Lawrence Ferlinghetti Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

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).


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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...

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The 1960’s

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

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...

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Later Life

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

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.


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

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.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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 entire section is 512 words.)