I thought poets were stuffy bards on Mount Olympus with no connection to the passions, provocations or language of earthly mortals. Until, in the 1970s, I came home from college for the winter holidays. Like many, I was appalled by the commercialization of not only the Christmas season but of society at large, and furious at the ongoing Vietnam War. One evening, I found a poetry book, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in my parents’ bookcase.
“Christ climbed down/from His bare tree/this year,” Ferlinghetti wrote in the poem from the collection “Christ Climbed Down,” “and ran away to where/no intrepid Bible salesmen/covered the territory/in two-tone cadillacs.”
From that moment on, I knew that good poets, like rock stars, are practitioners of provocation: great poems speak directly to our hearts and minds, and infiltrate our DNA.
Ferlinghetti, a renowned poet, died on Feb. 22 at 101 at his San Francisco home. For decades, he was the proprietor of City Lights, the San Francisco bookstore and publishing house. Ferlinghetti wrote dozens of books from his first collection “Pictures of the Gone World” published in 1955 to the novel “Little Boy” published in 2019.
“A Coney Island of the Mind” has been carried in backpacks and read aloud accompanied by jazz by generations of queer and hetero students and still-hip elders. It has been translated into nine languages and is one of the best-selling poetry books in history.
City Lights, as a bookstore and publisher, from the get-go has nurtured writers and readers. It’s been a place where authors could meet, talk, and find community. Since the 1950s, it has published writers and poets who would receive little or no attention from mainstream publishers. It fostered the work of the authors and artists who became known as the Beat Generation. Like millions of acolytes, I visited City Lights when I was in San Francisco. It felt like being on holy ground.
Long before people talked about being an ally or hetero grandmas marched in gay pride parades, City Lights published queer writers. Ferlinghetti became famous after he published gay poet Allen Ginsberg’s poetry collection “Howl and other Poems” in 1956.
In “Howl,” a political manifesto, Ginsberg writes explicitly of gay sex “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists” and of “who were burned alive in their innocent flannel shirts of Madison Avenue.” In 1957, Ferlinghetti was arrested. He was charged with “willfully and lewdly” printing “indecent writings.” In a significant victory for the First Amendment, Ferlinghetti was acquitted. The judge ruled that “Howl” wasn’t obscene because it “had redeeming social importance.”
City Lights also published “Lunch Poems,” the acclaimed and beloved poetry collection by gay poet Frank O’Hara. His poem “The Day Lady Died” (written after the death of Billie Holiday) will move you to tears. His poem called “Poem,” an outpouring of love to Lana Turner, will sweep you off your feet with joy. Yet, O’Hara, as his friend queer poet John Ashberry said were dashed off “at odd moments.” Without Ferlinghetti’s careful attention and nurturing, we might not have “Lunch Poems.”
In 1979, Maryland’s tenth Poet Laureate Grace Cavalieri traveled to San Francisco. There, she interviewed Ferlinghetti in his loft above City Lights for Radio Paris. He was “sitting cross-legged,” Cavalieri, producer of the public radio show (recorded at the Library of Congress), emailed the Blade. He “was so connected to his Italian heritage that he was writing a book on Italian women feminists,” Cavalieri said. “At 60 years of age, he was immersed in social action and making significant change.”
Ferlinghetti turned poetry haters into poetry lovers, Clarinda Harriss, who taught English for decades at Towson University, told me. He transformed the “reading-resistant” into “‘give us more poetry people,” she said.
Sarah Browning is the former executive director of Split This Rock, a poetry organization that works for justice. “We built Split This Rock on his shoulders,” Browning told me.
The group was modeled on City Lights as being “a gathering place – for writers, thinkers and activists,” she said, “and one that was welcoming of queer people from the outset.”
Thank you, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for your passion, provocation, and poetry! R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.