Lawrence Ferlinghetti has died. He was 101, a month off turning 102 in fact. What a life. The poet and publisher would have been important had he never written a word himself – he was a founder and co-owner of the legendary San Francisco bookstore and imprint City Lights and as a publisher he was the person pushing forward many of the Beats into print. He was sometimes referred to as a Beat himself and didn’t agree with that tag.
He was famously arrested on obscenity charges for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, Howl. For that alone he would be important to literature.
But in 1958 Ferlinghetti released his own first book poems, A Coney Island of The Mind. This legendary collection is one of poetry’s great feats, translated and reprinted in dozens of territories and many times over as well as being performed as a spoken-word album by Ferlinghetti.
Indeed, that 1999 recording on Rykodisc was my introduction to the great man. As a student of the Beats and the poetry scenes in America in the 50s and 60s I had to hear Coney Island and had to learn about Ferlinghetti. I’d realise that I’d seen him already – his brilliant walk-on and recreation/remix of The Lord’s Prayer in The Band’s concert film/doc, The Last Walz.
Many years later, and holidaying in San Francisco, I sat in a hot tub in Stinson Beach – Grateful Dead’s music on in the background – and read A Coney Island cover to cover; I knew it already but it was a real experience to read it in that part of the world. A few days later I was visiting City Lights, returning later that same week to see an amazing in-store reading from Barry Gifford (Wild At Heart) and the musician and author Willy Vlautin (The Delines, Richmond Fontaine).
Ferlinghetti was also a painter, an essayist, a philosopher, activist and simply – by virtue of longevity, his publishing commitments and his own work – an icon. So much so that in 2019, for his 100th birthday, the city of San Francisco named March 24 “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day”. It will be a bittersweet celebration this year. But 101 is some life. Particularly when lived the way that Ferlinghetti went about things: A politically engaged artist that fostered the career of many famous writers and published dozens of books featuring his own work as well as a handful of studio recordings. What a poet. What a dude. What an artist.
R.I.P. Lawrence Ferlinghetti