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Early in his career, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (fur-lihng-GEHT-ee) was very much interested in the French Symbolist poets, and in 1958, City Lights published his first and only translation of French poetry: Selections from “Paroles” by Jacques Prévert. His translations of pieces by an Italian poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, appeared in 1986 as Roman Poems. He has also translated poetry by Nicanor Parra in Antipoems: New and Selected (1985) and by Homero Aridjis in Eyes to See Otherwise (2002). Ferlinghetti has primarily published poetry in book form, although, in addition to having written many critical and review articles that have appeared in both magazines and newspapers, he has produced a variety of works including novels, travel writing, political writing, drawings, and plays. Ferlinghetti’s work crosses genre boundaries, and some of his prose works—like the novel Her (1960) and the travel journal The Mexican Night (1970)—sound so much like his poetry that it is questionable whether one should actually call them prose. He published another novel, Love in the Days of Rage, in 1988 and two commentaries on poetry, What Is Poetry? (2000) and Poetry as Insurgent Art (2007), the latter consisting of thoughts on poetry written over more than fifty years.
Ferlinghetti’s two plays, Unfair Arguments with Existence and Routines, were published by New Directions in 1963 and 1964, respectively. His interest in the theater and oral poetry led to various filmings and recordings of his readings. The two best-known performances of Ferlinghetti, “Tyrannus Nix?” and “Assassination Raga,” are preserved in both film and audio recording. Leaves of Life: Drawing from the Model (1983) is a collection of his drawings, as is his Life Studies, Life Stories: Eighty Works in Paper (2003).
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In 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti first received national attention as a result of the “Howl” obscenity trial. At that time, Ferlinghetti was recognized not as a poet but as the publisher and distributor of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and Other Poems (1956). After winning the controversial trial, Ferlinghetti received enough attention to boost his own collection of poems, A Coney Island of the Mind, into a best-seller position. His name became strongly associated with the new, or Beat, poetry being developed on the West Coast, and Ferlinghetti became recognized as a poet of movements and protests.
Often being antigovernment in his responses, Ferlinghetti has gone so far as refusing to accept government grants for either his own writing or the City Lights publishing house. Nevertheless, he received a National Book Award nomination in 1970 for The Secret Meaning of Things, the Library Journal Notable Book of 1979 citation for Landscapes of Living and Dying in 1980, and Silver Medals for poetry from the Commonwealth Club of California for Over All the Obscene Boundaries in 1984 and for A Far Rockaway of the Heart in 1997. In 1977, the city of San Francisco paid tribute to Ferlinghetti by honoring him at the Civic Art Festival—the first time a poet was so recognized. The City of Rome awarded him a poetry prize in 1993, and San Francisco not only named a street in his honor in 1994 but also named him the city’s first poet laureate in 1998. The poet was presented the Fred Cody Award for lifetime achievement in 1996 and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1999. In 2000, Ferlinghetti was a joint winner, with film critic Pauline Kael, of the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement. Furthermore, in 2001, City Lights Bookseller and Publishers was designated an official landmark. He has continued to be recognized through a wide range of awards, including the Robert Kirsch Award for body of work from the Los Angeles Times (2000), the PEN Center West Literary Award for lifetime achievement (2002), the Frost Medal (2003), the Northern California Book Award in poetry (2004) for Americus, Book I, the Association of American Publishers Award for creative publishing (2005), and the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation (2005) for outstanding service to the American literary community.
Ferlinghetti is noted for the many public readings he has given in support of free speech, nuclear disarmament, antiwhaling, and other causes. Often overlooked by critics, Ferlinghetti has remained an active voice speaking for the American people against many institutions and practices—government, corporate, and social alike—that limit individual freedom; he stands out as a poet and a true individual.
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By the early 1960’s, Ferlinghetti had become recognized as a powerful voice for the burgeoning counterculture. His ability to combine a hip stance—knowing, skeptical, secretly idealistic—with strong political convictions and a flair for the romantic lyric gave his work an accessibility and appeal that went beyond that of both academic poets limited by their adherence to traditional conventions and other contemporaries who were pushing the boundaries of language beyond the reach of a general literate audience. In 1961, he published Starting from San Francisco, a volume containing fourteen poems that took as a general theme Ferlinghetti’s journeys to Latin America and Cuba and across the United States. Using surreal images to emphasize the disjunction between the “America” he admired and the political currents he blamed for its decline, Ferlinghetti continued his amalgam of the personal and the political. The concluding poem, “One Thousand Fearful Words for Fidel Castro,” deftly described U.S. foreign policy in mocking, ironic terms while taking the edge off the potentially (and prophetically) tragic consequences of an imperialist vision by placing the poem in the context of a man musing in a saloon “among the salami sandwiches and spittoons.”
Ferlinghetti remained active as a leading publisher of some of his most prominent contemporaries (Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac) at City Lights Books during the early 1960’s, writing almost no poetry himself, but his predilection for political statements led to a prose poem, “Telegram from Spain,” in 1965 in which he vigorously attacked Francisco Franco, the longtime fascist dictator of Spain. His travels in Europe that year also resulted in a poem, “Kyrie Eleison Kerista or The Situation in the West, Followed by a Holy Proposal,” which linked explicit sexuality with a sort of spiritual enlightenment and which he read at the Albert Hall Festival in London, and a poetic tribute to an admired old master, “Pound at Spoleto,” an homage to the invention and maverick style of the controversial Ezra Pound.
