really poetry; it is by any definition an effective piece of work in the Dadaist-surrealist tradition, showing considerable craft. The accuracy of the items heaped together is telling; again, the mocking alliteration (toiletseats tampax and taxis) and the multiple rhyme (prairies-cemeteries) underscore the satire. The puns on drugstore, vestal virgin, and cinema underline the pattern of those lines, which name two merely foolish types (drugstore cowboys and vestal virgins) now become disgusting; then two more, one no longer dignified figure and one never dignified character; then two who are the opposite of two desirable types. The last four lines include an allusion to Eliot (shorn-up fragments) using Eliot's method, which Ferlinghetti does frequently in this collection.

A number of poems take up the theme of illusion and reality—of surrealism itself—and the role of art in that scheme. (p. 67)

Ferlinghetti's last poems on this theme are in Starting From San Francisco. "Flying Out Of It" … is a vision of spinning past heaven among the galaxies: "Death swings / its dumb bell / I'll catch it?… Ah there's a slit / to slither through / into eternity/ … cannot make it / Pied Piper's cave / clangs shut." The abstract diction, cold tone, and short, three or four word triple-spaced lines combine to suggest that the failure to pierce through is due to a lack of that super realism, that mad north of introspection…. ["He" is] a portrait of a prophet of the ultimate reality, the surrealist who has achieved "the mad eye of the fourth person singular." The "fourth person singular" is the position above reality, seeing you, him, and himself also. (pp. 68-9)

Related to reality and the fourth person singular is the problem of love. A great deal of Ferlinghetti's poetry deals with that subject in one way or another, and it early involves the question of reality, the ideal versus the actual…. [In Ferlinghetti's novel Her] the story concerns the inability of the central character to achieve the viewpoint of the "fourth person singular," the position above reality that affords insight. (pp. 69-70)

The person with the viewpoint of the "fourth person singular" realizes that the world is "unreal" because it is not permanent—and there is nothing beyond. The values to be cultivated in this "unreal" world are therefore of paramount importance, love perhaps being the most important. The problem is to realize this and to comprehend love in its fullest sense. (p. 70)

[Most] of Ferlinghetti's poetry is concerned with his perceptions of the "unreal," ephemeral world and the kind of love that he sees as the only salvation. "After the Cries of the Birds" in The Secret Meaning Of Things … is in part an apocalyptic vision of the triumph of that true love. The vehicle for these ideas, the poetry itself, must be viewed in the proper perspective. The more lyrical pieces, such as Poem 20 of A Coney Island Of The Mind, discussed previously, use the traditional devices of rhyme, metrical arrangement, and harmonious alliteration. Rhyme, particularly multiple rhyme, and exaggerated alliteration are employed often in the satirical pieces for mocking and ironic effect. Other than the utilization of these basic poetic effects, though, Ferlinghetti's poetry departs sharply from conventional verse. (p. 72)

Ferlinghetti's poetry receives much of its force from its diction. The more lyrical poems avoid conventional poetic language and use common speech arranged to achieve its effect through unique juxtapositions and striking but hauntingly familiar images. The more declamatory poems mingle bizarre words, vulgar colloquialisms and literary tags to create a surrealistic, multi-dimensional quality: "pantomimic parrots pierrots castrate disaster/ … while cake-walkers and carnival hustlers / all gassed to the gills / strike playbill poses."… Ferlinghetti finally introduces most popular four-letter words into his poetry, carrying Words-worth's dictum to its logical conclusion. It should be said that they are not used for shock value or cheaply, but as they play a part in the day-to-day speech of many people. (pp. 73-4)

This poetry is striking, powerful, and convincing. It cannot be judged by conventional literary standards, however. Whether or not it is indeed poetry can only be answered when a comprehensive definition of that word is agreed upon—a situation not yet achieved. Ferlinghetti's work is not "message" writing, that must have your assent to receive your appreciation. Like all good imaginative writing it is its own justification: the interplay between statement, image and metaphor, surface meaning and plurisignation fuse and become, not state, its meaning.

