San Francisco Poet: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

December 27, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the city of San Francisco seem inseparably linked. Though originally a New Yorker, Ferlinghetti has spent half a century in his adopted city, and even at age 83 he moves vigorously through its streets every day. He begins each morning at a coffee house on San Francisco Bay.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Well, I’ve got to get going. I woke up too early and drank too many cups of coffee already.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Later in the morning, he walks to work in his beloved North Beach neighborhood past the small street the city has named after him, and past the places, like St. Peter and Paul church, that figure in his San Francisco poems. (Bell tolls)

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: “Toward ten in the morning the slow bell tolls in the towers of Peter and Paul, and the old men who are still alive sit sunning themselves in a row on the wood benches in the park.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ferlinghetti has been especially busy lately. He was named San Francisco’s first poet laureate in 1998, a post he held for two years. His store was recently declared a city landmark, and he has in the past two years published two new volumes of poetry. He has also been honored for his life’s work by groups like the National Book Critics Circle and Pen/USA. The honors are somewhat surprising to him because he’s always considered himself an outsider, an insurgent.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: The mayor of my father’s hometown in Italy this summer gave me a medal for good behavior, so I…


LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Little did he know.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you in good conscience could take that?


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ferlinghetti got a reputation as a literary bad boy in the 1950s, when he befriended and published the controversial poets and writers who became known as the “beat” generation. Since then, he has been an anti- establishment dissident, and San Franciscans have become accustomed to hearing from him when times get rough.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Here’s another attempt at prophecy.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Whenever he reads his work publicly, hundreds of people turn out, as they did at a North Beach reading just after September 11th last year.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: “A wind of ashes blows across the land, and for one long moment, an eternity there’s chaos and despair and buried loves and voices. Cries and whispers fill the air everywhere.” (Applause)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Even as a young man, Ferlinghetti was a leader, though not a rebel. He was an eagle scout and then a lieutenant commander in the Navy, where he served on a sub chaser during the Normandy invasion.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: The last year of the war, I was a navigator on a big troop transport, and we started out to go to Japan as the invasion force. We had 5,000roops on board, and we were headed for Japan when the bomb was dropped.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How close to the time it was dropped?

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: About six weeks after Nagasaki had been bombed, we went over there on a train. No one knew anything about atomic bombs, and no one ever heard of radiation, and we walked around the ruins of Nagasaki, which was just like a couple of square miles of mulch, nothing but mulch with human hair and bones sticking out, and it was a horrible sight to see.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Did it begin the process of your becoming very political?

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Oh, definitely, yeah.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How about pacifism? Are you a pacifist?


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After the war, Ferlinghetti got a Ph.D. At the Sorbonne in Paris on the G.I. Bill, married, and moved to San Francisco. By 1956, he had opened City Lights and was publishing works like Allen Ginsberg’s manifesto of the beat generation, “Howl.” It begins with the line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked,” and then blames the materialism and spiritual emptiness of American life for the destruction.

What in your view was great about the Allen Ginsberg poem “Howl”?

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Well, when you read a poem that… and you say to yourself, “well, I’ve never seen the world or reality like this before,” then you know you’ve come upon a great poem, and that was my reaction to “Howl.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But “Howl” was also full of expressions long considered unacceptable in print in this country, and Ferlinghetti and his publishing partner were arrested and put on trial for obscenity.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: The judge ruled that you couldn’t judge a work obscene if it had the “slightest redeeming social significance.” That was the key phrase, which held up. This was a precedent that really opened the floodgates and allowed the grove press in New York, for instance, to publish D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropics” and Jean Genet’s works from France and many others.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In 1958, Ferlinghetti published “A Coney Island of the Mind,” a collection of his poems that has sold so many copies, it has apparently made him America’s best-selling poet of the 20th century. One of the best-known poems is “I Am Waiting.”

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: This poem is 45 years old, but I’m still waiting for some of the things in his poem. The end of the poem: “I am waiting to get some intimations of immortality by recollecting my early childhood, and I am waiting for the green mornings to come again, youth’s dumb green fields come back again, and I am waiting for some strains of unpremeditated art to shake my typewriter, and I am waiting to write the great indelible poem, and I am waiting for the last, long, careless rapture, and I am perpetually waiting for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian urn to catch each other up at last and embrace, and I am awaiting, perpetually and forever, a renaissance of wonder.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The language here is deceptively simple. Ferlinghetti works hard in writing and refining his poems, but he always uses a simple style that is easy to understand.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Well, I always feel a poem has to have a public surface; in other words, a surface that anyone can get without any literary education. In other words, it has to have a common-sensual surface that anyone can get, and you have to hold people’s attention, which is where the comic part comes in, and then, when you get them laughing, you can zap them. (Laughter)

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In the years since “A Coney Island of the Mind” was published, Ferlinghetti has written eight other books of poetry as well as two novels and two plays. He has always used his bookstore as a forum to express his political views, which are usually critical of American foreign policy. He is concerned now about what he sees as threats to free speech in the war against terror.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: The Bush administration has been very adept at capitalizing on the national paranoia that’s been generated by 9/11 so that they can pass all kinds of legislation limiting free speech and invading individual privacy.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ferlinghetti spends part of each day at City Lights, which publishes about 12 new books a year. On this afternoon, he was working on a manuscript by the poet Jack Hirschman.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: This will be in our pocket poets series, which has been going since 1955. It’s up to number 53 or 54. Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems” was number four in this series. I mean, I grew up in New York, and I identify with the New York abstract expressionists.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Since he first came to San Francisco, Ferlinghetti has been a serious painter as well as a publisher and poet. Major galleries show his work, and some paintings have recently sold for as much as $50,000. In the preface to his new poetry collection, “How to Paint Sunlight,” Ferlinghetti writes that all he ever wanted to do was “paint light on the walls of life.”

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: “The changing light in San Francisco is none of your East-Coast light, none of your pearly light of Paris. The light of San Francisco is a sea light, an island light, and the light of fog blanketing the hills, drifting in at night through the golden gate to lie on the city at dawn, and then the halcyon late mornings after the fog burns off and the sun paints White Houses with the sea light of Greece, with sharp, clean shadows making the town look like it had just been painted, but the wind comes up at four o’clock, sweeping the hills, and then the veil of light of early morning, and then another scrim, when the new night fog floats in and in that vale of light the city drifts, anchorless, upon the ocean.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And so Lawrence Ferlinghetti goes about his days, painting, writing, publishing, agitating, always hoping he’s painting light on the walls of life.