Happy 90th birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti
By Bruce Bellingham
This newspaper wants to wish Lawrence Ferlinghetti a happy 90th birthday this March 24. It’s a privilege for these pages to do so.
The good things Lawrence has done for San Francisco are incalculable. He ignited world interest in this town, recreated its literary life, and gave it a sweet insurgent character. He provided a rhythm to the Beats. Never really a so-called Beat, Lawrence Ferlinghetti also found a way, through his business acumen, along with Peter Martin, to start City Lights Books. The store on Columbus draws people from all over the planet who approach the spot as if it were a shrine. Who is not fascinated by the punchy, political messages on the posters along the top floor that face the street? Did Lawrence accrue his public relations savvy from the Vatican, I wonder? It’s startling to see young people grow suddenly reverent and quiet as they enter City Lights. I guess it really is a shrine here in the City of St. Francis. Why not? It was engendered by a real visionary, gentle of spirit, who decries the oppression of innocents, and who was tough enough not to fall into the traps that gobbled up so many men and women of the Beat Generation. (I know Lawrence, David Amram, and others from that era who are around today bristle at that term, Beat.)
Hard to imagine a wild-man poet and painter who issued the warning, “Don’t let that horse eat that violin!” and living amid the feral, licentious cadre of artists during the chilly atmosphere of the 1950s, could actually be a real businessman. Lawrence made the lives of writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac indelible – even legendary. And Mr. Ferlinghetti got arrested for his free speech effort, damn near got sent to prison. Yes, Lawrence was a cool cat who could actually keep his cool. His own book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, changed my life and the lives of many others. It’s a familiar story. I was a high school kid in New Jersey when a copy tumbled into my hands. (A trouble-making English teacher gave it to me. I’ll never thank him enough.) I was stunned. I had no idea that poetry could be this accessible – or could be so funny. It gave me encouragement to write. Well, more precisely, he gave me courage to write – and not be afraid to look ridiculous or be someone “constantly risking absurdity,” as Lawrence said.
It also gave me an insurgent if not ridiculous notion to live in San Francisco one day. That’s when my English teacher tried to talk me out of it. Too late. I was too far gone. Here I am, 39 years later, still here. Still a gone cat. Well, just gone.
When you walk into City Lights today, one of the first things you’ll see near the front door is a rack of books about surrealism. It’s a tabernacle to absurdity. And why not? Like Ferlinghetti’s heroes – Andre Breton, Philippe Soupault, Louis Aragon, and Tristan Tzara – the surrealists were infuriated by the waste and carnage of World War I. Their reaction was to produce outrageousness – bits of incomprehensible words, art that upset the senses of the sensible, even exhibit urinals in galleries. They met craziness with craziness. Or apparent craziness. Lawrence, serving in the U.S. Navy during the subsequent world war – as a lieutenant commander on a sub-chaser at Normandy – was later stationed at Nagasaki just days after the atomic bomb blast. That was enough to sicken him for quite some time. What could be crazier?
Well, the next time could be. The next time an atomic bomb is dropped.
The first time I heard Lawrence’s voice was on an LP, a poem, read in a dry, plaintive, sarcastic tone, a meditation on the Cold War: Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower, published in 1958.
Happily, the last time I heard Mr. Ferlinghetti’s voice was at LaRocca’s corner on Columbus a few months ago, warmly chatting up my brother, Paul. Lawrence, drink in hand, still has that mad gleam in his piercing blue eyes. He’s not crazy. The world is.
The poetic madness, the l’amour fou, and the mischief are still vibrating in Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It always was. In 1998 after he was named San Francisco’s poet laureate, Lawrence wasted no time talking to people like me in the media, whom he calls “the usual unreliable sources.” He took to the position like a duck to water – and started trouble right away. Ferlinghetti called for banning cars in the downtown area, digging up the old creeks and marshes throughout town to “restore the former riparian integrity,” having Coit Tower lean a little bit, – “Look what it did for the city of Pisa” – permitting more “pirate” or underground radio stations and painting the Golden Gate Bridge gold. After all, it is the Golden Gate, right?
Lawrence gave his last public reading at City Lights in November 2007. He read from his latest book – an apparent benediction for those who might still be paying attention – Poetry As Insurgent Art. One hundred people jammed into the store to listen to his advice.
“Speak up. Act out. Silence is complicity,” the poet urged.
“Question everything and everyone, including Socrates, who questioned everything.”… “Secretly liberate any being you see in a cage.”
Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, buon compleanno. We cannot thank you enough.