Ferlinghetti, Lawrence 1919–

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Ferlinghetti, Lawrence 1919–

(Lawrence Ferling, Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti)

PERSONAL: Born Lawrence Ferling, March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, NY; original family name of Ferlinghetti restored, 1954; son of Charles S. (an auctioneer) and Clemence (Mendes Monsanto) Ferling; married Selden Kirby-Smith, April, 1951 (divorced, 1976); children: Julie, Lorenzo. Education: University of North Carolina, A.B., 1941; Columbia University, M.A., 1947; Sorbonne, University of Paris, doctorat (with honors), 1949. Politics: "Now an enemy of the State." Religion: "Catholique manque."

ADDRESSES: HomeSan Francisco, CA. Office—City Lights Books, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133.

CAREER: Poet, playwright, editor, and painter; worked for Time, New York, NY, post-World War II; taught French in an adult education program, San Francisco, CA, 1951–52; City Lights Pocket Bookshop (now City Lights Books), San Francisco, co-owner, 1953–, founder, publisher, and editor of City Lights Books, 1955–. Participant in literary conferences, art exhibitions, and poetry readings. Military service: U.S. Naval Reserve, 1941–45; became lieutenant commander; was commanding officer during Normandy invasion.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Book Award nomination, 1970, for The Secret Meaning of Things; Notable Book of 1979 citation, Library Journal, 1980, for Landscapes of Living and Dying; Silver Medal for poetry, Commonwealth Club of California, 1986, for Over All the Obscene Boundaries; poetry prize, City of Rome, 1993; San Francisco street named in his honor, 1994; named first poet laureate of San Francisco, 1998; Los Angeles Times Robert Kirsch Award, 2001, for body of work; PEN Center West Literary Award, 2002, for lifetime achievement; award for creative publishing, Association of American Publishers, 2005.


(Translator) Jacques Prevert, Selections from "Paroles," City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1958.

Her (novel), New Directions (New York, NY), 1960.

Howl of the Censor (trial proceedings), edited by J.W. Ehrlich, Nourse Publishing, 1961.

(With Jack Spicer) Dear Ferlinghetti, White Rabbit Press, 1962.

The Mexican Night: Travel Journal, New Directions (New York, NY), 1970.

A World Awash with Fascism and Fear, Cranium Press, 1971.

A Political Pamphlet, Anarchist Resistance Press, 1976.

Northwest Ecolog, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1978.

(With Nancy J. Peters) Literary San Francisco: A Pictorial History from the Beginning to the Present, Harper (New York, NY), 1980.

The Populist Manifestos (includes "First Populist Manifesto"), Grey Fox Press, 1983.

Seven Days in Nicaragua Libre (journal), City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1985.

Leaves of Life: Fifty Drawings from the Model, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1985.

(Translator with others) Nicanor Parra, Antipoems: New and Selected, New Directions (New York, NY), 1985.

(Translator, with Francesca Valente) Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roman Poems, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1986.

Love in the Days of Rage (novel), Dutton (New York, NY), 1988.

(With Alexis Lykiard) The Cool Eye: Lawrence Ferlinghetti Talks to Alexis Lykiard, Stride, 1993.

(With Christopher Felver) Ferlinghetti: Portrait, Gibbs Smith, 1998.

What Is Poetry?, Creative Arts (Berkeley, CA), 2000.

(Translator, with others) Homero Aridjis, Eyes to See Otherwise, New Directions (New York, NY), 2002.

Life Studies, Life Stories: Drawings, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 2003.


Pictures of the Gone World, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1955, enlarged edition, 1995.

Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower, Golden Mountain Press, 1958.

A Coney Island of the Mind, New Directions (New York, NY), 1958.

Berlin, Golden Mountain Press, 1961.

One Thousand Fearful Words for Fidel Castro, City Lights (San Francisco), 1961.

