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.
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.
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.
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."