I guess the only thing more shocking than learning of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s death was learning that up until earlier this week he was still alive.
He seems to belong to such a far distant literary era that he hardly could have survived the attitudinal changes of the past five decades, and yet he died but three days ago, a month short of his 102nd birthday. Friends say he had still been writing past his 100th birthday.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti never thought of himself as a “beat” poet, but yet most of us lump him in a relatively exclusive club that includes Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, along with writers Ken Kezey and Jack Kerouac. In truth, few of Ferlinghetti’s poems, if any, rose to the level of Ginsberg’s Howl (famous enough to be parodied often) , but if anyone supported and nurtured the writers we call “the beats,” it was Ferlinghetti.
In fact, more significant than any other factor that propelled that beat movement forward was Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Pocket Book Shop which he and a friend Peter Martin opened in San Francisco almost 70 years ago. It was a place to find, as Ferlinghertti put it, “books you couldn’t find anywhere else.” A few years later he began writing poetry. More important, it was City Lights that published Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, which became the anthem of the beat generation.
When I was teaching poetry courses in the late 1900’s, the beats were already part of history, along with beatniks, hippies, flower children, and the entire counterculture movement. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were always part of my curriculum, but students were more taken with the confessional, almost embarrassingly personal poems of writers like Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton. Angst head replaced social criticism, and while that statement may very well be a sweeping and unprovable generality, I do believe it dictated the direction my courses took. We did read some of Howl and some of Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind, but the tortured introspection of the confessional poets (and their often dramatic suicides) always resonated more with high school students and with poetry readers in general.
Now, with Ferlinghetti gone, the last direct link to the beats has been severed, but as if to prove that his influence will continue, in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, City Lights closed and, like many other businesses, expressed a fear that it would not reopen. In four days the store received nearly a half-million dollars in donations. City Lights is now planning for the future. There will remain a place to stop in, browse a little, and maybe—even in an Amazon world—find some “books you couldn’t find anywhere else.” If that becomes Lawrence Ferlinghetti's only legacy, it will be an exceptional one.