Starting from San Francisco (with recording), New Directions (New York, NY), 1961, revised edition (without recording), 1967.

(With Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg) Penguin Modern Poets 5, Penguin (New York, NY), 1963.

Thoughts of a Concerto of Telemann, Four Seasons Foundation, 1963.

Where Is Vietnam?, City Lights (San Francisco), 1965.

To F—-Is to Love Again, Kyrie Eleison Kerista; or, The Situation in the West, Followed by a Holy Proposal, F—-You Press, 1965.

Christ Climbed Down, Syracuse University (Syracuse, NY), 1965.

An Eye on the World: Selected Poems, MacGibbon & Kee, 1967.

Moscow in the Wilderness, Segovia in the Snow, Beach Books, 1967.

After the Cries of the Birds, Dave Haselwood Books, 1967.

Fuclock, Fire Publications, 1968.

Reverie Smoking Grass, East 128, 1968.

The Secret Meaning of Things, New Directions (New York, NY), 1969.

Tyrannus Nix?, New Directions (New York, NY), 1969.

Back Roads to Far Places, New Directions (New York, NY), 1971.

Love Is No Stone on the Moon, ARIF Press, 1971.

The Illustrated Wilfred Funk, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1971.

Open Eye, Open Heart, New Directions (New York, NY), 1973.

Director of Alienation: A Poem, Main Street, 1976.

Who Are We Now? (also see below), City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1976.

Landscapes of Living and Dying (also see below), New Directions (New York, NY), 1979.

Mule Mountain Dreams, Bisbee Press Collective, 1980.

A Trip to Italy and France, New Directions (New York, NY), 1980.

Endless Life: Selected Poems (includes "Endless Life"), New Directions (New York, NY), 1984.

Over All the Obscene Boundaries: European Poems and Transitions, New Directions (New York, NY), 1985.

Inside the Trojan Horse, Lexikos, 1987.

Wild Dreams of a New Beginning: Including "Landscapes of Living and Dying" and "Who Are We Now?," New Directions (New York, NY), 1988.

When I Look at Pictures, Peregrine Smith Books, 1990.

These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955–1993, New Directions (New York, NY), 1993.

A Far Rockaway of the Heart, New Directions (New York, NY), 1997.

San Francisco Poems, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 2001.

How to Paint Sunlight: Lyric Poems and Others, 1997–2000, New Directions (New York, NY), 2001.


Unfair Arguments with Existence: Seven Plays for a New Theatre (contains The Soldiers of No Country [produced in London, England, 1969], Three Thousand Red Ants [produced in New York, NY, 1970; also see below], The Alligation [produced in San Francisco, 1962; also see below], The Victims of Amnesia [produced in New York, NY, 1970; also see below], Motherlode, The Customs Collector in Baggy Pants [produced in New York, NY, 1964], and The Nose of Sisyphus), New Directions (New York, NY), 1963.

Routines (includes The Jig Is Up, His Head, Ha-Ha, and Non-Objection), New Directions (New York, NY), 1964.

Three by Ferlinghetti: Three Thousand Red Ants, The Alligation, [and] The Victims of Amnesia, produced in New York, NY, 1970.


Beatitude Anthology, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1960.

Pablo Picasso, Hunk of Skin, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1969.

Charles Upton, Panic Grass, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1969.

City Lights Anthology, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1974, reprinted, 1995.

City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology, City Lights (San Francisco, CA), 1995.


(With Kenneth Rexroth) Poetry Readings in "The Cellar," Fantasy, 1958.

Tentative Description of a Dinner to Impeach President Eisenhower, and Other Poems, Fantasy, 1959.

Tyrannus Nix? and Assassination Raga, Fantasy, 1971.

(With Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg) The World's Greatest Poets 1, CMS, 1971.


