The possible Poets Plaza as envisaged by Lawrence Ferlinghetti illustration: Mark Pechenik
In 2004, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, painter, pamphleteer, and bookstore owner, had a poetic vision. He dreamed of creating Poets Plaza, an outdoor urban enclave inspired by the appealing, people-friendly piazzas of Italy – a small public park to grace a short stretch of Vallejo Street in North Beach. And now in 2010, a small group of dedicated San Franciscans is working to turn his vision into reality.
It’s a decidedly secular vision, although Poets Plaza will be anchored at its Columbus Avenue end by the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi built in 1859. At the upper Grant Avenue end is the iconoclastic bohemian coffeehouse Caffe Trieste, which opened in 1953. It’s at Caffe Trieste where Ferlinghetti and several of his Poets Plaza advisory group not only get their morning cappuccinos, but also their news fix on current attitudes and nuances in the North Beach neighborhood.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti speaks with the author
photo: john Perino
On a recent morning, the 91-year-old Ferlinghetti made his usual Trieste stop then walked to City Lights, his landmark bookstore at 261 Columbus – only two short blocks from the site of Poets Plaza. Then, in the hour-and-a-half he allowed this reporter and a photographer, Ferlinghetti riffed on poetry and politics and mused on his lifetime of visions – some realized and some not.
Poets Plaza will cost about $2 million. It is expected the money will be raised by public fundraising efforts. As posted on its website, www.poetsplaza.org, donations to the plaza are tax deductible according to its 501(c) (3), nonprofit status.
Speaking of his brainchild, Ferlinghetti said, “The actual work time on Poets Plaza isn’t rigorous. Most of the groundwork has been done. It could be completed within a year with the right funding. And then he invoked the title of one of his most memorable poems, “I Am Waiting,” which has these lines:
and I am perpetually waiting a rebirth of wonder
It’s a rebirth of the power of poetry that is his vision for Poets Plaza. One might suggest that throughout his long life Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been in the vision business, waiting for one rebirth of wonder after another. He told his visitors: “Streets aren’t necessarily only for cars that pollute the great cities of the world, they are for the social interaction of the people.”
When Poets Plaza is completed, it will honor this American icon, the country’s most famous living poet, and certainly one of its most visionary. By extension, it will also honor the art and craft of poets everywhere and the enduring concept of our Constitution’s First Amendment rights that thrust Ferlinghetti as a poet and publisher into international prominence.
Add to this a testimonial to environmentally desirable open spaces and the very air we breathe. It will give us the chance to celebrate the eventual passing of the internal combustion engine, an idea Ferlinghetti endorses but, to date, one of his unrealized visions.
Dennis Sullivan, prominent San Francisco architect, is the design leader for Poets Plaza and longtime Ferlinghetti friend. Sullivan describes the Plaza as a convivial, traffic free, public gathering place – a small, tree-shaded park, with stone chess tables, park benches, flowering plants, and umbrellas set on a tiled pavement, incised with quotations from poets worldwide.
Ferlinghetti said, “I made up an anthology of quotations we will use from many famous poets: Shakespeare, Shelley, Keats, Walt Whitman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emily Dickinson, Pablo Neruda, and Kenneth Rexroth, as well as the Beat poets, and on down to our poets of today.”
The reporter interrupted Ferlinghetti with the question, “I see you included yourself with a rather unusual quotation.”
Ernest Beyl and Lawrence Ferlinghetti discuss
the future of Poets Plaza
photo: Tom Whelan
“Yes, I included ‘Abandon despair, all ye who enter here,’” he said. “I suppose that’s unusual, especially since one part of Poets Plaza is right in front of the church of St. Francis of Assisi. The reference of course is to Dante: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.’ But we want those who enjoy
Poets Plaza to abandon despair, not hope – hence my quote.”
Looking down the list of Ferlinghetti’s advisory board members, the reporter said, “I note you have a prominent group here that includes Francis Ford Coppola, Jeanette Etheridge of Tosca, your architect friend Dennis Sullivan, attorney Tony Gantner, restaurateur Lorenzo Petroni, and editor-publisher Tom Whelan – all high-profile North Beach neighbors. But what about city government support?”
“Mayor Newsom and the City of San Francisco support our effort, but the City can’t endorse it officially unless it’s secular, nonreligious,” Ferlinghetti said.
Angela Alioto, the prominent San Francisco attorney and former member of the City’s Board of Supervisors, has spearheaded the reconstruction of the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi. That effort has already seen the completion of a porziuncola, a replica of the small chapel where St. Francis took refuge at Assisi in 1226.
Ferlinghetti praised Alioto’s efforts: “Angela joins me in the spirit of Poets Plaza, but she wants to call it the Piazza St. Francis. She’s a St. Francis lover. Well, we are all St. Francis lovers.
“We [more accurately, Ferlinghetti] came up with this whole plan. It wasn’t Angela’s plan at all. As I said, the City can’t endorse our project unless it is secular. The separation of church and state. Remember that?”