It should also be realized that a considerable amount of his work is social poetry. While I don't feel that Ferlinghetti sees himself as a prophet, he clearly has an immediate sense of audience that many other modern poets do not….

Ferlinghetti's poetry finally should be seen as a small but significant strain within the contemporary tradition. He shares with the more well-known modern poets a reaction to the "academic" poetry of Eliot and Pound but differs in his radical techniques, language, and social orientation. Many individual poems are valuable and significant achievements and the body of his work as a whole must be recognized for its sincere and sensitive cultural perceptions. (p. 74)

Crale D. Hopkins, "The Poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti: A Reconsideration," in Italian Americana (copyright © 1974 by Ruth Falbo and Richard Gambino), Autumn, 1974, pp. 59-76.

C. R. Metzger

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Ferlinghetti's "Autobiography" [one of seven "oral messages" in A Coney Island of the Mind] is a highly and mockingly-learned riddle poem…. [It] is a witty testament to Ferlinghetti's seriously held poetic faith….

[One] cannot fully appreciate the poem without knowing that Ferlinghetti has written a "pied" or medley poem after the riddling manner of the ancient Celtic unofficial bards or minstrels, and that it contains allusions not only to ancient Celtic poetic history, but also to even more ancient pre-Cymric, old-Goidelic, myth. These are suggested by the presence of individual lines in Ferlinghetti's poem which are taken exactly from English translations of three ancient Celtic riddle poems. These three poems are 1) the Hanes Taliesen (The Tale of Taliesin), 2) the Câd Goddeu (The Battle of the Trees), and 3) the Song of Amergin. (p. 25)

[It is necessary] to explain what these lines "plagiarized" from translations of three ancient Celtic poems are doing in Ferlinghetti's "Autobiography," a poem presumably, and indeed actually, about Ferlinghetti himself, as person, and as poet. I suggest that the explanation lies in the nature and circumstances of these three ancient poems themselves, more particularly as they relate to the bardic tradition of thirteenth century Wales, and to the antecedent traditions of Celtic bards in the sixth century, and beyond that to the tradition of the Druid-Bards, or Derwyddvierdd, and to the Beirdd, who preceded them, dating back as far as 1268 B.C. …, and more than likely to some time anterior even to that date. (pp. 26-7)

[His] reference … to Joyce's "silence, exile, and cunning" is not only appropriate to a description of a portion of his own life, but also suggestive of the cunning and secretive nature of his own poem, as well as the similar nature of the Song of Amergin from which he does pirate. (p. 28)

It so happens that Ferlinghetti's "Autobiography" demonstrates [the] kind of deliberately pied, riddling poetry which [Robert Graves describes in The White Goddess]. It demonstrates equally the kind of poetry which the Druid in the envoi at the beginning of the Song of Amergin called for: cunning, incantatory, extensively learned, mocking, and crystal clear to sufficiently well educated fellow poets. The crystal is no less clear, one might add, for having been cut with many facets; it merely reflects more light, more images. (p. 30)

Ferlinghetti's poem reads most richly and waggishly comprehensible when read in terms of Graves' White Goddess….

[Of] the eighteen or more writers that Ferlinghetti either quotes, paraphrases, or alludes to in his 302 line poem (all but three are poets), the one poet that Ferlinghetti refers to most often, although never directly by name, is the thirteenth century Welsh bard whom Graves calls Gwion. It is to this Gwion that Graves ascribes the authorship of the versions of the Câd Goddeu and the Hanes Taliesin that appear in the Romance of Taliesin. And it is this Gwion whose lines, translated into English, appear in Ferlinghetti's poem. (p. 31)

Ferlighetti identifies with this eponymous and Protean "Gwion-Taliesin." To remain ignorant of this identification is to run the serious risk of misunderstanding not only what the "Autobiography" is all about, but who the speaker is in that poem—the I who has "been leading a quiet life," who has "ridden boxcars, boxcars, boxcars," who is "a tear of the sun," who was "in Asia with Noah in the Ark."

