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As you watch the 93-year-old Lawrence Ferlinghetti with shoulders squared back like a 21-year-old athlete striding briskly through the streets of San Francisco in the marvelous new documentary “Ferlinghetti: a Rebirth of Wonder”, it might occur to you that poetry and radical politics are the magic elixir that Ponce De Leon was searching for in vain.
As a seminal figure of the Beat Generation, Ferlinghetti is still going strong as are a number of other poets who pay tribute to him throughout the film, including Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Amiri Baraka (who started out as a beat poet named LeRoi Jones.) Though having departed to higher spiritual realms, Allen Ginsberg makes a striking appearance as well, sitting side by side with Ferlinghetti as they are interviewed on art and politics. The connection between the two is particularly intimate since Ferlinghetti risked prison time for publishing “Howl” back in 1956 through the auspices of City Lights Books, an offshoot of the bookstore he had launched a few years earlier.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of bookstores like City Lights and George Whitman’s Shakespeare and Company in the 1950s. Shakespeare and Company opened in Paris around the time that Ferlinghetti was working on a PhD at the Sorbonne. After coming back to the United States, he decided to open his own store modeled on Whitman’s, paying homage to it by putting up a sign “Shakespeare and Company” just above “City Lights” and right above the front door. In the mid-50s, the paperback revolution was gathering strength and people like Ferlinghetti were in the vanguard, placing titles by New Directions and Grove Press on their shelves, as well as those of publishers even more on the leading edge. Fortunately Whitman was interviewed for the documentary just before his death at the age of 98 in December 2011, additional evidence that rebellion is good for your health.
In New York City the counterpart of such stores was the Eighth Street Bookshop owned and operated by Eli Wilentz, the father of historian Sean Wilentz. As an aspiring young Beatnik and Bard College undergrad in the early 60s I used to make pilgrimages to Wilentz’s store to check out the latest books and magazines. I bought my Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Gary Snyder there, as well as Barney Rosset’s Evergreen Review. Harry Braverman, who had parted ways with the Socialist Workers Party in the mid-50s for pretty much the reasons I had about 25 years later, had joined Rosset’s Grove Press as an editor and could be relied upon to stump for books like “Autobiography of Malcolm X”, “Che Guevara Speaks”, and Franz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth”, all Grove Press imprints.
Ferlinghetti states emphatically that the beat generation provided the roots of both the 60s radicalization and the counter-culture. The beats had a smaller audience, including only the most alienated teenagers at outposts like Bard College, Oberlin, Antioch, and Goddard who were ready to go on the road even if this meant dropping out of school.
In less than a decade hundreds of thousands would attend be-in’s or peace demonstrations inspired by the same sentiments found in works such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island of the Mind”, a collection of poems that was likely to be found on any bookshelf next to works by Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs. Ferlinghetti explains that the book’s title comes from a phrase found in Henry Miller’s “Into the Night Life”. Miller, of course, was godfather to the beat generation just as the beats were to the 60s radicals and hippies.
The first page electrifies me as much as it did when I first read it around 50 years ago:
In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
They writhe upon the page
in a veritable rage
groaning with babies and bayonets
under cement skies
in an abstract landscape of blasted trees
bent statues bats wings and beaks
cadavers and carnivorous cocks
and all the final hollering monsters
‘imagination of disaster’
they are so bloody real
it is as if they really still existed
After graduating Bard in 1965 I drove out to San Francisco with another Bard graduate named Rick Smith, who played a mean blues harmonica, on Route 66. There were no interstates at the time—thank god. We didn’t have to say it to each other, but we were sure we were reliving the Dean Moriarty-Sal Paradise experience in our own modest way. I wanted to live in San Francisco and write poetry. This was at a time when the cruel realities of the job market had not yet forced young people down the maws of law or business school.
It was not, however, too soon for the crueler reality of the Vietnam War that made me hightail it back to New York and into the welcoming arms of the New School and a draft deferment. In a couple of years I would become a political as well as a cultural radical. I only wish that the political path I followed had been closer to Ferlinghetti’s anarchism that was much more on native grounds, as Albert Kazin once put it.
Years later I would discover that people like Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth, whose anarchist-Buddhist oriented show on KPFA had influenced him, were members of a tradition that both preceded and lay outside the Marxist orthodoxy of the CPUSA and SWP variety. With the Bay Area serving as a long-standing hotbed for anarchism and pacifism, it is not a stretch to say that the “San Francisco Renaissance” strand of the beat generation was a critical link between the beats and the 60s counterculture. Indeed, Lew Hill—the founder of the Pacifica Network—had spent time in doing alternative service as a conscientious objector during WWII.
Ferlinghetti joined the navy before WWII and found himself part of numerous large scale landing forces, including the one that came to Japan right after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Under conditions of non-existent security, he found his way to Nagasaki and was appalled by what he saw. Every building had been leveled to the ground and the severed limbs of the dead could be seen everywhere protruding from the rubble. From that moment on, he was a pacifist driven by the same sense of humanity that led Howard Zinn to pacifism after seeing the destruction he had wrought as an air force bombardier.
“Ferlinghetti: a Rebirth of Wonder” opens on February 8th at the Quad in New York. Check http://firstrunfeatures.com/ferlinghetti_playdates.html to see other venues. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a national treasure and the kind of poet laureate we really deserve. Don’t miss this inspiring glimpse into the life of a man who made us what we are today.
Film trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJZXUnurZGo