Category Archives: San Francisco

Poetry as Insurgent Art

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet, publisher and political iconoclast who inspired and nurtured generations of San Francisco artists and writers from City Lights, his famed bookstore, died on Monday at his home in San Francisco. He was 101.

Mr. Ferlinghetti, standing, in 1957 at a poetry reading. © Nat Farbman

Ferlinghetti befriended, published and championed many of the major Beat poets, among them Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Michael McClure, who died in May. His connection to their work was exemplified — and cemented — in 1956 with his publication of Ginsberg’s most famous poem, the ribald and revolutionary “Howl,” an act that led to Mr. Ferlinghetti’s arrest on charges of “willfully and lewdly” printing “indecent writings.”

In a significant First Amendment decision, he was acquitted, and “Howl” became one of the 20th century’s best-known poems. (The trial was the centerpiece of the 2010 film “Howl,” in which James Franco played Ginsberg and Andrew Rogers played Mr. Ferlinghetti.)

His most successful collection, “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1958), attracted attention when one of the poems was attacked as blasphemous by a New York congressman, Steven B. Derounian, who called for the investigation of a state college where it was being taught, saying the poem ridiculed the crucifixion of Christ.

Despite the controversy it generated — or perhaps, at least in part, because of it — “A Coney Island of the Mind” was a sensation. It became one of the most successful books of American poetry ever published. It has been translated into multiple languages; according to City Lights, more than a million copies have been printed.

Mr. Ferlinghetti went west in early 1951, landing in San Francisco with a sea bag and little else. After months in a low-rent apartment he found North Beach, even as San Francisco itself was fast becoming fashionable among intellectuals and a generation of young people for whom “establishment” was a dirty word.

Mr. Ferlinghetti’s life changed in 1953, when he and Peter Martin opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop, which originally carried nothing but paperbacks at a time when the publishing industry was just beginning to take that format seriously. The store would soon became a kind of repository for books that other booksellers ignored and a kind of salon for the authors who wrote them — a place “where you could find these books which you couldn’t find anywhere,” he said, crediting Mr. Martin with the concept. Each man put in $500, and City Lights opened.

“And as soon as we got the door opened,” Mr. Ferlinghetti later remembered, “we couldn’t get it closed.”

In 1955 Mr. Ferlinghetti, by then the sole owner of City Lights, started publishing poems, including his own.

A year later his City Lights imprint published Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems,” and before long he was in court defending poets’ free-speech rights and helping to make himself — and the Beats he had adopted — famous in the process.

— Jesse McKinley

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