Graves' Gwion, the poet that Ferlinghetti alludes to most heavily (excepting possibly Graves himself), is actually a composite of persons, all quite "real," but in different and complementary ways. First of all Graves' Gwion was an historical person or persons who wrote the thirteenth century poems contained in the Romance of Taliesin. Graves argues, from internal evidence, that this same poet wrote both the Hanes Talieslin and the Câd Goddeu. He argues further that it is this poet, or at least poets like him, that Phylip Brydydd (c. 1220-30 A. D.) referred to in describing a controversy between himself and "certain vulgar rymsters."… These rymsters, he charged, "had no honor," i.e., (says Graves) "did not belong to the privileged class of Cymric freemen from which the court bards were chosen, but were unendowed minstrels."… (pp. 31-2)

This thirteenth century controversy between Graves' Gwion, or poets like him, and Phylip Brydydd, and official poets such as he, is important to readers who would clearly understand Ferlinghetti's "Autobiography" because it is one of at least four poetic controversies (or battles) suggested by the lines pirated from ancient Welsh poetry and pied into Ferlinghetti's poem. (p. 32)

The last and most recent of these controversies, I suggest, is that celebrated in Ferlinghetti's own poem, "Autobiography." It is the controversy between the author and other true poets like himself, on the one hand, including ancient partially mythical, eponymous poets such as Graves' Gwion (the thirteenth century opponent of Brydydd), including the sixth century Gwion, Elphin's bard (the opponent of King Maelgwin's bards), including Gwydion ap Dôn (the opponent of King Anwn), all these at least, not to mention more recent poets such as John Keats, Matthew Arnold, Walt Whitman, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and Robert Graves—all of these true poets, ancient as well as modern, standing in opposition to craven, sycophantic and ignorant academic, i.e., official poets in general. (p. 33)

Graves' Gwion, from whom Ferlinghetti quotes, and in whose voice he speaks part of the time at least, is simply one of the latter-day thirteenth century versions of the bard as priest-hero of poetry. And Ferlinghetti himself, I suggest, is a more recent version or incarnation of this Gwion—he in company with fellow true poets such as Eliot, Williams, Ginsberg, and Graves, among others. (pp. 34-5)

[Ferlinghetti's allusions to Graves are] at least as significant to our understanding of Ferlinghetti's deeply held poetic faith as are his direct quotations from the poetry of the various Gwions-Taliesin.

Graves asserts that the true poets' sole mission in life is to celebrate through inspired and often riddling poetry, the true source of inspiration as well as death, the White Goddess, who according to pre-Christian Celtic religions is at once the mother, the lover, and the layer out of the corpse of true poets. She is the ultimate source of both inspiration and death. She is the night-mare whose nest is strewn with the bones and entrails of poets. She is Ceridwen in the Tale of Taliesin. She is at once Diana, Artemis, the Sow Goddess, the Mare Goddess, the three witches in Macbeth; she is at once mother, nymph, and hag. In her more attractive form she is the lady without mercy; she has yellow hair, a chalk-white face, lips like rowan berries.

One might reasonably expect, in view of what I have been arguing heretofore, to find reference to her in Ferlinghetti's "Autobiography." And it is there. (pp. 38-9)

One has reason to suspect that Ferlinghetti's references earlier in his poem to the Laughing Woman at Luna Park …, to the Venus Aphrodite, to the siren singing at One Fifth Avenue, suggest versions of his muse. It is the White Goddess, I suggest further …, who appears in the Statue of Saint Francis poem in the same collection with "Autobiography." It is she, I suggest further, who is the principal object, if not subject, of Ferlinghetti's novel Her. (p. 39)

Ferlinghetti adds in Her that the poetic imagination is begotten and inspired by Her, his version of the White Goddess, in Ferlinghetti's case by his mother, his phantasy lover, and the crone selling coquelicots, ultimately the layer out of his corpse. (p. 40)

In the "Autobiography" Ferlinghetti's assertion of the secret meaning of the poem, of his role as a latter day Gwion-Taliesin, of his avowed worship of the White Goddess, is guarded, hidden, and disguised by the pieing into the poëm, along with the lines taken from Graves' Gwion, apparently superficial and gratuitous pirating of lines from, as well as references to, relatively recent writers such as Words-worth, Keats, Matthew Arnold, Browning, Yeats, Joyce, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Twain, Wolfe, Hart, Crane, Pound, Hemingway, and Eliot, among others.

