Lawrence Ferlinghetti Ferlinghetti, Lawrence (Vol. 111)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti 1919–

American poet, novelist, and dramatist.

The following entry presents an overview of Ferlinghetti's career. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 6, 10, and 27.

To fully consider the impact of Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the American literary scene, it is necessary to look beyond Ferlinghetti's writing. As co-owner of the City Lights bookstore and publishing house in San Francisco's Chinatown, Ferlinghetti the publisher and bookseller helped to firmly establish the Beat school of poetry. He became the leading force in developing and publicizing anti-establishment poetry, distributing the works of such writers as Frank O'Hara, Philip Lamantia, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. It was Ferlinghetti's arrest in 1957 on obscenity charges and the subsequent series of trials which brought the Beat movement to the attention of the nation.

Biographical Information

Ferlinghetti was born March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, New York. He received a B.A. in journalism from the University of North Carolina in 1941, a Masters degree from Columbia University in 1948, and a Doctorat de l'Université from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1949. Ferlinghetti served in the naval reserve from 1941 to 1945 and was a Lieutenant Commander during the Normandy invasion. After the war, he worked for Time magazine before attending the Sorbonne. He had two children, Lorenzo and Julie, from his marriage to Selden Kirby-Smith in 1951 (divorced 1976). Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco and taught French from 1951 to 1953. In 1952, along with Peter Martin, he founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperback store in America. In 1955 he established the Pocket Poets Series with the publication of his own collection, Pictures of the Gone World. The fourth volume of the Pocket Poets Series, Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems, led to Ferlinghetti's arrest on charges of publishing obscene material. As a result of the trial publicity, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg became national as well as international figures. Howl had started with a modest printing of 1,500 copies; by the end of the trial, 10,000 copies had been printed. The publicity surrounding City Lights started an explosion of other small radical presses. Lawrence Ferlinghetti also became a public figure through his performance poetry. He and Kenneth Rexroth began a series of poetry readings, accompanied by jazz music, in a San Francisco night club called The Cellar. They felt that jazz, the "outsider music," was an appropriate accompaniment and a viable way of attracting new listeners to poetry. And it was "listeners" they were after: Ferlinghetti repeatedly stated that much of his poetry was designed to be heard, rather than read from the printed page. Yet many critics describe the visual nature of his poems. The broken, fragmentary lines that seem to wander around the page were to many critics as much a part of the poems as the thoughts and feelings they described.

Major Works

Ferlinghetti's first published work, Pictures of the Gone World (1955), is largely composed of poems of lyric observation. "Gone" was the Beat equivalent of "hip" or "groovy," but in the poems it also held onto the meaning of something past. His second and most famous work, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), is more satirical, with a surrealistic air to the wording and mixed-up metaphors: "… drugged store cowboys and las vegas virgins / disowned indians and cinemad matrons / unroman senators and conscientious nonobjectors…." Her (1960), his first novel, is an interior monologue narrated by Andy Raffine. Raffine views himself as fallen and fragmented as a result of becoming an orphan at an early age. He has a vision of himself prior to that event as happy and whole, and seeks to recapture that feeling. As an adult, he has developed a vision of a satisfying relationship that includes a sexual component. But the juxtaposition of the idealized relationship with memories of his mother makes his search...

(The entire section is 20,111 words.)