Lawrence Ferlinghetti Ferlinghetti, Lawrence (Vol. 111) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 for that feeling of emotional and sexual wholeness a situation he finds himself unable to consummate. With ironic symbolism, he dies at the feet of a statue of the Virgin Mary. The poems of Starting from San Francisco (1961) expand on Ferlinghetti's violation of conventional poetic form, following a predominantly oral style. His plays, a number of which are contained in the volumes Unfair Arguments with Existence (1963) and Routines (1964), were surreal, experimental drama, with settings and actions that were more symbolic than representational. The resulting development of a less rational, more intuitive form for seeking the meaning behind life's surface is seen in his verse collection, The Secret Meaning of Things (1969). Ferlinghetti's populist philosophy, his belief that poetry was for the masses, not the hoarded treasure of the academics, led to his publishing in newspapers many of the poems contained in Landscapes of Living and Dying (1979). In his continuing search for a voice that would bring more people back to poetry, many of the poems include references to pop culture in their imagery.

Critical Reception

The critical response to Ferlinghetti's work has been mixed, even within the individual reviews of some critics. In a generally favorable review, John William Corrington describes Ferlinghetti's poetry thus: "… one finds a consistent and subtly developed sense of form based not upon rhetorical devices or repetition, but on the analogies between poetry and painting; on the correspondences between written and graphic style; on the metaphorical and actual unity between major art forms." The poems, he says later, "… function as artifacts to be experienced, to be seen, rather than as verbal cognates for ideas impacted within them." Later in the review, describing Poem I from Pictures of the Gone World, Corrington says, "It is a paean to woman, to unconscious sexuality, to the art of artlessness—but as a vehicle of idea (in the sense, say, that 'Dover Beach' is a vehicle for Matthew Arnold's concepts) the poem would appear insignificant." In Poem 5, Corrington sees a metaphor for Ferlinghetti's poetry: "This figure who has no mouth, who cannot tell, but must show his meaning, is representative of the painter—and, by logical extension, of the poet as well—…." Many critics focus on the visual nature of Ferlinghetti's poetry. James A. Butler describes Ferlinghetti's work as "projective verse," which he defines in the following way: "The syllable, not the foot or meter, is the building block of poetry. The syllables thus do not combine into a foot, but into a line … Meter and rhyme are therefore unimportant in the line length; the line is determined by those places in which the poet takes, and wants the reader to take, a breath." In Ferlinghetti's first novel, Her, themes which recur in most of his major works are already present. Mankind, in Ferlinghetti's world view, is fundamentally self-divided by disunity and limited perception. Gregory Stephenson writes that, "Ferlinghetti's art evolves out of his desire to communicate this vision and to uphold and advocate the cause of unity against disunity, love against power." Ferlinghetti experimented with various ways of communicating this vision, and getting his message to a wider audience. In addition to the poetry readings with jazz accompaniment, he incorporated phrases from other literary works and pop culture images into his poetry. While some critics felt these tactics were effective, others felt it was symptomatic of a lack of invention. Michael Leddy, commenting on the poems of Wild Dreams of a New Beginning, wrote that "Ferlinghetti seems the poetic equivalent of the jazz soloist who, for want of invention, quotes fragments of well-known songs, hoping that the audience will be content to congratulate itself on recognizing the sources." Other critics saw the everyday images in Ferlinghetti's poems as central to his message. Gregory Stephenson, incorporating quotes from "The Great Chinese Dragon" from the collection Starting from San Francisco, says the dragon "… represents 'the force and mystery of life,' the true sight that 'sees the spiritual everywhere translucent in the material world.'" Perhaps what Ferlinghetti wants his reader to do is to see the jazz music and the everyday images and the repetitive references to common culture found in his poems; and then see beyond them to "the spiritual everywhere translucent."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Pictures of the Gone World (poetry) 1955
Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower (poetry) 1958
A Coney Island of the Mind (poetry) 1958
Her (novel) 1960
Berlin (poetry) 1961
Starting from San Francisco (poetry) 1961
Unfair Arguments with Existence (plays) 1963
Routines (play) 1964
To Fuck Is to Love Again (poetry) 1965
After the Cries of the Birds (poetry) 1967
An Eye on the World: Selected Poems (poetry) 1967
The Secret Meaning of Things (poetry) 1969
Tyrannus Nix? (poetry) 1969
Love Is No Stone on the Moon (poetry) 1971
Back Roads to Far Places (poetry) 1972
Open Eye, Open Heart (poetry) 1973
Who Are We Now? (poetry) 1976
Landscapes of Living and Dying (poetry) 1979
Endless Life (poetry) 1981
Wild Dreams of a New Beginning (poetry) 1988
Love in the Days of Rage (novel) 1988
These Are My Rivers (poetry) 1993

John William Corrington (essay date 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Painter's Eye," in Nine Essays in Modern Literature, edited by Donald E. Stanford, Louisiana State University Press, 196 5, pp. 107-16.

