Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti 1919–

American poet, novelist, dramatist, editor, and publisher.

Ferlinghetti was at the forefront of the literary phenomenon of the 1950s known as the Beat Movement. The Beat Movement, which began and was centered in San Francisco, attempted to expand the audience and appreciation of poetry by removing it from the exclusivity of the academic sphere. Ferlinghetti's most important contribution to this movement was his creation of a forum for Beat and other anti-establishment writers. In 1953, he founded City Lights Books in an avantgarde section of San Francisco. City Lights Books, the country's first exclusively paperback bookstore, carried works by counterculture writers that were, for the most part, unavailable elsewhere. In 1955, Ferlinghetti began publishing the City Lights Pocket Series, which included titles by Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsburg, and others. Ferlinghetti's publication of Ginsburg's Howl in 1956 led to an obscenity trial which attracted national attention.

Ferlinghetti's own writing has brought him popular success but a lukewarm critical reception. Like that of other Beat writers, his poetry, which shows the influence of American idiom and jazz, stresses the oral aspects of literature and is written with performance in mind. Some critics have remarked that it is undisciplined and sentimental. Others praise what they see as his honest energy. General critical assessment of Ferlinghetti's writing seems to be that it contributed to the open, vibrant sensibility of the Beat Movement, but that unlike the work of Ginsburg or Kerouac, his writing was not particularly innovative.

Among Ferlinghetti's most important works is A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), his second book, which along with Howl, ranks as one of the most widely known volumes of American poetry published after 1950. In Coney Island, Ferlinghetti speaks of vanishing innocence and political radicalism, themes which become increasingly important in his later books. Ferlinghetti's concern with political issues led him to write about McCarthyism, the Vietnam conflict, and the Kennedy assassinations. The overriding message of his poetry is that he trusts neither the political Left nor Right. To date, Ferlinghetti has written only one novel, entitled Her (1960). It is a surrealistic autobiographical account of the pursuit of a woman who represents all women to the narrator. Because the novel was highly experimental and largely plotless, most critics found it baffling and difficult to appraise. Consequently, little criticism has been written on Her. Ferlinghetti has written two volumes of plays, Unfair Arguments with Existence (1963) and Routines (1964). Strongly influenced by the Theater of the Absurd, Ferlinghetti strives for an improvisational effect in his drama. Ferlinghetti's most recent book is Endless Life: Selected Poems (1981), a collection representing the past twenty-five years of his career as a poet.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 6, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 16.)

Joel Oppenheimer

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["Endless Life" is assembled from Lawrence Ferlinghetti's] own choice of his work from the last 25 years. We can see the range of these poems spread out on the page, and they still hold.

Oh, yes, the influences leap out at you; E. E. Cummings and Kenneth Patchen ring from almost every page. And, fairly early on, when one can imagine Ferlinghetti realizing that all those young people were listening to him, the political rhetoric begins, and rolls on, muddled, to this day. But these are not terrible sins when the poetry sings; indeed, Cummings and Patchen and irate populist litanies might do us a great deal of good now.

In his poems there is also the quick pickup of—and slide away from—literary history, prefiguring a great deal of recent, less well done poeticizing by others. Ferlinghetti's poetic allusions are real parts of his poems and not just in jokes….

One sometimes feels one is on a reading binge with Ferlinghetti, if not just inside his head where the lines he's read roll round. But it is a successful technique and it draws one in, makes one read. (p. 40)

There is [in Ferlinghetti's work],… a legitimate revisionism which is perhaps our best heritage from those raucous days—the poet daring to see a different vision from that which the guardians of culture had allowed us. These days, of course, revisionism is all there is, but then it was a necessary cleansing. Ferlinghetti understood this and did not shirk. The other heritage from those days is a clear, objective eye. This, too, shines in these poems. (pp. 40-1)

Ferlinghetti himself, with his insistence on the "now," probably could not have believed [his] poems would weather so well. It's good to hear the voice still ringing in them. He's been lost a little to us lately; it has been to the academy's advantage to see him merely as a populist phenomenon, and the very poets he bred had been taught by him, and by their times, to ignore their past. One got the image of Ferlinghetti as Anthony Quinn in the film "La Strada," the aging strong man doing the one trick he's mastered.

