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Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Photo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti On February 22, 2021, poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti died at age 101. As a public intellectual of enormous influence, Ferlinghetti’s impact on free speech, freedom of expression, avant garde poetry, critical literacy, and the politics of dissent cannot be overstated. He founded the iconic City Lights Bookstore and Press in the 1950s which continues to embody his **resplendent radicalism. In his long career as a discerning publisher, translator, and editor, he brought other like-minded poets to an international audience.

These pages include information about Ferlinghetti, links to his works, readings from his work by the NAU community, and a place to discuss his influence on American culture.

Short Biographical Resources

Poetry

His was a “wide-open” poetry. Lawrence Ferlinghetti thought poetry should be taken off the page and moved into the street. As a populist poet he was influenced by a post-war international avant-garde, including the French poet Jacques Prévert and Kenneth Rexroth. Like Rexroth, he believed the poem was a tool for urgent communication. And what did his poetry communicate? A challenge to social norms and normativities. A questioning of consumerist ideologies. Anti-fascism. Freedom of speech and expression. Environmentalism. Anti-imperialism. Radical literacy. Not a Beat himself, he served as a sort of mentor to their literary movement and as an editor, publisher, and translator of a global movement in dissident literature from the 1950s and into the 21st century. Of Ferlinghetti's own poetry, the best known is perhaps "A Coney Island of the Mind" (1958). Having sold well over a million copies, it is one of the country's best-selling collections of poetry.

Ferlinghetti is the author of more than 30 collections of poetry. Two collections of Ferlinghetti's poetry provide insight into the development of the writer's overarching style and thematic approach: Endless Life: Selected Poems and These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955-1993. His 2005 manifesto, written and rewritten over a 25-year span, is Poetry as Insurgent Art. The collection is a sometimes playful, often serious, exhortation on the purpose and public life of poetry.

Ferlinghetti chose selections from among his eight books of poetry and his works in progress, written over twenty-six years, for inclusion in Endless Life: Selected Poems.

More than four decades of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry show him to be an ageless radical with a distinctive voice. The poems found in These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955-1993 validate Ferlinghetti’s definition of poetry as “the common carrier/ for the transportation of the public/ to higher places/ than other wheels can carry it.”

Ferlinghetti reads “The World Is a Beautiful Place” in the office of City Lights Books in San Francisco: https://poets.org/poet/lawrence-ferlinghetti and https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/lawrence-ferlinghetti

For more of Ferlinghetti's poetry and literary criticism search the Library catalog [will open a new window].

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Overview and Literary Analysis

Pablo Picasso thanked Lawrence Ferlinghetti for his "wide-open poetry." Conducting research on Ferlinghetti's literary contributions not only reveals much about the poet and his extensive body of work, but provides valuable insight into literary history, social movements, and an ever-shifting cultural landscape.

Search the NAU Library Catalog for more resources

City Lights Bookstore and Publisher

City Lights is a landmark independent bookstore and publisher in San Francisco that specializes in world literature, the arts, and progressive politics. 

In 1953 Ferlinghetti joined with Peter D. Martin in a brief partnership to publish a magazine, City Lights, named after the silent film starring actor Charlie Chaplin. In order to subsidize the magazine, Martin and Ferlinghetti opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop  as the country's first all-paperback bookstore in San Francisco's Little Italy, a neighborhood on the edge of Chinatown.

The bookshop - renowned for its bohemian atmosphere and vast collections of international poetry, fiction, progressive political journals and magazines - soon spawned a literary press, which in 1956 published Ginsberg's controversial epic poem, Howl.  Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao, City Lights manager, were charged with disseminating obscene literature, and both were arrested.  

Ferlinghetti on Trial

Ferlinghetti stood trial for selling Howl in a precedent-setting First Amendment case, in which the judge found that Ginsberg's profanity-laced work had "redeeming social significance" and therefore was not obscene. The victory paved the way for publication of other controversial works of literature, including D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. A comprehensive history of the trial is in Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression

Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg became famous, as did City Lights, still going strong in San Francisco's North Beach district more than a half-century later.

There is a film on the Howl Obscenity trial staring James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker and Jon Hamm available at and through the Library.

City Lights Press

The publishing arm of City Lights Bookstore was inspired by what Ferlinghetti saw as a student at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill: booksellers who also published books, thus contributing to a vibrant atmosphere of diverse, affordable, independently supported literature. In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched the Pocket Poets Series as a way to make progressive poetry available to a wide audience. His own Pictures of a Gone World became Pocket Poets Number One. To date over 60 titles have been published as part of the series, showcasing a global sampling of the world’s best dissident poetry.

Under his direction and later managing editors Nancy Johnson and Elaine Katzenberger, City Lights has published over 300 books of cutting-edge literature and social justice. The mission of City Lights publishing, Ferlinghetti explained, “was to publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic. I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment.”

For more of on City Lights and their published works search the Library catalog (City Lights Books)

 

Helpful Web Resources

Credits

This guide was created and edited by Dr. John J Doherty and Kevin Ketchner for the Northern Arizona University Cline Library and the NAU College of Arts and Letters, in consultation with Dr. Gioia Woods, Professor in the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies.

Unless otherwise copyrighted, information presented here is done so under a CC-BY Creative Commons License.