These writers to whom Ferlinghetti alludes in one way or another have in common with Ferlinghetti and Graves' Gwion-Taliesin one important thing—they have been all, I suggest, during at least part of their careers true poets. To my knowledge Ferlinghetti never alludes to an academician-poet teaching in a university, sitting in an endowed chair. (pp. 40-1)

C. R. Metzger, "Lawrence Ferlinghetti as Elphin's Bard," in The Midwest Quarterly (copyright, 1974, by The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas State College of Pittsburg), Autumn, 1974, pp. 25-41.

Michael Skau

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In his prose volume, Her, Lawrence Ferlinghetti explores the dynamics of artistic consciousness and control. He posits as his protagonist Andy Raffine, who is seeking his own unique identity, symbolized by his search for the enigmatic "her" of the title. His quest is frustrated by his reluctant recognition of his role as a fictional character and by his vulnerability to the forces of illusion. In addition, Ferlinghetti allows the relationship between the author and his creation to image his view of the relationship between God and man. (p. 40)

Her focuses on the interrelationship of three figures—the author; a theoretically unique and autonomous literary character; and the hybrid character resulting from the imposition of the author's experiences, fantasies, and language on the "pure" character…. The pattern of Ferlinghetti's approach closely resembles Robbe-Grillet's description of his own literary technique: "Not only is it a man who, in my novels for instance, describes everything, but it is the least neutral, the least impartial of men: always engaged, on the contrary, in an emotional adventure of the most obsessive kind, to the point of often distorting his vision and of producing imaginings close to delirium." Raffine is in precisely this delirious stage, occupying a carrefour where reality and illusion intersect and impinge on one another. Manifestations of fantasy and actuality become devices used by Ferlinghetti to explore and delineate a conceptualized reality. Deliberately elongated prose-rhythms and hypnotic dream-sequences are placed in sharp, contrasting juxtaposition with abruptly banal statements. Cinematic figures of speech also function to emphasize the indeterminacy of a chiaroscurist world. In addition, Her is seeded with images of a static, frozen world, as though actions were caught at a still moment, the time-suspended world of a painting or a photograph.

Given the complexity of Ferlinghetti's purpose, the reader may often be confused about the identity of the speaker as Her progresses. Ferlinghetti confronts such possible response by incorporating the confusion itself into the texture of his work: he allows Raffine to question whether the character's role in the plot and action is one of participant or audience. Since the central issues of Her involve artistic creation, many of the arts are called upon to provide imagery illustrating Raffine's uncertainty. He repeatedly finds himself unable to determine whether, to use his own cinematic image, he is an actor playing a role in a movie or simply a member of the audience watching the movie. Indeed, he suspects that he is continually shifting between these positions. Similarly, Raffine suggests that he may be an extra or a member of the audience who wanders onstage and perhaps becomes part of a dramatic production…. The arts of painting and sculpture also provide appropriate images of identity confusion. (pp. 40-1)

