‘The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it’, declared Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 2007, writing in the poem ‘Poetry as Insurgent Art [I am signalling you through the flames]’:
‘If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the/ challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding/ apocalyptic.’
Ferlinghetti – who died two days ago aged 101 – certainly created many works of poetry, painting, fiction and more, which answered this radical call to art, sounding both apocalyptic and hopeful, and embodying the anti-establishment spirit that he would maintain through his life.
Born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919, Ferlinghetti would become famous for helping to launch the so-called Beat Generation during the 1950s and for founding the City Lights bookshop in San Francisco. Raised by his aunt, Ferlinghetti had been a journalist, served in the US Navy during World War II, and met his future wife Selden Kirby-Smith, before publishing his debut poetry collection Pictures of the Gone World in 1955 and his most popular collection A Coney Island of the Mind in 1958.
the birds which flew about calling to each other in the stilly air as if they were questioning existence or trying to recall something forgotten
So popular has this second volume proven to be, in fact, that Robert Woodward commented in 2008: “With roughly a million copies in print, few poetry collections come anywhere close to matching its readership.” Compared to Walt Whitman, Ezra Pound and William Blake, Ferlinghetti established his most familiar style in A Coney Island of the Mind which mixes the spiritual and the sensual, with a painter’s eye for the surreal and visionary. In ‘A Coney island of the Mind, 13’, Ferlinghetti begins to
paint a different kind of Paradiso in which the people would be naked as they always are …
but there would be no anxious angels telling them how heaven is the perfect picture of a monarchy and there would be no fires burning in the hellish holes below in which I might have stepped nor any alters in the sky except fountains of imagination
Here, in this reimagining of heaven, Ferlinghetti express the philosophical anarchism he would maintain through his life by shunning the hierarchy of divine beings, of reward and punishment, in favour of the “fountains of imagination” which informed his own work, and those of his contemporary artistic world.
One important figure of this world was poet Allen Ginsberg. Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg’s glorious epic poem Howl in 1956, and was promptly arrested along with Ginsberg, and the manager of City lights, Shigeyoshi Murao. Deemed obscene by the San Francisco police, the long and fraught trial that followed focused on the poem’s depictions of homosexuality (which was not decriminalised in California until 1976) and illicit drug use, of course (rather than the ecstatic beauty and linguistic innovation of its famously long lines). Eventually deemed “not obscene”, Howl would form a landmark case when California State Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn decided that the poem was of “redeeming social importance”.
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night
Often regarded as a straight-forward Beat artist himself, Ferlinghetti was keen to distance his work from that of his contemporaries and friends such as Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, shucking off any adherence to artistic movements, and favouring a focus on the socially and politically conscious nature of his work.
While known predominantly as a poet, Ferlinghetti had his paintings displayed across the US for over sixty years, which continued his anti-establishment explorations of corporate greed, social justice, immigration, and revolution.
Living in San Francisco until his death, Ferlinghetti remained a popular figure in City Lights and the local area, and many locals are known to happily recall stories of their time spent with him. He is survived by two children, and his legacy remains in the prolific range of poetry and paintings that he left behind, as well as the generations of artists who take influence from them.
Joe Norman, Library Assistant at Manor Farm Library, is a professional nerd and hairless headbanger.