Lawrence Ferlinghetti, dead at 101; missed by many, made a home for poets and freethinkers.
I was impressed and still am. As a 20 something, I hitchhiked across the Bay maybe 10 times from Berkeley to City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, San Francisco, a comb and libary card with some money in my little suede wrist bag, a stenopad for poetry, half full, in my hand. Feeling I might never come back, I’d head out alone to meet my fate, freedom was the word. A lot like I imagined the life of the beat poets in San Francisco and Paris. If Berkeley was the philosphical center of the world (it was to me!), surely City Lights was its literary watering hole.
At City Lights, named after the Chaplin film and modeled after Shakespeare Books on the Left Bank in Paris, I’d buy books, mags, anything to break open my imagination and passion and then carry my hoard into either Vesuvio’s Cafe, for a brave and free scotch soda, or Cafe Treiste for writing poetry amidst poets, excellent capuchino in hand. I’d start with skimming a magazine piece or two, then write a quick poem for later polishing, then look around for the traditional conversation, memorably one about why Anais Nin owed it to her public to tell all about her relationship to her husband. What? But at least you could discuss Henry Miller and Shakespeare with the same person, and, of course, the Vietnam War! And every Trieste hangout was a regular at City Lights it seemed.
Ferlinghetti’s City Lights world encompassed the whole of great writing, as the gent had a doctorate in comparative literature from the Sorbonne, and also hung his hat with new writers, breaking barriers of speech and behavior. He and his buddy, Alan Ginsberg, were publishers for the beats and also served as PR guys, bringing fame and enough money for poet’s to survive the scene in San Francisco.
Ferlinghetti gave store space to the whole Grove Press series as well as to tiny weird chapbooks written by anybody who cared to (well, they had to have SOME talent) the chapbooks left in stacks and racks in a magic little nook of their own. Ferlingetti’s most famous poem, Coney Island of the Mind, became possibly the most purchased poetry chapbook in American history.
Tributes to L. Ferlinghetti abound. Democracy Now! revisited an interview from 2013 where Amy Goodman looks noticably younger and softer and Ferlinghetti at 88 more lucid than anybody has a right to. A life well lived! Love his little book, Poetry as Insurgent Art, offered in that interview and the poem he read then, ringing true just now, below.
“Pity The Nation”
Pity the nation whose people are sheep,
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars, whose sages are silenced,
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice,
except to praise conquerors and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world with force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation — oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee, sweet land of liberty.”