March 24, 1919, witnessed the birth of poet
Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Yonkers,
New York. He wrote A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), the
best-selling book of poetry in the country during the Sixties and Seventies.
He was an iconoclastic symbol of and the ultimate spokesperson for the Beat
generation of the Fifties, in which writers, poets, and other artists lashed
out for the first time at the hypocrisy of modern American society.
Shortly after he was born, Ferlinghetti learned that his mother was insane
and sent to an asylum. The son was sent to France to live with
relatives. Upon return to the U.S. at the age of five, Ferlinghetti
learned to speak English.
During his teen-age years, he became an Eagle Scout and
joined a street gang by the name of “Parkway Road Pirates.” Later, he
was later arrested for petty theft. Like a man putting a match to
dynamite, Ferlinghetti's life exploded when he discovered--thanks to the
generosity of Sally Bisland--a latent love for literature. After
reading it, he tried his hand at writing it, as well as at painting,
theater, essays, and poetry.
After attending the University
of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Ferlinghetti joined the navy and took part
in the Normandy Invasion before being sent to Nagasaki six weeks after the
atomic bomb was dropped. He said later that his tour of Japan caused
him to turn against all wars, and he became an ardent pacifist.
After completing his service, he went to the Sorbonne to
study art on the G. I. Bill. He returned to San Francisco, where he met poet Kenneth Rexroth.
With partner Peter Martin, he opened his own shop in the heart of San
Francisco, the City Lights Bookstore, and began a venture to publish
inexpensive paperback volumes of poetry. The shop has served for half
a century as a meeting place for writers, artists, and intellectuals.
"If Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs provided the seeds for
the Beat Generation, then Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the midwife. He
created a haven for Beat writers and helped sprinkle the nation with
City Lights Publishers began with the Pocket Poets Series,
through which Ferlinghetti aimed to create an international, dissident
ferment. His publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 led
to his arrest by a customs' agent on obscenity charges. The trial that
followed drew national attention to the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat
movement writers. Ferlinghetti was overwhelmingly supported by
prestigious literary and academic figures and was eventually acquitted.
This landmark First Amendment case established a legal precedent for the
publication of controversial work with redeeming social significance.
In the early Sixties, Ferlinghetti owned a rustic cabin in Big Sur that
became the focal point of Jack Kerouac's 1962 novel of the same name. Ferlinghetti makes an appearance in the book as the practical Lorenzo
Monsanto, who urges the drunken celebrity author based on Kerouac to go on a
nature retreat to stop drinking, with predictably horrible results.
at 85, Ferlinghetti continues to walk the line between political advocacy
and businessman, poet and practitioner.
His A Coney Island of the Mind has been translated into nine
languages, with nearly 1 million copies in print. His most recent
books are A Far Rockaway of the Heart (1997) and How to Paint
Sunlight (2001), published by New Directions, New York. He has also
published two novels, Her (1960) and Love in the Days of Rage
He has received many awards, including the Los Angeles Times’ Robert
Kirsch Award, the BABRA Award for Lifetime Achievement, the National Book
Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Award for Contribution to American Arts and
Letters, and the ACLU’s Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award, as well as several
others in Italy.
In 2003, Ferlinghetti received The Authors' Guild Lifetime Achievement award
and the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Medal and was inducted into
the American Academy of Arts & Letters.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who once said, "Like a bowl of roses, a poem should
not have to be explained," still lives and works in San Francisco.
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