[In the following essay, Corrington compares the structure of Ferlinghetti's poems to the style of several modern painters.]

With the gradual ebb of publicity concerning "The Beat Generation," it has become possible, in the last year or so, to read the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti as literature rather than as a portion of an attenuated and faintly ludicrous social documentary. The "Beat" tag, so long an active element, arousing a surprising degree of partisanship among otherwise astute readers,...

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James A. Butler (review date Spring 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Ferlinghetti: Dirty Old Man?," in Renascence, Vol. 8, Spring 1966, pp. 115-23.

[After an analysis of Ferlinghetti's style and subject matter, Butler suggests that Ferlinghetti has the talent and vision to rise above the restrictive label of "beat poet" and become a more "universal" poet.]

The public first began to suspect Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a dirty old man in 1955, when he published through his own City Lights Press his poetic Pictures of the Gone World. This first volume identified Ferlinghetti with the "Beat Generation Poets"—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and others—none of whom a girl could comfortably bring home to meet the...

(The entire section is 3115 words.)

Alex Raksin (review date 4 September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fiction in Brief," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 4, 1988, p. 4.

[In the following review, Raksin provides a plot summary and critique of the novel Love in the Days of Rage.]

The author is perhaps best known as the poet laureate of Beat counterculture—co-founder of City Lights Bookstore and Press in San Francisco, inspiration to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac—but it is his sensitivity as a painter that is most apparent in this original, intense novel. Like a good visual artist, Ferlinghetti plays with light in these pages, contrasting the bright "masculine" daytime world—society, business and politics—with the feminine night, a haven of...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Patrick Burnson (review date Fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Passionate Spring," in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 2, Fall 1988, p. 44.

[Burnson provides a plot summary and favorable review of Love in the Days of Rage.]

When the streets of Paris erupted with student demonstrations twenty years ago, San Francisco poet / publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti began jotting down notes in his expatriate's journal which recorded the events as a painter might view them—impressionistically. It comes as small surprise, then, to observe that his novella should move at the same painterly, unmannered pace. Love in the Days of Rage challenges the reader on several stylistic levels as it attempts to mirror the...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Michael Leddy (review date Autumn 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Wild Dreams of a New Beginning, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 4, Autumn 1989, pp. 683-84.

[In the following review, Leddy criticizes the poetry collection Wild Dreams of a New Beginning for being derivative and unimaginative.]

Wild Dreams of a New Beginning reprints the volumes Who Are We Now? (1976) and Landscapes of Living & Dying (1979). Ferlinghetti's concerns in the poems are as timely now as then. "This must be the end of something / the last days of somebody's empire," he writes in "Director of Alienation," and the poems deal largely with cultural, ecological, and political apocalypse. An...

(The entire section is 399 words.)

Gregory Stephenson (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The 'Spiritual Optics' of Lawrence Ferlinghetti," in The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990, pp. 139-153.

[In the following essay, Stephenson describes the visual imagery recurring in several of Ferlinghetti's poems and plays, and in the novel, Her. He suggests that Ferlinghetti believes man to be fragmented by the opposing forces of love and power.]

The Sun's Light when he unfolds it
Depends on the Organ that beholds it.

"What is Man?"—William Blake


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Tony Curtis (interview date Summer 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in Poetry Review, Vol. 82, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 22-27.

[In the following interview, Curtis and Ferlinghetti discuss a wide range of topics, including the poets Dylan Thomas and Allen Ginsberg, and the status of the anti-war movement.]

[Curtis:] Lawrence, you were last in Wales briefly in 1989 when you were on tour promoting your novel Love in the Days of Rage. But you had a connection with Wales many years before that, didn't you? Weren't you close to us during the war?

[Ferlinghetti:] Well, I was in Plymouth harbor the night before the first day of the Normandy invasion, D-Day, and I was in Milford Haven one...

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Larry Smith (review date September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of "Pictures of the Gone World," in Small Press Review, Vol. 27, No. 9, September 1995, p. 12.

[Smith reviews the revised edition of Pictures of the Gone World, and discusses the impact of Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore and New Directions Paperbacks.]

One of the classics of contemporary small press publishing, Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Pictures Of The Gone World (Revised) is ripe with legend. Just as Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin, his pop culture partner, were able to birth the first American all paperback bookstore in 1953—The City Lights Bookshop—so Ferlinghetti was soon able to send forth the first of City Lights Books in his...

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Further Readings

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jacobson, Dan, "America's 'Angry Young Men,'" Commentary 24, No. 6 (December 1957): 475-9.

A critical survey of the writing of several writers from the Beat movement.

Schwartz, Stephen, "Escapees in paradise: literary life in San Francisco," New Criterion 4, No. 4 (December 1985): 1-5.

Schwartz argues that the Beat movement is highly overrated and more dogmatic than intellectual.

(The entire section is 104 words.)