But, indeed, he'd learned to write poems, in ways that those who see poetry as the province of the few and the educated had never imagined. That strength has turned out to be lasting. The poems have "Endless Life." (p. 41)

Joel Oppenheimer, "Weathered Well," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 1, 1981, pp. 40-1.

John Trimbur

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti, according to his FBI file, is a "Beatnik Rabble Rouser." Now I never thought that the Freedom of Information Act would advance literary studies, but after reading Endless Life, Ferlinghetti's own selection of his poetry from eight books and work in progress, I am reminded of the important conjunction between his poetry and the state. At home in the West Coast anarcho-pacifist tradition of Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen, Ferlinghetti has written over the last quarter century a public poetry to challenge the guardians of the political and social status quo for the souls of his fellow citizens. A rebel rather than a revolutionary, Ferlinghetti has been generous in his support to the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements…. (p. 79)

But Ferlinghetti is more than a political conscience warning his brother and sister poets of unwitting collaboration and guilt by complicity. He is the self-described "Director of Alienation" seeking to coalesce a "collective subjective" of all of us—the "rabble" component of the FBI's equation—who take seriously the Beat generation's resistance to official culture and mores. This "collective subjective," as Ferlinghetti's "Adieu a Charlot (Second Populist Manifesto)" makes clear, comes from the "Little Man in each of us"—Ferlinghetti's identification with Charley Chaplin, the tramp drifting beneath city lights ("blinking in the neon"), entangled in the gears of the modern age. "It's not me It's Them out of step," Ferlinghetti's "Director of Alienation" says, "I came in looking for an angel." Which is hard to find these days, and at some expense to the poet. "Constantly risking absurdity" is the way Ferlinghetti characterizes his mission and the vulnerability of the poet, an acrobat "balancing on eyebeams." The task, Ferlinghetti says in the first "Populist Manifesto," is not to apotheosize alienation in the self-referential, arcane, or occult salvation of "bedroom visionaries and closet agitpropagators." It is to direct that alienation to good use, in order to "speak out / with a new wide-open poetry / with a new commonsensual 'public surface'." Like the French poet Jacques Prevert whose work he translated, Ferlinghetti is most of all a see-er, not a seer, whose call to "open your minds & eyes / with the old visual delight" is counterposed to the private sensibilities of the poetic schools and critics: "Poetry still falls from the skies."

So, the critics have never been particularly kind to Ferlinghetti, most often dismissing him as either sentimental or the literary entrepreneur of the Beat generation—judgments both inadequate and wide of the mark. In reverse order, it needs to be said that Ferlinghetti's City Lights publishing company is not simply a Beat clearinghouse but … has been instrumental in presenting new writing of many strains from many countries to the poetry public…. And then it needs to be said, as the Europeans have always recognized, that Ferlinghetti is a force in American poetry, a revisionist evaluation I think this collection will promote. His poems are strong and clear and deeply felt, inspired by the angel of lucidity…. Sentimentality, finally, is a bad rap, often pinned on poets whose work sells well, as Ferlinghetti's has, blaming the poet for his audience.

Kenneth Rexroth's judgment of the man and his work is a better one. "Many contemporary poets," Rexroth writes, "perhaps the most significant ones, have simply left the society, deserted it as doomed, or already dead. Ferlinghetti is very much inside it. He feels its evils as directed against him; as they say, he takes it personally." Ferlinghetti has risked the "absurdity" of his sentiments and his sanity, the "absurdity" of those who "Awake and walk in the open air." (pp. 79-80)

John Trimbur, in a review of "Endless Life: Selected Poems," in Western American Literature (copyright, 1982, by the Western Literature Association), Vol. XVII, No. 1, May, 1982, pp. 79-80.

Lee Bartlett

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Ferlinghetti has published nine collections of poems, from which Endless Life draws its two-hundred pages. Ferlinghetti obviously thinks of himself as a political poet, in the tradition of the Russian Voznesensky, and as political poets go, he is not bad. Of course, like Lowell, say, or Levertov, he can get a little self-righteous and dull when he gets worked up…. Still, what often saves Ferlinghetti is his light touch, his fine sense of the comic…. (p. 277)