Tom Whelan, Poets Plaza advisory board member, who was present at the interview, added: “Initially we called the plaza project the Piazza St. Francis, but as it became so public that it was Lawrence’s vision, and because some confusion grew about any connection to the similarly named church alongside the site, our group realized a change in title was called for. So naturally the project became Poets Plaza.”
Ferlinghetti added: “It happens that our Poets Plaza project fits right into the mayor’s Pavement-to-Parks program, which envisions the immediate closing of some short streets to create mini parks. Dennis Sullivan has come up with a new design for Poets Plaza that is adapted to the mayor’s plan.”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York in 1919. He likes to remind us now: “You know I’m from New York, just out here on a visit. I could go back anytime. It’s only been 52 years.” As a young man he attended the University of North Carolina and graduated with a degree in journalism. During World War II, Ferlinghetti was the Navy skipper of a wooden sub chaser and took part in the invasion of Normandy. Near the war’s end he served as navigator on a troop ship, part of a task force for the invasion of Japan. “Halfway across the Pacific, we heard they dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Then they dropped another on Nagasaki. I went ashore and visited Nagasaki a few weeks after the bombing. Before that I was an all-American boy. I became an instant pacifist.” Peace in our time – certainly an unrealized Ferlinghetti vision.
After military service he received a master’s degree from Columbia University, then went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne where he earned a doctorate with a thesis significantly titled “La Cite Symbole dans la Poésie Moderne: à la Recherche d’une Tradition Métropolitaine” (“The City as a Symbol in Modern Poetry: In Search of a Metropolitan Tradition”).
In 1951, Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco, which reminded him of Mediterranean cities he loved. He took over a studio near the Embarcadero where he could paint. He’s a talented painter whose work has been exhibited in galleries around the world and highly praised.
Two years later, Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin, then publisher of a small literary magazine, founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperback bookshop in the country. After a couple of years, Martin sold his share to Ferlinghetti and went to New York. Within a few more years, City Lights became a veritable clubhouse for writers of the Beat Generation. Today it is probably the most famous bookstore in the world. Not only do locals flock there, but it’s a magnet for baby-boomer tourists and their offspring who read writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William Burroughs, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima and, of course Ferlinghetti, who shuns the idea that he’s a Beat poet. “I never saw myself as a Beat poet. I was in the generation before that. In my generation they called people who led unconventional lives bohemians. When I arrived in San Francisco wearing my French beret after four years in Paris studying on the G.I. Bill, I was a member of the last bohemian generation. Then, when the Beats arrived, the word Beat became the name for this new generation.”
In 1956, City Lights published Ginsberg’s epic poem, “Howl,” number four in its Pocket Poets series. It became a Beat anthem but was deemed obscene by the San Francisco Police Department. Ferlinghetti vigorously defended his right to publish it. A blue-ribbon panel of academics as well as noted San Francisco criminal attorney Jake Ehrlich and the ACLU attorney Al Bendich joined him. It was Bendich who, in an eloquent peroration, cited the free speech amendment to the Constitution that was indisputable.
After a much-publicized trial that was covered internationally, San Francisco Municipal Court ruled in favor of Ferlinghetti and his bookstore manager Shig Murao who had been marched from the store in handcuffs and locked up for actually selling “Howl” to a customer. Judge Clayton Horn, who was also a Sunday school bible instructor, stated in his closing opinion: “In considering material claimed to be obscene, it is well to remember the motto: honi soit qui mal y pense (shame to him who thinks evil thoughts).”
Ferlinghetti has received many honors both here and abroad. He was named San Francisco’s first Poet Laureate in 1998. His Coney Island of the Mind is one of the most popular books of poetry anywhere and has been translated into more than a dozen languages.
Constantly risking absurdity and death whenever he performs above the heads of his audience the poet like an acrobat climbs on rime to a high wire of his own making
These days Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still on a high wire. He’s a populist spokesman with an outsized and righteous sense of justice and fairness. He continues to rail at big government, big business, civil rights abuses, and the act of war as a means of settling international differences – just as he always has. He strides through the streets of North Beach like a colossus. At 91 he still walks tall and straight, his pale blue eyes fixed on another orbit. He has a mesmerizing presence.
A compelling and serious man with a keen wit, he is never so serious as when speaking about his vision for Poets Plaza. “We need angels with golden wings and deep pockets. That’s what I’m waiting for.”
John Perino photographs Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Our cover photograph of Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the site of the future Poets Plaza is by John Perino who has been a photographer in the San Francisco Bay area for more than 30 years. Originally from Milwaukee, Perino studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and has shot photo essays across the world including South America, Cuba, India, Russia, and other parts of Eastern Europe. Recently he relocated his popular Focus Gallery, with its displays of paintings, photography and memorabilia, from Polk Gulch to North Beach. He will exhibit his work in October at the Focus Gallery, 1534 Grant Avenue. To see more of Perino’s work, visit www.focusgallerysf.org
Ernest Beyl is working on a book that profiles the larger-than-life characters that have added vigor to North Beach – including Lawrence Ferlinghetti. E-mail: email@example.com.