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Poet, City Lights bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti dies at 101

He published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” for which he was arrested on obscenity charges, and was a central figure in the literary life of San Francisco.
Author Lawrence Ferlinghetti recites a poem after he was awarded the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community at the National Book Awards in New York, on Nov. 16, 2005. Ferlinghetti, a poet, publisher and bookseller, has died in San Francisco at age 101. His son says Ferlinghetti died at home on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021.
Author Lawrence Ferlinghetti recites a poem after he was awarded the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community at the National Book Awards in New York, on Nov. 16, 2005. Ferlinghetti, a poet, publisher and bookseller, has died in San Francisco at age 101. His son says Ferlinghetti died at home on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. [ HENNY RAY ABRAMS | AP ]
Published Feb. 23
Updated Feb. 24

Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the San Francisco poet, publisher and bookseller who played a leading role in West Coast literary history as a champion of Beat writer Allen Ginsberg and co-founder of the legendary City Lights bookstore, has died at his Bay Area home.

Ferlinghetti died Monday evening, according to Starr Sutherland, a friend who is working on a documentary on the fabled bookstore. The cause was interstitial lung disease, his son Lorenzo told the Washington Post. Ferlinghetti was 101.

Ferlinghetti and a partner launched City Lights as the country’s first all-paperback bookstore in 1953, when Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and other East Coast Beats began adding their woolly voices to the literary renaissance unfolding in San Francisco.

The bookshop — renowned for its bohemian atmosphere and vast collections of international poetry, fiction, progressive political journals and magazines — soon spawned a literary press, which in 1956 published Ginsberg’s controversial epic poem, Howl.

Ferlinghetti stood trial for selling Howl in a precedent-setting First Amendment case, in which the judge found that Ginsberg’s profanity-laced work had “redeeming social significance” and therefore was not obscene. The victory paved the way for publication of other controversial works of literature, including D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.

Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg became famous, as did City Lights, still going strong in San Francisco’s North Beach district more than a half-century later.

In the decades since, Ferlinghetti established himself as a prolific poet with strong populist underpinnings. The author of more than 30 books, he is best known for A Coney Island of the Mind, a collection of poems that has sold 1 million copies since it was first published in 1958 by New Directions.

San Francisco’s first poet laureate in 1998, Ferlinghetti was an advocate of poetry as an oral tradition who read his own work with artful vigor.

“Lawrence started probably hundreds of thousands of people reading poetry. They read his poetry first, and then they went on to read more poetry,” poet, essayist and Beat figure Michael McClure, who called Ferlinghetti a master poet, told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2003.

Tall, lean and neatly bearded, Ferlinghetti was the opposite of flamboyant. Not known for public drunkenness like Beat novelist Kerouac or public nudity like Ginsberg, he swam daily, biked to work at City Lights and outlived other major figures of the Beat fraternity. Kerouac died in 1969 at 47, and Ginsberg and novelist William S. Burroughs died in 1997 at 70 and 83, respectively.

Academic critics, dismissing Ferlinghetti’s work as too topical, paid him scant attention. Perhaps because he channeled a good deal of energy into bookselling, he also was sometimes portrayed as peripheral to the literary movement he promoted. He seemed to agree with the characterization, calling himself “the guy tending the store.”

The youngest of five sons, he was born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling in Yonkers, New York, on March 24, 1919. His Italian father, who changed the family name after arriving in America, died before Lawrence was born. Soon after, his mother was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown and his family was split up. Raised by various family members and friends, he also spent some time in an orphanage.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1941 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Later that year, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the Navy. As part of the American occupation in Japan, he toured Nagasaki after the atomic blast that killed 70,000 of its residents. The monstrous sights (“hands sticking out of the mud broken tea cups hair sticking out of the road”) turned Ferlinghetti into a pacifist and political activist.

After the war, he earned a master’s degree on the GI Bill at Columbia University. He continued his education at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he received a doctorate.

Returning to the U.S. in 1950, he settled in San Francisco. In 1953 Ferlinghetti invested $500 to join forces with Peter Martin, the editor of a literary magazine, to open City Lights in a triangle-shaped building on Columbus Avenue. It was popular from the start, open seven days a week until midnight.

“We couldn’t get the door closed,” Ferlinghetti said.

Conceived as a literary meeting place, the store was “unique from the very beginning,” said Gary Snyder, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet, who recalled its abundance “not only of poetry but of cogent and current politics, history — issues that were arising in our minds.”

Ferlinghetti became a publisher in 1955, when he started the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. The first volume in the series was a collection of his own poems, Pictures of the Gone World. Future volumes would feature work by Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, Philip Lamantia, Denise Levertov and Diane diPrima. None of them, however, would earn the notoriety of No. 4 in the City Lights series — Howl.

In October 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, Ferlinghetti was in the audience for Ginsbrg’s mesmerizing reading of the poem. In a telegram to Ginsberg immediately after the performance, Ferlinghetti echoed Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to Walt Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Ferlinghetti wrote, adding, “When do I get the manuscript?”

Ferlinghetti knew that the poem, with its abundant profanities, could also stir trouble. Before he published it, he showed a copy to lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The second shipment from Ferlinghetti’s British printer was confiscated on March 25, 1957, by U.S. Customs. Police officers arrested Ferlinghetti and City Lights clerk Shig Murao on charges of selling lewd and obscene material.

The charges against Murao were dropped so only Ferlinghetti stood trial. The shy bookshop owner emerged as a stalwart defender of the 1st Amendment and a new kind of writing.

“It is not the poet but what he observes which is revealed as obscene,” he said of Howl in a column for the San Francisco Chronicle. “The great obscene wastes of Howl are the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms.”

On Oct. 3, 1957, Judge Clayton Horn handed down his ruling. “Evil to him who thinks evil,” Horn said of “Howl” and obscenity in his 39-page opinion, and set Ferlinghetti free.

Ferlinghetti did not consider himself a Beat writer and did not care for much of Beat literature; he turned down, for instance, the manuscripts for Kerouac’s On the Road and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, both of which became modern classics.

In Ferlinghetti’s world, what comes through is an abiding affection for the commonplace. He was often called a poet of the people for drawing his inspiration from “the ordinary sights and sounds of daily life,” biographer Barry Silesky observed. So he wrote in the poem Dog about

Fish on newsprint

Ants in holes

Chickens in Chinatown windows

Their heads a block away

Serious critics and even some of his friends dismissed him. Corso and others in the Beat circle “consider me a business man with a loose pen,” he wrote in a letter to Ginsberg.

His fans, however, were vociferous in their admiration. Well into his 80s, Ferlinghetti performed his poetry on college campuses, where audiences greeted him like a rock star, shouting out the titles of favorite poems. Hundreds showed up at City Lights for his 100th birthday in 2019.

“I have committed the sin of too much clarity,” he told a biographer, reflecting on the critical neglect. Poetry, he wrote in Americus, Book I (2004), “is eternal graffiti in the heart of everyone.”

It is all things born with wings that sing.

It is a voice of dissent against the waste of words and the mad plethora of print.

It is what exists between the lines.