Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, publisher, bookseller and activist who helped launch the Beat movement in the 1950s and embodied its curious and rebellious spirit into the 21st century, has died at the age of 101.
Ferlinghetti, a San Francisco institution, died at his home on Monday, his son Lorenzo Ferlinghetti said. Ferlinghetti died “in his own room,” holding the hands of his son and his son’s girlfriend, as he took his last breath. The cause of death was lung disease.
He had received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine last week and was a month before he was 102.
Few of the poets of the past 60 years were so well known or so influential. He won numerous awards throughout his life and retained the status of one of America’s most influential poets for decades.
In addition to establishing himself as a successful writer and publisher, he ran one of the world’s most famous and distinctive bookstores, City Lights. It has become an essential meeting place for Beats and other bohemians, and remains beloved today.
Its publishing branch has published books by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and many others. The most famous release was Ginsberg’s anthemic poem To scream. This led to an obscenity trial in 1957 which opened up new avenues for free speech.
In that trial, Ferlinghetti was charged with printing “indecent writing”, but he was later acquitted. The poem has become one of the best-known writings of the 20th century.
Ferlinghetti published his first collection, Images of the vanished world, in 1955, a small series of his first poems. He followed with An island of the spirit of Coney in 1958, which sold over a million copies and established Ferlinghetti as a serious author.
Tall with lively blue eyes and a soft, introverted voice in unfamiliar surroundings, Ferlinghetti defied definition. Critics have often questioned whether he should be considered a Beat Poet, but he never considered himself a poet. He told the Guardian newspaper in 2006 that his work was more about sustaining the movement than getting involved.
“In some ways, what I really did was take care of the store,” he says. “When I arrived in San Francisco in 1951, I wore a beret. In fact, I was the last of the Bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.”
Yet he shared the Beats’ taste for hustle and bustle and cultural criticism.
“Am I the consciousness of a generation or just some old fool ringing and trying to escape America’s dominant materialistic miserly consciousness?” he asked Boy, a conscience novel published around its 100th anniversary.
Ferlinghetti’s bookstore defied expectations as much as the author himself. As the internet, supermarket chains, and high rents shut down many booksellers in the Bay Area and beyond, City Lights remained a thriving political and cultural outlet. A section was devoted to “Revolutionary Skill” books, where employees could take a day off to attend an anti-war demonstration.
“In general, people seem to get more conservative as they get older, but in my case, I seem to have become more radical,” Ferlinghetti told Interview magazine in 2013. “Poetry must be able to respond to the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if that means sounding apocalyptic. “
City Lights even lasted during the coronavirus, as a GoFundMe campaign quickly raised US $ 400,000 after being forced to close and needing US $ 300,000 to stay in business. A commemorative article on the bookstore’s website describes Ferlinghetti as an instrumental force in the “democratization of American literature.”
“The greatest poem is the lyric life itself.”
Our poet and hero, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, passed away on Monday February 22 in the evening.
“For over 60 years, those of us who have worked with him at City Lights have been inspired by his knowledge and love of literature, his courage in defending the right to free speech and his vital role in ‘American cultural ambassador,’ the message read.
“His curiosity was boundless, and his enthusiasm was contagious, and he will be sorely missed.
Ferlinghetti has appeared in numerous documentaries, including in 2013 Ferlinghetti: a rebirth of wonder. The 2010 film To scream, starring James Franco and Jon Hamm, dramatized the poem’s trial of obscenity. In it, Ferlinghetti was portrayed by American actor Andrew Rogers.