During the second half of the decade, Ferlinghetti was actively involved in numerous meetings and demonstrations directed against the U.S. government’s escalation of the war in Vietnam, reading the prose poem “Where Is Vietnam?” at Reed College in March, 1966, and writing two poems, “Santa Rita Blues” and “Salute” about his incarceration after an antiwar demonstration in Oakland in December. Like many other artists during the 1960’s, Ferlinghetti experimented with psychedelic drugs as a means of promoting creativity, an experience he explored in “After the Cries of Birds,” and he continued to record his impressions of his extensive travels in poems such as “Moscow in the Wilderness, Segovia in the Snow.” The terrible violence that wracked the United States in 1968 led to “Assassination Raga,” an attempt to offer a life-affirming song in the face of tragedy. That poem, along with the nine-part “The Canticle of Jack Kerouac” and other work concerned with travel, politics, visionary experience, and the use of musical phrasing (as in “Big Sur Sun Sutra”) was collected in The Secret Meaning of Things (1968), Ferlinghetti’s second major book of the decade. His last significant work in the 1960’s was “Tyrannus Nix,” a scathing attack against President Richard M. Nixon that Ferlinghetti described as a “populist hymn” in the spirit of poets Carl Sandburg or Vachel Lindsay.
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Ferlinghetti continued as an influential poet and publisher through the last decades of the twentieth century. His later works such as Starting from Far Rockaway (1997) continued to find an audience.
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The notoriety of the Beat poets during the 1960’s was instrumental in an alteration in the public’s perception of the poet. Ferlinghetti’s employment of an accessible vernacular both codified and created the so-called “Beat” style and voice, which was widely parodied and copied. The inclusion of a record with Ferlinghetti reading his works in the first, oversized edition of Starting from San Francisco (1961) helped to encourage the idea that poetry was an aural experience akin to jazz. By the end of the twentieth century, A Coney Island of the Mind had sold more than one million copies.
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Cherkovski, Neeli. Ferlinghetti: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. Reviews the wrenching dislocations of Ferlinghetti’s childhood, his stint in the U.S. Navy, his studies at Columbia and in Paris, and the development of his artistic and political commitments, always emphasizing the theme of the poet’s search for a self. Cherkovski’s writing style is uninspired, but the book still manages to provide much information that will be of interest to students of Ferlinghetti. Illustrated with photographs. Provides a primary and a secondary bibliography; indexed.
Felver, Christopher. Ferlinghetti Portrait. Salt Lake City, Utah: Gibbs Smith, 1998. Primarily a pictoral work with some poetry. Contains Ferlinghetti’s autobiographical poem.
Kherdian, David. Six Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance: Portraits and Checklists. Fresno, Calif.: Giligia Press, 1967. Kherdian provides a bio-bibliography of six poets operating in the San Francisco area in the 1960’s. Chief among them is Ferlinghetti, who operates the City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco, which continues to be a mecca for readers seeking foreign or avant-garde literature. For all students.
Kush, S. S., videographer and ed. Ferlinghetti, City Lights, and the Beats in San Francisco: From the Margins to the Mainstream. Video. 5 cassettes. San Francisco: Cloud House Poetry Archives, 1996. Ferlinghetti’s life as a publisher of the Beats, younger writers influenced by the Beat movement, and a lecture by Ferlinghetti. Nine hours covering a key period in the history of twentieth century American poetry and one of its major avatars.
Meltzer, David. The San Francisco Poets. New York: Ballantine Books, 1971. Meltzer provides interviews with six modern poets whose vision is curiously shaped by their avant-garde life in San Francisco. A must for any student of the San Francisco poetry movement of the 1960’s. Includes a bibliography.
Silesky, Barry. Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Time. New York: Warner Books, 1990. A chatty biography, written with the informality and punchiness of a popular-magazine article. Based on extensive interviews with Ferlinghetti and his associates. Silesky leaves critical appraisal of the poetry to numerous poets and critics interviewed in the book’s final chapter; they include Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Paul Carroll, Ralph Mills, Diane Wakoski, and Gary Snyder. Features a selected bibliography, an index, and photographs.
Skau, Michael. “Constantly Risking Absurdity”: Essays on the Writings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1989. A brief monograph, illustrated, on Ferlinghetti’s works.
Smith, Larry R. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poet-at-Large. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. This well-written book has one particularly interesting feature: a multicolumned chronology that parallels events in Ferlinghetti’s personal life, his writing achievements, and City Lights publishing history. After presenting a “biographic portrait,” Smith argues that Ferlinghetti is best placed within a European rather than American literary tradition. Smith provides a thoughtful treatment of Ferlinghetti’s poetic themes and devices, and surveys the prose writings and drama as well. Contains photographs, notes, a selected bibliography, and an index.
Stephenson, Gregory. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Contains the chapter “The ‘Spiritual Optics’ of Lawrence Ferlinghetti,” which offers a general view of Ferlinghetti’s writings.