In Endless Life … we can see a distinct change in direction in Ferlinghetti's approach. The early poems (from Pictures of the Gone World and A Coney Island of the Mind), while slightly experimental in the unjustified left margins which we have come to associate with Ferlinghetti's poetry, are essentially traditional lyric poems dealing with the larger subjects: love, death, beauty, time. In other words, the poems often engage suffering ("The World is a Beautiful Place"), but it is a general suffering, a complaint about the human condition. It is not really until the 1968 "Assassination Raga" that many of the poems become occasional pieces dealing with specific political issues. From that point on, from poem to poem (and often within a given poem) Ferlinghetti seems to be at war with himself—is he a lyric poet, an Ausonius transplanted in the New World … with a touch of the wag, or is he a Beat engagé, chasing down men in gray flannel suits? And as with Pablo Neruda (who with Voznesensky ranks high in Ferlinghetti's poetic pantheon), it is when the lyric impulse wins out that he writes poetry we return to. (p. 278)

Lee Bartlett, in a review of "Endless Life," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1982 by Arizona Board of Regents), Vol. 38, No. 3, Autumn, 1982, pp. 277-78.

Larry Smith

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Rarely has any poet's work received such wide popular acceptance and such limited critical appreciation as Lawrence Ferlinghetti's writing. While the public generally views the work as immediate, alive, and relevant, the academic and poet-critic generally attack it as being simplistic, sentimental, undisciplined, and in open violation of the conventional poetic form. Some critics, caught in the quandary of how to respond to the radically new values of this engaged poetry, have sought to detract from the writing by naïvely branding the poet as "one of those spiritual panhandlers" or "an egoistic trifler." Others such as Crale D. Hopkins and Vincent McHugh, who are more in tune with Ferlinghetti's methods and intent, respectively view the writing as "striking, powerful, convincing," and Ferlinghetti as "an original and a natural. A rare conjunction and in light of his astonishing gifts, correspondingly valuable."… Revolutionary in its form as well as its content, Ferlinghetti's writing is a deliberate and open challenge to the status quo of both art and life. As Hopkins points out, it is clearly based on a new definition of the very concept of "poetry." Apocalyptic in its conception, opposed to any traditional veneration of art, it is dedicated to no less than a radically new affirmation of the world and the word. Until we accept the genuine challenge of this poetry and deal with it earnestly and fully, we perpetuate the gap between experimental art and its critical appreciation. We labor in the dark. The existing art forms must bear the attack of experimentation if they are to remain vital. For Ferlinghetti they are clearly humanities which have failed to humanize us, and they are crying for reform. His art is most truly defined then by the protean forms which he has created to fulfill his revolutionary vision. (pp. 75-76)

[Ferlinghetti's] work is generated from the tension between things as they are and as they might become, the basic existential and romantic thrust of the work. He is both the realist and the idealist seeking to engage and regenerate life in his audience. Just as surrealist, expressionist, and naturalist painters have chosen to sacrifice certain "painterly" qualities for the immediacy of their art (the subject to artist to audience bond), so Ferlinghetti's engaged poetry sacrifices certain "poetic" qualities for its direct impact—its movement toward heightened consciousness that leads to action. Yet, while certain conventional poetic values are sacrificed …, not all are abandoned. Rather, they are recast with a more essential and deliberate molding of form to meet the goals of his vision. In fact, what emerges in Ferlighetti's poetry is a more immediate rhetoric of form and function based on both its transparent values of essential action and its inner logic of emotion and thought. He thus develops methods to fulfill his integrated and tripartite vision of an art which is characterized as: 1) authentic—existentially true to the artist's candid sense of life; 2) engaged—grounded in broad and common human experience yet directed towards active transformation; 3) visionary in its pursuit of wonder—the positive potential of human existence…. More than any other contemporary poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti writes truly memorable poetry, poems that lodge themselves in the consciousness of the reader and generate awareness and change. And his writing sings, with the sad and comic music of the streets. (pp. 76-7)

Three of the chief characteristics of Ferlinghetti's poetry—its oral basis, its satiric intent, its development of the authentic voice—are integrally bound. "The breath, response, the personal rhythm of Ferlinghetti's line—the immediacy, the directness of his style as he turns to tell you something. I don't think anyone else has the tone of Ferlinghetti—the flat, dry, laconic and compelling tone-sound of his voice." Samuel Charters locates here the distinctive feature and the united effect of a Ferlinghetti poem in its personal, immediate, and expressive voice. Ferlinghetti creates a contemporary basis for the tradition of the Homeric, Celtic, and Druid minstrels. He becomes the contemporary man of the streets speaking out the truths of common experience, often to the reflective beat of the jazz musician. As much as any poet today he has sought to make poetry and engaging oral art…. (p. 77)