Author of narration, Have You Sold Your Dozen Roses? (film), California School of Fine Arts Film Workshop, 1957. Contributor to numerous periodicals, including San Francisco Chronicle, Nation, Evergreen Review, Liberation, Chicago Review, Transatlantic Review, and New Statesman. Editor, Journal for the Protection of All Beings, Interim Pad, and City Lights Journal.

Ferlinghetti's manuscripts are collected at Columbia University, New York, NY.

ADAPTATIONS: Ferlinghetti's poem "Autobiography" was choreographed by Sophie Maslow, 1964. A Coney Island of the Mind was adapted for the stage by Steven Kyle Kent, Charles R. Blaker, and Carol Brown and produced at the Edinburgh Festival, Scotland, 1966; poem was adapted for television by Ted Post on Second Experiment in Television, 1967.

SIDELIGHTS: As poet, playwright, publisher, and spokesman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped to spark the San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1950s and the subsequent "Beat" movement. Ferlinghetti was one of a group of writers—labeled the "Beat Generation"—who felt strongly that art should be accessible to all people, not just a handful of highly educated intellectuals. His career has been marked by a constant challenge to the status quo in art; his poetry engages readers, defies popular political movements, and reflects the influence of American idiom and modern jazz. In Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poet-at-Large, Larry Smith noted that the author "writes truly memorable poetry, poems that lodge themselves in the consciousness of the reader and generate awareness and change. And his writing sings, with the sad and comic music of the streets."

Ferlinghetti performed numerous functions essential to the establishment of the Beat movement while also creating his own substantial body of work. His City Lights bookstore provided a gathering place for the fertile talents of the San Francisco literary renaissance, and the bookstore's publishing arm offered a forum for publication of Beat writings. He also became "America's best-selling poet of the twentieth century," according to Paul Varner in Western American Literature. As Smith noted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "What emerges from the historical panorama of Ferlinghetti's involvement is a pattern of social engagement and literary experimentation as he sought to expand the goals of the Beat movement." Smith added, however, that Ferling-hetti's contribution far surpasses his tasks as a publisher and organizer. "Besides molding an image of the poet in the world," the critic continued, "he created a poetic form that is at once rhetorically functional and socially vital." Dictionary of Literary Biography essayist Thomas McClanahan likewise contended that Ferlinghetti "became the most important force in developing and publicizing antiestablishment poetics."

Ferlinghetti was born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling, the youngest of five sons of Charles and Clemence Ferling. His father, an Italian immigrant, had shortened the family name upon arrival in America. Only years later, when he was a grown man, did Ferlinghetti discover the lengthier name and restore it as his own.

A series of disasters struck Ferlinghetti as a youngster. Before he was born, his father died suddenly. When he was only two, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown that required lengthy hospitalization. Separated from his brothers, Lawrence went to live with his maternal uncle, Ludovic Monsanto, a language instructor, and Ludovic's French-speaking wife, Emily. The marriage disintegrated, and Emily Monsanto returned to France, taking Lawrence with her. During the following four years, the youngster lived in Strasbourg and spoke only French.

Ferlinghetti's return to America began with a stay in a state orphanage in New York; he was placed there by his aunt while she sought work in Manhattan. The pair were reunited when the aunt found a position as governess to the wealthy Bisland family in Bronxville. Young Ferlinghetti endeared himself to the Bislands to such an extent that when his aunt disappeared suddenly, he was allowed to stay. Surrounded by fine books and educated people, he was encouraged to read and learn fine passages of literature by heart. His formal education proceeded first in the elite Riverdale Country Day School and later in Bronxville public schools. As a teenager he was sent to Mount Hermon, a preparatory academy in Massachusetts.

Ferlinghetti enrolled at the University of North Carolina in 1937. There he majored in journalism and worked with the student staff of the Daily Tarheel. He earned his bachelor's degree in the spring of 1941 and joined the U.S. Navy that fall. His wartime service included patrolling the Atlantic coast on submarine watch and commanding a ship during the invasion of Normandy. After his discharge Ferlinghetti took advantage of the G.I. Bill to continue his education. He did graduate study at Columbia University, receiving his master's degree in 1948, and he completed his doctoral degree at the University of Paris in 1951.

