Home

Ferlinghetti's rivers

Lawrence Ferlinghetti is not a beat poet.

Though his name is often attributed to the literary and artistic movement that changed the face of a nation in the 1950s and '60s, Ferlinghetti is bothered when his poetry is compared to the poetry of the beats.

"I published a lot of the work of the beats and I was good friends with many of them, but that is where our relationship ends. They have not influenced my work and I have not influenced theirs," Ferlinghetti said.

But when asked what kind of poet Ferlinghetti considered himself, he answered with much hesitation, "I am a romantic lyricist." He replied, but he sounded reluctant -- perhaps even annoyed -- at having to give his large body of work any kind of label.

After all, this is the same poet who once wrote, "Like a bowl of roses, a poem should not have to be explained."

But Ferlinghetti's career, as a poet, publisher and businessman, is something that deserves to be explained. At 82, he is as active as ever and, no matter what kind of label is attached to his name, his contributions have become an important addition to 20th-century literature.

"Don't wait for the revolution"

When City Lights Bookstore of San Francisco was founded in 1953 by Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, America was on the cusp of a cultural revolution.

The beat generation was just beginning to emerge, led by a group of young writers, poets, artists and jazz musicians that vehemently rejected the mores of the post-World War II era.

But it wasn't until Ferlinghetti began publishing his own poetry and the work of others under the City Lights' name that this cultural revolution was brought to the front lines.

Allen Ginsberg's Howl, Ferlinghetti's fourth publication under City Lights, gained national attention as well as national infamy when it was printed in 1955. Ferlinghetti was charged with obscenity for its publication and, after a three-week trial, was declared innocent; a landmark victory for free speech. Since then, Howl has become a classic of American literature and a number of additional Ginsberg books have been printed under the City Lights name.

And in the next few years, Ferlinghetti would publish works by all of the major writers of the beat generation: Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and a handful of others.

More than any publisher at that time -- or perhaps any time -- Ferlinghetti was responsible for making contemporary poetry accessible to everyone.

In Ferlinghetti's own poem, "The Populist Manifesto," he wrote, "Don't wait for the revolution or it'll happen without you." Ferlinghetti's work as a publisher is the story of a man who did not wait for the revolution, but was there from its inception, its growth and its eventual demise.

"A hill of poetry"

Aside from helping to ignite the beat generation, Ferlinghetti also created a large body of his own poetry that -- by his own insistence -- does not belong in the same category as the work of Ginsberg or Kerouac.

He published his first book of poems, Pictures of the Gone World, in 1955, the first book published under the City Lights' name. Since then, the collection has never been out of print.

In 1958, Ferlinghetti released the book that is undoubtedly his best-known and most enduring work. A Coney Island of the Mind still stands as one of the largest-selling collections of poetry of all time.

In "Autobiography," a selection from Coney Island, Ferlinghetti wrote, "I am a hill of poetry / I am a raid / on the inarticulate."

Since the publication of Coney Island, his "hill of poetry" has continued to grow and develop over the decades, releasing over a dozen collections of work, including, Starting From San Francisco, Wild Dreams of a New Beginning and A Far Rockaway of the Heart, the sequel to Coney Island, written four decades later. In 1993, he released These Are My Rivers, a compilation of new and selected poems from 1955-93.

This month, Ferlinghetti will release yet another collection of his poetry. It is entitled, How to Paint Sunlight: New Poems, and according to Ferlinghetti, is no different from the other poetry he has written.

"One writes the same poem all his life," said Ferlinghetti. "My favorite work is always my latest work."

"The poet like an acrobat"

In a selection from Coney Island, Ferlinghetti discusses the experience of reading poetry aloud in front of an audience. "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."

Ferlinghetti will once again be "risking absurdity and death" tonight in Meany Hall as he reads a selection of his poetry for the first time in Seattle for over 40 years.

"I don't even remember where it was. It was so long ago," Ferlinghetti said of his prior Seattle reading. "It was probably in a bookstore."

Though much of the interest in poetry readings has subsided in the recent decades, Ferlinghetti sees the reading as an important addition to the creation and development of poetry.

"It's called performance poetry which goes back to the readings of the beats," Ferlinghetti said. "They were not as interested in being published as they were in having their voices heard. They wanted to make their poetry loud."

The poetry reading, made popular by the Beats, was often used as a way to experiment with the poet's own work, or to improvise in front of an audience.

"It's an oral message. It's used to get the message out. Communicate it and get it off the printed page," said Ferlinghetti.

In Coney Island, Ferlinghetti included a number of poems labeled "oral messages" that, according to him, were in a constant stage of development and change.

"A rebirth of wonder"

In Ferlinghetti's poem "I am Waiting," from Coney Island, he says repeatedly that he is waiting for a "new rebirth of wonder."

According to Ferlinghetti, the people of the '60s came closest to this rebirth, creating a revolution of consciousness that affected the entire country.

"But now, mass media is not interested in the arts," Ferlinghetti said. "It is dominated by the technocratic, politically and socially materialistic paradigm that is running the country."

As an example of this, Ferlinghetti discussed his hometown newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle, which recently decided to cut down their arts section considerably. Included in the cuts was Ferlinghetti's own weekly column, which discussed the role poetry plays in the modern world.

According to Ferlinghetti, now more than ever, the nation is entering an artistic dark age, dominated by big business and powerful government.

"The age gets the poetry it deserves," Ferlinghetti said. "No lyrical poetry is being written any more."

Perhaps the best lesson that can be learned from the poet who continues to stir readers with his poetry -- who helped stir the world during the Beat generation-- is that it is never too late to change -- that the world is never too far gone to make a difference.

And until a new rebirth of wonder arises, we will all be waiting.

The poetry reading is sponsored by Counterbalance Poetry, a non-profit organization founded and directed by Jeffrey Cantrell. At a recent reading, Samuel Green, poet and publisher, said that Cantrell was someone who "treated poetry as if it mattered."

Counterbalance Poetry is dedicated to presenting some of the most important contemporary poets in free readings around the Seattle area, especially on the UW campus.

Please read our Comment policy.