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Happy 90th birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti!

March 24, 2009 |  2:18 pm

Ferlinghetti

If all Lawrence Ferlinghetti had done in his life was open City Lights Bookstore, a vibrant San Francisco cultural center for more than 50 years, that alone would be an achievement.

If all he had done was write poetry, like in his book "A Coney Island of the Mind," that would be a notable achievement too.

If all he had done was found City Lights Publishers, the lively publishing house that, as its fourth pocket poetry book published Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" in 1956, setting off a storm of censorship controversy and launching the public life of the Beats, that on its own would have been enough accomplishment for one man.

But Lawrence Ferlinghetti did all that and more, and I admit, I'm a little star struck. As a child, Ferlinghetti was shuttled back and forth between the U.S. and France by an aunt, raised by family friends, finished college, then joined up during World War II. He fought at Normandy, then was transferred to the Pacific and ended up in Nagasaki weeks after the atomic bomb fell. He went to Paris after the war and earned a doctoral degree in poetry at the Sorbonne.

He returned to the U.S., married, went to San Francisco and started City Lights as a bookstore and magazine, then publisher. He fought the obscenity trial he knew "Howl" would generate. "It is not the poet but what he observes which is revealed as obscene," he wrote at the time. "The great obscene wasters of 'Howl' are the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms."  City Lights prevailed. And first edition copies of "Howl" now go for $3,500 and up.

And he was also a poet, driven by a sense of both art and political engagement. "Besides molding an image of the poet in the world, he created a poetic form that is at once rhetorically functional and socially vital," the critic Larry Smith wrote. "His work exists as a vital challenge and a living presence to the contemporary artist, as an embodiment of the strong, anticool, compassionate commitment to life in an absurd time."

On his birthday, why not read Lawrence Ferlinghetti's wonderful poem "Autobiography," from "A Coney Island of the Mind"?

Ferlinghetti has played an essential role in fostering a vital West Coast literary community -- both during the Beat era and after. His publishing house continues to focus on its mission to, as he described, "publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic. I had rather an international insurgent ferment in mind, and what has proved most fascinating are the continuing crosscurrents and cross-fertilizations between poets and writers widely separated by language or geography, coalescing in a truly supranational voice."

After the jump, there is a video of Ferlinghetti reading on the street in front of City Lights Books as part of its 50th anniversary celebration. In it you'll see the the sharpest, strongest, anticool cool insurgent ferment 80-something poet ever.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Christina Koci Hernandez / San Francisco Chronicle

Reads at the 50th anniversary of City Lights Bookstore, 2003

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