Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet laureate of San Francisco and one of the last surviving figures Beat Generation, has died just shy of his 102nd birthday. His son Lorenzo Ferlinghetti confirmed his passing to the Associated Press, saying that he died at his home in North Beach on Monday evening.
As the Washington Post reports, the cause was lung disease, and his death came just about a week after he received his first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
Ferlinghetti, who was as famous as a publisher and cofounder of City Lights Bookstore as he was as a poet and literary statesman, was most well known for his book of poems A Coney Island of the Mind, published in 1958, which is one of the bestselling books of poetry ever published. City Lights, in publishing a 50th anniversary edition of the book in 2008, said in a description, "Written in the conservative post-war 1950s, his poems still resonate, as they will continue to resonate, with a joyful anti-establishment fervor that beats a rhythmic portrait of humanity."
The book also captured a moment in time when San Francisco was just beginning to come into its contemporary sensibility as a magnet for the counterculture — three years after the famed Six Gallery reading in North Beach, immediately after which Ferlinghetti sent a telegram to Allen Ginsberg, who was eight years his junior, offering to publish his poem "Howl."
From Ferlinghetti's "A Coney Island of the Mind 8":
In Golden Gate Park that day
a man and his wife were coming
thru the enormous meadow
which was the meadow of the world
He was wearing green suspenders
and carrying an old beat-up flute in one hand
while his wife had a bunch of grapes
which she kept handing out individually
to various squirrels
as if each
were a little joke
And then the two of them came on
thru the enormous meadow
which was the meadow of the world
at a very still spot where the trees dreamed
and seemed to have been waiting thru all time for them
they sat down together on the grass without looking at each other
and ate oranges
without looking at each other and put the peels
in a basket which they seemed
to have brought for that purpose
without looking at each other
Ferlinghetti was born in 1919 in Yonkers, New York, and served in World War II directly after earning a Bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina. As the Chronicle writes, "Ferlinghetti was both a veteran of D-Day, in World War II, and of the left-wing intelligentsia that arose after the war."
He arrived in 1951 and was trying to make it as a painter for two years before he happened upon the man who would become his partner in business, SF State student Peter Martin, who was putting up a sign where City Lights remains today saying he wanted to open a paperback bookshop.
Ferlinghetti offered to put up $500 toward the store, and as he said in a 2012 interview, "The whole thing took about five minutes. We shook hands, and the store opened in June 1953 as City Lights Pocket Bookshop."
It was only three years later that Ferlinghetti won national attention for both himself and Ginsberg after he published Howl & Other Poems, and then stood by Ginsberg when the state of California prosecuted them both for obscenity — the poem "Howl" contained references to homosexuality and some graphic language. The trial was covered by Life magazine, and Judge Clayton W. Horn ultimately ruled in their favor, saying that the book had "redeeming social significance" and therefore wasn't obscene.
Ferlinghetti was then almost singlehandedly responsible for a tidal wave of court precedent that broke down obscenity and "decency" laws in the United States — and just up the street from City Lights, legendary topless dancer Carol Doda helped complete the cycle with her own court cases a decade later.
Always a little older and wiser than the Beat Generation figures he helped to publicize — and disapproving of their excesses and debauchery — Ferlinghetti stood apart from the people he's often lumped in with. He figures into Jack Kerouac's heart-wrenchingly personal novel Big Sur as Lorenzo Monsanto, having lent Kerouac his cabin in Big Sur as a place to dry out in during one of the writer's sober and productive periods.
As Ferlinghetti's friend, San Francisco poet Gary Snyder, describes him in the 2009 documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder, "His particular brand of highly reasoned, highly intelligent but witty political activism... he has carried that in his life and in his poetry effectively but lightly through his whole career career up until now."
Ferlinghetti was named San Francisco's first poet laureate by then Mayor Willie Brown in 1998 — and he would go on to outlive another of the city's Beat Generation poets laureate, Diane di Prima, by just a few months.
In 2013, at age 94, he told Interview magazine, "Generally, people seem to get more conservative as they age, but in my case, I seem to have gotten more radical. Poetry must be capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic."
At age 100, in 2019, Ferlinghetti published what he called his "literary last will and testament," and an "unapologetically unclassifiable work" called Little Boy, which bore the label "A Novel" but was not a novel in any traditional sense.
In the book, he asks, "Am I the consciousness of a generation or just some old fool sounding off and trying to escape the dominant materialist avaricious consciousness of America?"
As the New York Times wrote of the experimental work spanning most of the 20th Century, "No one’s biography has more completely or ardently embodied the visions and contradictions, the achievements and calamities, the social mobility and social animosities, of that life span."
In his later years, Ferlinghetti sounded saddened about and disconnected from what San Francisco had become. In a video interview in 2015, he spoke of the city he arrived in over 60 years earlier as "an offshore republic [and] a wide open city," adding, "You could come here and start anything you wanted." But in recent years he said it had become "an artistic theme park without artists."
"Now it’s like the rest of the country," he said. "Our city is like all the other cities. We’ve lost that feeling of being a unique place."
Ferlinghetti remained co-owner of City Lights, though he gave up participating in the business years ago. Co-owner Nancy Peters, who is also the retired executive director of City Lights Bookstore and Publishers, said in a statement to the Chronicle, "It was my good fortune to have worked closely with him for more than 50 years. We’ve lost a great poet and visionary. Lawrence — never Larry — was a legend in his time and a great San Franciscan."
As the Chronicle reports, Ferlinghetti "will be buried in the family plot in the Druid section of the Bolinas Cemetery, beside his late ex-wife, Selby Kirden-Smith."
Top photo courtesy of City Lights