LOOKING BACK ON A CENTURY – WELL ALMOST.
Nearly 50 years ago, when I was a student in Pittsburgh, I wrote a paper about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet who had recently visited our campus. For some reason my professor liked the paper and thought that if I worked on it some more, it might be something he could publish. I wrote to Ferlinghetti and asked him a few questions, but he replied that he was too busy to correspond — but that if I’d like to visit him in San Francisco I could stay at his apartment and have access to his archive. It was a trip that I’ve never regretted taking and it set in motion a lifetime of work with the writers of the Beat Generation. One thing that I distinctly remember was thinking that Lawrence must be one of the older poets still alive, he must have been nearly fifty! I would never have guessed that it would be the beginning of a relationship that has lasted nearly a half century and continues to this day as he celebrates his 99th birthday.
Later, when my bibliography on Ferlinghetti was nearing completion I waited until his book Open Eye, Open Heart was published. This was 1973 and I knew there was a good chance that it would be his last book, since no one of such an advanced age could continue to be creative. And here he is, decades later and dozens of books later, still battling the established order of things through his poetry, his artwork, and his publishing house.
Ferlinghetti has always been an outsider in nearly every sense of the word. His father died before he was born and as a baby he was separated from his mother and brothers.
He grew up briefly in France and later was the ward of a wealthy Bronxville family, who sent him off to private school when he showed signs of teenage rebellion. As he remembers it, he was nabbed for shoplifting the same week that he became an Eagle Scout. Surprisingly to anyone who knows of his pacifist views he spent the duration of World War II in the Navy, but it provided him with a college education through the GI Bill. Painting became his passion and after studying at the Sorbonne he headed for San Francisco, intending to stay their only because it reminded him of a Mediterranean city and was close to a wine growing region. It was only by chance that he became partners in a bookshop in North Beach, probably thinking that it would help pay the bills until his painting career took off.
And then one day Allen Ginsberg walked into City Lights and brought the Beat Generation to Lawrence’s doorstep. Even then, Ferlinghetti felt that he was of an older generation than these younger poets, but he admired their work and began to publish them when no one else would. Ginsberg remained loyal to City Lights for 25 years and the sales of his books enabled the publisher and bookstore to become one of the leading avant-garde institutions in the country. Unfortunately, success as an entrepreneur also tied Ferlinghetti down and as Ginsberg and Company traveled the world, with the freedom of experiencing whatever they found there, Lawrence remained in San Francisco, carrying on the work and dreaming of someday being able to travel without responsibilities back home.
In the meantime his own poetry became more popular than his artworks ever were and he lamented the fact that in America a person could only be successful at one endeavor unlike Europe where a poet could also be equally respected a painter or a playwright. During the 1960s his book A Coney Island of the Mind reached the million mark in terms of sales, quite a rare accomplishment for a book of contemporary poetry. That led to speaking engagements across the country and eventually brought him to my university which is where this short tale began. I’m now confident that his 99th birthday is only the beginning and that we’ll be honoring many more Ferlinghetti birthdays in the future.