Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 100: A Reading List

Lawrence Ferlinghetti on Monday, Jan. 15, 1988, in front of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco (AP Photo)

March 24, 2019, is American poet, activist, and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday. This week’s release of Little Boy, his new autobiographical stream-of-consciousness novel, is also a reason for Ferlinghetti fans to celebrate. In San Francisco, where his bookstore and literary landmark, City Lights, still stands strong, the city prepares for “Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 100” events around town.

To mark this milestone, here’s a reading list of interviews and features from the past several years about Ferlinghetti’s poetry and painting; his relationships with Allen Ginsberg and others of the Beat Generation (a label, writes Barry Miles at Poetry Foundation, that Ferlinghetti rejected); his observations on a dramatically changing San Francisco; and a bonus piece — a meditation on poetry, which Ferlinghetti delivered upon receiving the Frost Medal in 2003.

1. “What Is Poetry?: A Non-Lecture,” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 2003, Poetry Society of America)

As the 2003 Frost Medalist, Ferlinghetti delivered an ars poetica, a draft of which is published at Poetry Society of America.

Poems are emails from the unknown, beyond cyberspace.

Poetry as a first language preceded writing and still sounds in us, a mute music, an inchoate music.

Poems like moths press against the window trying to reach the light.

Poetry is white writing on black, black writing on white.

It is a Madeleine dipped in Proust’s tea.

It is a player-piano in an abandoned seaside casino, still playing.

All the world is one poem, all poetry one world, give or take a bomb or two.

Poetry is what we would cry out upon coming to ourselves in a dark wood in the middle of the journey of our life.

2. “Driving the Beat Road,” (Jeff Weiss, June 2017, The Washington Post)

Weiss drove up the California coast in search of surviving members of the Beat Generation and caught up with Ferlinghetti, along with poets Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, and novelist Herbert Gold, in this 12,000-word, multi-profile odyssey.

“It’s all going to be underwater in 100 years or maybe even 50,” he says when asked what he sees for San Francisco, the beloved adopted city that partially betrayed him. “The Embarcadero is one of the greatest esplanades in the world. On the weekends, thousands of people strut up and down like it’s the Ramblas in Barcelona. But it’ll all be underwater.”

That repetition of “underwater” lingers for a second, as though it’s an anchor that he can’t stop from sinking. At that moment, it’s not hard to imagine this cafe as an Atlantean ruin, filled with drowned corpses tethered to their laptops and iPhones until the soggy finish. He half-smiles again and shrugs, unapologetic for what he sees, as though to say one last time, don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

In another read at Poetry Foundation from March 2013, David Meltzer chats with the poet on his book Time of Useful Consciousness.

3. “The Beat Goes On,” (Barry Miles, March 2019, Poetry Foundation)

Miles, a Beat scholar and friend of Ferlinghetti, pays tribute to the centenarian, exploring his important work as a poet and publisher and his close connections with the other Beats, especially Allen Ginsberg.

The night we arrived, both Ferlinghetti and Shig slept outside on the terrace. It was idyllic. Before we returned to the city we visited the Esalen Institute. At the gates from the highway, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti debated which of them was a member. In the end, they decided they were both honorary members, and it’s true, they were welcomed as honored guests. We were fed, given wine, and invited to take part in the naked group photograph, although we had to leave before that occurred. It was interesting to see the reaction to Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti there. Both were respected as part of the California alternative body politic as expressed by Shelley’s line “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

4. “Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the old San Francisco, his new novel, and his first 100 years,” (Ira Silverberg, December 2018, Document Journal)

Ferlinghetti talks with Ira Silverberg, then an editor at Simon & Schuster, on visionary poets, Little Boy, and the unattractive transformation of San Francisco.

I think the San Francisco that we’ve known all these years is disappearing very fast. In another 20 years, we won’t even recognize this city. In the time of James Joyce—say, in 1902—Dublin was of such a size that you could walk down the main street, like Sackville Street, and meet everybody important in the literary world. I’m sure Dublin isn’t like that anymore, either, and in San Francisco in 1902, probably you could meet everybody important in the literary world. That’s all gone now.

5. “In Conversation: Lawrence Ferlinghetti with John Held, Jr.,” (John Held, Jr., December 2014, SFAQ)

In this conversation, which took place over four sessions in 2014, Ferlinghetti focuses the discussion on his painting, the reception of his art in Italy, art publishing, and the Bay Area art scene.

Yeah, but let’s stick to the painting subject. In the 1950s, I got Hassel Smith’s painting studio at 9 Mission Street. It’s the Audiffred Building. It’s at the foot of Market Street and the Embarcadero, and there was no electricity over the ground floor. On the ground floor was the Bank of America. On the second floor we shared the floor with the Alcoholics Anonymous club. On the same floor was Frank Lobdell—his studio was there and in the back of the floor was Marty Snipper, who was an art teacher. There was no heat over the first floor and no electricity. I had a small pot bellied stove for heat. So, it was just like a Paris studio. It was really studio size, like in Paris. In North Beach today, there are no studios. People have one room, and they call it a studio.

6. “Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Enduring San Francisco,” (Dwight Garner, March 2019, The New York Times)

Garners visits the City by the Bay to write about — and remember — Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco; his itinerary includes North Beach Beat-era hangouts like Caffe Trieste and Vesuvio Cafe, and a tour of bookstores around the city, from City Lights, which Ferlinghetti opened in 1953, to Dog Eared Books and Borderlands Books, both in the Mission.

At 99, Mr. Ferlinghetti is largely blind. He was not, I was told, quite up to receiving visitors. But we had two lively telephone conversations. In advance, I’d told both his publisher and his assistant that I planned to ask about his favorite places in the “cool, grey city of love,” as the poet George Sterling called it.

Yet when I rang, Mr. Ferlinghetti barked at me. “This is just the kind of interview I don’t like to do,” he said. “These sort of questions just leave me blank.” He condemned “travel section stuff.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him I was writing this article for the Travel section.