Surveying the gamut of Ferlinghetti's poetry convinces one of his visionary and engaged quest for the authentic. He is the public and personal poet of American consciousness whose work knows no boundaries of nationality or genre. His influences are internationally varied, yet they are directed through his personal dedication toward a common and vital art…. Whether it is in oral, satirical, open, abstract expressionist, surrealistic, filmic, or prose poem form, it is an authentic evolution of life and art reaching into each other. The development of his poetry through his various books and recordings thus provides a revealing summary of his poetic achievement.

Pictures of the Gone World (1955), both derivative and experimental, breaks new ground for what poetry could be while it also begins to build a Ferlinghetti style. Its self-declarative theme and form lay out the groundwork for Ferlinghetti as a writer. The "gone world" theme, a jazzman's analogy to Camus's "Absurd," lies before him, and he is in it and with it. It is reflected in his cultural mirrors, enlarged by his ready allusions, and sharply focused in the poem "26" declaration where he decidedly turns from thoughts of Yeats's Arcady to "all the gone faces / getting off at midtown places." His is to be an art deliberately engaged in life. For precedents in theme and form he has Americans E. E. Cummings and Kenneth Patchen, but more pronounced is the influence of Frenchmen Jacques Prévert, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Blaise Cendrars. He develops his own open-form, abstract expressionist mode while also reaching into speech forms for diction and style. Though some poems go flat from a too prosey form (either from ineptness, experimentation, or engaged stance), the work is an original and solid foundation for his later developments.

His translations of Paroles (1958), which he had been working on for some time, show Ferlinghetti as the perfect translator of Jacques Prévert. His coming to himself as poet, through Prévert, is revealed in their shared themes and forms (street and oral, slangy and surreal, with tones of the murder as well as the joy of life); the work is full of wit and love and caring…. (pp. 136-37)

When selections from Pictures of the Gone World were combined with the poetry-and-jazz experiments "Oral Messages" and the original poems of A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), Ferlinghetti had enlarged his stance and developed major themes of anarchy, mass corruption, engagement, and a belief in the surreality and the wonder of life. It was a revolutionary art of dissent and contemporary application which jointly drew a lyric poetry into new realms of social-and self-expression. It sparkles, sings, goes flat, and generates anger or love out of that flatness as it follows a basic motive of getting down to reality and making of it what we can. The book is a consolidation of themes and methods which brings together the surrealist images of the "Coney Island" poems, the abstract expressionism of the painting analogies (rendered in human effects), the oral style and cultural mirrors of the "Oral Messages," the American sense of Imagism with a Joycean symbolism of subject and form. Loosely, the book forms a type of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Poet of Dissent." There are some classic contemporary statements in this Ferlinghetti's—and possibly America's—most popular book of modern poetry. The work is remarkable for its skill, depth, and daring. (pp. 137-38)

Ferlinghetti's 1961 Starting from San Francisco followed Walt Whitman's lead in journeying outward as a means of expanding yet solidifying a stance. The personal and social involvements are broadened in these bold and bare poems directed toward a new engaged art for a new world…. The poems are direct in their content and in their violation of conventional form. An oral style predominates, often manifested in the deeply ironic voice and in his own heartfelt mixture of radicalism and innocence. The book was first issued with a recording of the poet reading key poems, and the book does contain some important statement poems … and some developments of the analogical method and the prose poem applied to engaged poetics. "Berlin" and "Situation in the West" were added later, rounding the collection to sixteen long poem confrontations which compose themselves in Ferlinghetti's evolving recognition of the evil and death in life.

The Secret Meaning of Things (1968) followed Ferlinghetti's period of experimental drama in the mid-sixties and reflects his stronger attention to irrational and intuitive analogy as a means of suggesting the "secret meaning" behind life's surface. Though the works are provocative, public, and oral, they are also more cosmic in reference, revealing a stronger influence from Buddhist philosophy. Despite the fact that the book appeared during the height of the Vietnam War, the writing is more in touch with life forces, mellowed by his attempt to be at one with his various feelings and places. The vision is both dark and hopeful in such apocalyptic statements as "Assassination Raga," "After the Cries of the Birds," "Moscow in the Wilderness, Segovia in the Snow." These six long poems continue the journey of Starting from San Francisco toward a deeper and clearer understanding in which the poet sees and records "All Too Clearly" the slow eternal progress of civilization.