Ferlinghetti left Paris in 1951 and moved to San Francisco. For a short time he supported himself by teaching languages at an adult education school and by doing freelance writing for art journals and for the San Francisco Chronicle. In 1953 he joined with Peter D. Martin to publish a magazine, City Lights, named after a silent film starring actor Charlie Chaplin. In order to subsidize the magazine, Martin and Ferlinghetti opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop in a neighborhood on the edge of Chinatown.

Before long the City Lights Book Shop was a popular gathering place for San Francisco's avant-garde writers, poets, and painters. "We were filling a big need," Ferlinghetti told the New York Times Book Review. "City Lights became about the only place around where you could go in, sit down, and read books without being pestered to buy something. That's one of the things it was supposed to be. Also, I had this idea that a bookstore should be a center of intellectual activity; and I knew it was a natural for a publishing company too."

In addition to his new career as an entrepreneur, Ferlinghetti was busy creating his own poetry, and in 1955 he launched the City Lights Pocket Poets publishing venture. First in the "Pocket Poets" series was a slim volume of his own, Pictures of the Gone World. In Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Smith observed that, from his earliest poems onwards, the author writes as "the contemporary man of the streets speaking out the truths of common experience, often to the reflective beat of the jazz musician. As much as any poet today he … sought to make poetry an engaging oral art." McClanahan wrote: "The underlying theme of Ferlinghetti's first book is the poet's desire to subvert and destroy the capitalist economic system. Yet this rather straightforward political aim is accompanied by a romantic vision of Eden, a mirror reflecting the Whitmanesque attempts to be free from social and political restraints."

These sentiments found an appreciative audience among young people of the mid-twentieth century, who were agonizing over the nuclear arms race and cold war politics. By 1955 Ferlinghetti counted among his friends such poets as Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, and Philip Whalen, as well as the novelist Jack Kerouac. Ferlinghetti was in the audience at the watershed 1955 poetry reading "Six Poets at the Six Gallery," at which Ginsberg unveiled his poem Howl. Ferlinghetti immediately recognized Howl as a classic work of art and offered to publish it in the "Pocket Poets" series. The first edition of Howl and Other Poems appeared in 1956 and sold out quickly. A second shipment was ordered from the publisher's British printer, but U.S. customs authorities seized it on the grounds of alleged obscenity. When federal authorities declined to pursue the case and released the books, the San Francisco Police Department arrested Ferlinghetti on charges of printing and selling lewd and indecent material.

Ferlinghetti engaged the American Civil Liberties Union for his defense and welcomed his court case as a test of the limits to freedom of speech. Not only did he win the suit on October 3, 1957, he also benefitted from the publicity generated by the case. In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Smith wrote: "The importance of this court case to the life and career of Ferlinghetti as well as to the whole blossoming of the San Francisco renaissance in poetry and the West Coast Beat movement is difficult to overestimate. Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg became national as well as international public figures leading a revolution in thinking as well as writing. The case solidified the writing into a movement with definite principles yet an openness of form."

For Ferlinghetti, these "principles" included redeeming poetry from the ivory towers of academia and offering it as a shared experience with ordinary people. He began reading his verses to the accompaniment of experimental jazz and reveled in an almost forgotten oral tradition in poetry. In 1958 New York's New Directions press published Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind, a work that has since sold well over one million copies in America and abroad. In his Dictionary of Literary Biography piece, Smith called A Coney Island of the Mind "one of the key works of the Beat period and one of the most popular books of contemporary poetry…. It launched Ferlinghetti as a poet of humor and satire, who achieves an open-form expressionism and a personal lyricism." Walter Sutton offered a similar assessment in American Free Verse: The Modern Revolution in Poetry. Sutton felt that the general effect of the book "is of a kaleidoscopic view of the world and of life as an absurd carnival of discontinuous sensory impressions and conscious reflections, each with a ragged shape of its own but without any underlying thematic unity or interrelationship." Sutton added, "To this extent the collection suggests a Surrealistic vision. But it differs in that meanings and easily definable themes can be found in most of the individual poems, even when the idea of meaninglessness is the central concern."

In Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Smith suggested that the poems in A Coney Island of the Mind demonstrate the direction Ferlinghetti intended to go with his art. The poet "enlarged his stance and developed major themes of anarchy, mass corruption, engagement, and a belief in the surreality and wonder of life," to quote Smith. "It was a revolutionary art of dissent and contemporary application which jointly drew a lyric poetry into new realms of social—and self-expression. It sparkles, sings, goes flat, and generates anger or love out of that flatness as it follows a basic motive of getting down to reality and making of it what we can." Smith concluded: "Loosely, the book forms a type of 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Poet of Dissent.' There are some classic contemporary statements in this, Ferlinghetti's—and possibly America's—most popular book of modern poetry. The work is remarkable for its skill, depth, and daring."

If certain academics grumbled about Ferlinghetti's work, others found it refreshing for its engagement in current social and political issues and its indebtedness to a bardic tradition. "Ferlinghetti has cultivated a style of writing visibly his own," claimed Linda Hamalian in the American Book Review. "He often writes his line so that it approximates the rhythm and meaning of the line. He also has William Carlos Williams' gift of turning unlikely subjects into witty poems…. He introduces the unexpected, catching his readers open for his frequently sarcastic yet humorous observations." Poetry contributor Alan Dugan maintained that the poet "has the usual American obsession, asking, 'What is going on in America and how does one survive it?' His answer might be: By being half a committed outsider and half an innocent Fool. He makes jokes and chants seriously with equal gusto and surreal inventiveness, using spoken American in a romantic, flamboyant manner."

Two collections of Ferlinghetti's poetry provide insight into the development of the writer's overarching style and thematic approach: Endless Life: Selected Poems and These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955–1993. Ferlinghetti chose selections from among his eight books of poetry and his work in progress, written over twenty-six years, for inclusion in Endless Life. The poems reflect the influences of e. e. cummings, Kenneth Rexroth, and Kenneth Patchen and are concerned with contemporary themes, such as the antiwar and antinuclear movements. Some critics have dismissed Ferlinghetti "as either sentimental or the literary entrepreneur of the Beat generation," noted John Trim-bur in Western American Literature, the critic adding that he feels such labels are unjustified. Ferlinghetti writes a "public poetry to challenge the guardians of the political and social status quo for the souls of his fellow citizens," Trimbur maintained, noting that the poet does so while "risking absurdity." In World Literature Today, J. Martone acknowledged that while Ferlinghetti has produced heralded poetry, some of that poetry is stagnant. "Ferlinghetti never moves beyond—or outgrows—the techniques of [his] early poems," maintained Martone, adding that "his repertoire of devices (deliberately casual literary allusion, self-mockery, hyperbole) becomes a bit tedious with repetition." However, Joel Oppenheimer praised the poet in the New York Times Book Review, contending that Ferlinghetti "learned to write poems, in ways that those who see poetry as the province of the few and the educated had never imagined."

Ferlinghetti focuses on current political and sexual matters in These Are My Rivers. As Rochelle Ratner noted in Library Journal, the poems are experimental in technique, often lacking common poetic devices such as stanza breaks, and they appear in unusual ways on the page, "with short lines at the left margin or moving across the page as hand follows eye." Yet, despite its visual effect, Ashley Brown commented in World Literature Today, "Ferlinghetti writes in a very accessible idiom; he draws on pop culture and sports as much as the modern poets whom he celebrates." Ratner averred that "Ferlinghetti is the foremost chronicler of our times." Indeed, the collection shows "Ferlinghetti still speaking out against academic poetry just as he did when the Beat Movement began," remarked Varner in Western American Literature. "Ferlinghetti, always the poet of the topical now, still sees clearly the 1990s," the critic added.