The artistic images appearing most frequently in Her spring from literature. The language, action, and emphasis of much of the last two sections of the book reflect off a cento passage derived from a prose work by H. D., Palimpsest, principally the first story, "Hipparchia: War Rome (circa 75 B.C.)," portraying a woman named Hipparchia, whom Marius, her lover, feels may be "after all, a creature entirely of his imagining." The very image of a palimpsest is, of course, valuable to the focus in Her on how the author writes over his fictional character: Raffine at one point characterizes every human being as "a perambulant palimpsest."… In addition, Ferlinghetti provides numerous allusions and parodies of familiar passages from famous writers. The parodies, together with the numerous examples of paronomasia, offer evidence of verbal sabotage. Word associations, Joycean multilingual puns, Dylan-Thomas-like word harmonies, and sight-and-sound puns abound in Her, providing continual proof of liberated fancy and the associational capacity of the human imagination. Raffine sees the verbal medium as one of the chief factors in the creation of illusion and attacks its undermining effect: "words, in their quest for Attic verity, were the real destroyers, the real preventers, each a little fence."… (p. 42)

Her confronts the problem of illusion at another remove: Raffine, who rebels against imagination, is himself a creation of the imagination…. The tension that Her portrays is between autonomous self-depiction by the created character and creative invention springing from the author's own experiences. Raffine cries out desperately for autonomous purity, while recognizing his dilemma as "the same creepy nowhere hero making his mushy exiled rounds the same walking cliche never able to break away into the free air of underivative creation."… With eminent clarity, he identifies his function as that of a "poupee interieure" … but refuses to surrender to that state. Instead, he struggles against associations, misapprehensions, and stylized behavior…. Her thus begins to comment on itself and its own creative elements. The illusion of unique creativity is punctured by the barbs of realistic execution. (pp. 42-3)

Woman is both antagonist and ideal for [Raffine], because he realizes that the phantom figure of "her" is largely a product of his imagination, "capable of stretching into any form I imagined."… "Her" encompasses all women: mother, the Virgin, Dante's Beatrice, Helen, Mona Lisa, and Heidi, as well as all those encountered in the past, present, and future, with "the various women I've known all adding up to flash in a composite image all leading up to this moment in some lost connection with this Virgin's place."… Thus, while Raffine passionately pleads for his own independent identity, his associational eye deprives the entire female sex of precisely that uniqueness. Crucially, Raffine's view of women characterizes them all indistinguishably as incomplete, unfinished, uncommitted, and unawakened. (p. 44)

Raffine's quest for "her" is symbolic of his search for his own completed self. What he finally craves is synthesis of the elements of his character…. Raffine turns from flesh to spirit, from corporal concerns to ideational ones. Throughout Her, he seeks to free himself from his cumbersome body…. Flesh represents for him the form of illusion which masks or distorts reality, "the fleshpaint skin I hid in like painters hiding behind their paint, authors behind their words."… Liberation from the flesh, then, would parallel liberation from the word, which Raffine can achieve only when freed from the novelist's control, at the conclusion of the novel…. (pp. 44-5)

In the final section of Her, the relationship between the author and his character reveals itself as emblematic of more than literary concern. Religious imagery asserts itself…. Raffine's rebellion thus takes on the dimension of man's revolt against control by his Creator, in Whose likeness he is fashioned. The narrative voice would seem at this point to return to Ferlinghetti himself, rebelling against the chains of humanity and mortality. The rebellion is, of course, fruitless, as hopeless as Raffine's revolt against his author. Reluctantly, Raffine finally adjusts to his literary essence…. He recognizes "this site of myself made into the reassuring form of a story" … and submits to being caught by God.

Ferlinghetti's Her provides an exploration of life and letters on several different levels. The relationship between the author, frustrated in his attempt at autobiography, and his created character, prevented from asserting a measure of autonomous independence, symbolizes Ferlinghetti's view of the human predicament. He shows man as the inadvertent operator of the machinery of associations, frustrated in his attempts at "underivative creation." As victim of the illusions generated by those associations, man becomes a helpless puppet, energized by cliches and uncontrollable, repetitious behavior. Finally, the latter circumstance is used to portray man's helplessness in the hands of his Creator, with questionable free will and limited spontaneity, destined to re-enact perpetually the eternal movie of man in this world. (p. 45)

Michael Skau, "Toward Underivative Creation: Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 'Her'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1978), Vol. XIX, No. 3, 1978, pp. 40-6.




Ferlinghetti, Lawrence (Vol. 111)