Open Eye, Open Heart (1973) is Ferlinghetti's largest and most complete collection with material ranging from 1961 to 1973 included under four broad headings: "Open Eye, Open Heart," poems of self and tributes to Patchen, Lawrence, Whitman; "Poems in Transit," journey observations from around the world, including the impressionistic rendering of "Russian Winter Journal" and the surrealistic "Trois Poèmes Spontanés,"; "Public & Political Poems," various dated affirmations and tirades of his basic humanitarian socialist stance applied to new situations—Vietnam, Greece, Spain, and the poor; "American Mantra & Song," American English chants of extreme open statement and lyric form. It is a big book with memorable poems reminiscent of A Coney Island of the Mind, but with a richer feeling and form and a finer, more matured voice. Like his cosmic journey toward understanding, this work contains diversity yet wholeness, held together by a composite of approaches and forms, attitudes and visions—the tried character of his life and its oneness with his art.

Ferlinghetti delineates the territory of his last three books of poetry in his open praise of the conscious and subconscious mind as "Maxims and legends of total reality, echoing and reechoing there,… Visual beatitudes, landscapes of living and dying flashed upon the dark screen."… Who Are We Now? (1976) is a vision of the times translated into image-idea in a mythic earth-self quest. Though the collection is a little uneven, it contains the characteristic mixture of prose poems, tributes, filmic scenes, general views of life, art, politics, and society, and a return to three painting-poems for Gustav Klimt and Monet. It is, however, dominated by the momentous "Populist Manifesto," which contains all the best of Ferlinghetti—his particular angle of vision amidst a stark and dark reality, and all the care and calculation of his oral and rhetorical style. The poem is an explicit and artful delineation of the new essential poetry, a statement and demonstration of his engaged and authentic art.

Northwest Ecolog (1978) takes this urban poet into the wilderness where he is equally at home with earth-life concerns and able to meditate on life and age. It is a fine, mellow book full of quiet beauty and concern using imagist and open-form composition. Nature and consciousness come together in an epiphanous stillness in which the acts of perception and apperception unite. The journal prose and the original sumi drawings reinforce the transparent yet profound approach rendering the book as pure as a stream amidst the ecological destruction of encroaching civilization. The book has a rare wholeness of effect as autobiographical detail achieves universality through the meditative form brought on by a comprehensive consciousness of the ultimate limits of earth and life.

Following his populist directive, Ferlinghetti has published many of the poems in Landscapes of Living and Dying (1979) in newspapers. It too is a more mellowed, aged book, yet alive in its awareness of the times. The mythic reality of life is captured in various forms—the oral street observations of "The Old Italians Dying," the satiric tirade of "Home Home Home," the prose poem tributes of "Look Homeward, Jack," the deep synthesis of political awareness and surrealist image in "White on White," and the many mass culture filmic scenes. Possibly the strongest poem in terms of statement and form is his second populist manifesto, "Adieu A Charlot." Here Ferlinghetti strips away life's false myths (social and artistic) to arrive at the personal and universal myths that have been earned through the authentic. His characteristic engaged voice is heard loud and clear above the din of contemporary poetry and poetics. Through his vision, his ever-widening involvements, and his authentic search, he finds the essential stance and thus molds the creative forms to make him America's most public and personal poet. All of this is borne out in his recent journal poems published as A Trip to Italy and France (1980) and by his self-selected Endless Life: Selected Poems (1981), which is expanded by a third populist manifesto, "Modern Poetry Is Prose (But It Is Saying Plenty)" and by inclusion of a segment from his long work-in-progress, "Endless Life." Ferlinghetti is still very much at large, with us and of us, as he tells us in "Endless Life," "For there is no end to the hopeful choices / still to be chosen … And there is no end / to the doors of perception still to be opened." (pp. 139-42)

Larry Smith, in his Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poet-At-Large (copyright © 1983 by the Board of Trustees, Southern Illinois University; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Southern Illinois University Press, 1983, 232 p.

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