Drama has also proved a fertile ground for Ferlinghetti. He carried his political philosophies and social criticisms into experimental plays, many of them short and surrealistic. In Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Smith contended that the writer's stint as an experimental dramatist "reflects his stronger attention to irrational and intuitive analogy as a means of suggesting the 'secret meaning' behind life's surface. Though the works are provocative, public, and oral, they are also more cosmic in reference, revealing a stronger influence from Buddhist philosophy." In Dialogue in American Drama, Ruby Cohn characterized the poet's plays as "brief sardonic comments on our contemporary life-style…. The themes may perhaps be resolved into a single theme—the unfairness of industrial, consumer-oriented, establishment-dominated existence—and the plays are arguments against submission to such existence."

In 1960 Ferlinghetti's first novel, Her, was published. An autobiographical, experimental work that focuses on the narrator's pursuit of a woman, the novel received very little critical comment when it was published. According to Smith in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Her "is an avant-garde work that pits character and author in a battle with the subjective relativity of experience in a quest for ideals; a surrealistic encounter with the subconscious—filled with phallic symbols and prophetic visions of desire. At once existential, absurd, symbolic, expressionistic, cinematic and surrealistic in vision and form, Her is controlled, as all of Ferlinghetti's work is, by a drive toward expanded consciousness." Smith concluded, "The book is truly a spirited, though somewhat self-mocking, projection of the optimistic goals the Beat and San Francisco poetry movements placed on a grand imaginative scale."

Ferlinghetti published another novel in 1988, Love in the Days of Rage. This chronicles a love affair between an expatriate American painter named Annie, and a Parisian banker of Portuguese extraction named Julian. Their relationship takes place against the backdrop of 1968 Paris, during the student revolution that took place during that year. Though at first Annie thinks Julian is conservative, because of his clothing style and occupation, he eventually reveals his involvement in a subversive plot—which she supports him in. Alex Raksin, discussing Love in the Days of Rage in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, praised the work as an "original, intense novel" in which Ferlinghetti's "sensitivity as a painter … is most apparent." Patrick Burson, critiquing for the San Francisco Review of Books, explained that "Love in the Days of Rage challenges the reader on several stylistic levels as it attemps to mirror the anarchistic uprising of '68 which briefly united intellectuals, artists, and proletariats in common cause." Burson went on to conclude that the book is "an uneven ride, at times maddeningly confused, but noble in intent and final effect."

Ferlinghetti, who continues to operate the City Lights bookstore, travels frequently to give poetry readings. His paintings and drawings have been exhibited in San Francisco galleries; his plays have been performed in experimental theaters. He also continues to publish new poetry, including the 1997 collection A Far Rockaway of the Heart, which is to some degree a follow-up to A Coney Island of the Mind. In 2001 readers saw the arrival of two books by Ferlinghetti: How to Paint Sunlight: Lyric Poems and Others, 1997–2000 and San Francisco Poems. As Smith observed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Ferlinghetti's life and writing "stand as models of the existentially authentic and engaged…. His work exists as a vital challenge and a living presence to the contemporary artist, as an embodiment of the strong, anticool, compassionate commitment to life in an absurd time." New York Times Book Review correspondent Joel Oppenheimer cited Ferlinghetti's work for "a legitimate revisionism which is perhaps our best heritage from those raucous [Beat] days—the poet daring to see a different vision from that which the guardians of culture had allowed us." As New Pages contributor John Gill concluded, reading a work by Ferlinghetti "will make you feel good about poetry and about the world—no matter how mucked-up the world may be."



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City Lights Web site, http://www.citylights.com/ (May 3, 2003), "Lawrence Ferlinghetti."

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