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Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Visiting Poet

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped to spark the San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1950’s and the subsequent Beat movement in American poetry, and he’s still going strong, having served as first Poet Laureate of San Francisco (1998-1999) and continuing to write a weekly column, “Poetry as News,” for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Poet, novelist, playwright, translator, publisher, essayist, activist, and painter, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s life and writing “stand as models of the existentially authentic and engaged.” Long before the advent of café bookstores, Ferlinghetti co-founded the City Lights Book Shop, the first book store in the United States devoted exclusively to paperbacks. Ferlinghetti’s fledgling publishing venture, City Lights Pocket Books, became world-famous during the 1957 court battle that ensued when Allen Ginsberg’s first book, Howl, was impounded for obscenity. Ultimately, Howl was declared literature, not pronography. City Lights published Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder early in their careers, as well as a good deal of European poetry; its list remains vibrant, currently featuring art, politics, and literature in translation from Europe and Latin America.

Of Ferlinghetti’s own poetry, best-known is the ever-popular A Coney Island of the Mind (1958); having sold well over a million copies, it is one of the country’s best-selling books of poems. Other volumes include Starting from San Francisco (1961), The Secret Meaning of Things (1969), Landscapes of Living and Dying (1979), These Are My Rivers (1993), and A Far Rockaway of the Heart (1997), which is a sequel to Coney Island (forty years later), and consists of 101 poems as unrepentant and exultant as ever, defying popular notions and reflecting the influence of jazz and the American idiom. How to Paint Sunlight, Ferlinghetti’s fourteenth collection of poems, is being released by New Directions this month.

Unbeknownst to most of the literary world, Ferlinghetti has been a serious and obsessive painter since 1948, and in recent years has had a number of exhibitions, including a major show in Italy. At the age of 82, this ageless radical and true bard comes to Northampton direct from Greece, where he was one of a select group asked to read a poem to the Delphic Oracle on the occasion of the spring solstice.

Select Poems

Retired ballerinas on winter afternoons
walking their dogs
in Central Park West
(or their cats on leashes –
the cats themselves old highwire artists)
The ballerinas
leap and pirouette
through Columbus Circle
while winos on park benches
(laid back like drunken Goudonovs)
hear the taxis trumpet together
like horsemen of the apocalypse
in the dusk of the gods
It is the final witching hour
when swains are full of swan songs
to their bright cells
in glass highrises
or sit down to oval cigarettes and cakes
in the Russian Tea Room
or climb four flights to back rooms
in Westside brownstones
where faded playbill photos
fall peeling from their frames
like last year’s autumn leaves

There’s a breathless hush on the freeway tonight
Beyond the ledges of concrete
restaurants fall into dreams
with candlelight couples
Lost Alexandria still burns
in a billion lightbulbs
Lives cross lives
idling at stoplights
Beyond the cloverleaf turnoffs
‘Souls eat souls in the general emptiness’
A piano concerto comes out a kitchen window
A yogi speaks at Ojai
‘It’s all taking place in one mind’
On the lawn among the trees
lovers are listening
for the master to tell them they are one
with the universe
Eyes smell flowers and become them
There’s a deathless hush
on the freeway tonight
as a Pacific tidal wave a mile high
sweeps in
Los Angeles breathes its last gas
and sinks into the sea like the Titanic all lights lit
Nine minutes later Willa Cather’s Nebraska
sinks with it
The seas come in over Utah
Mormon tabernacles washed away like salt
Coyotes are confounded & swim nowhere
An orchestra onstage in Omaha
keeps on playing Handel’s Water Music
Horns fill with water
and bass players float away on their instruments
clutching them like lovers horizontal
Chicago’s Loop becomes a rollercoaster
Skyscrapers filled like water glasses
Great Lakes mixed with Buddhist brine
Great Books watered down in Evanston
Milwaukee beer topped with sea foam
Beau Fleuve of Buffalo suddenly become salt
Manhattan Island swept clean in sixteen seconds
buried masts of New Amsterdam arise
as the great wave sweeps on Eastward
to wash away over-age Camembert Europe
mannahatta steaming in sea-vines
the washed land awakes again to wilderness
the only sound a vast thrumming of crickets
a cry of seabirds high over
in empty eternity
as the Hudson retakes its thickets
and Indians reclaim their canoes

The little airplanes of the heart
with their brave little propellers
What can they do
against the winds of darkness
even as butterflies are beaten back
by hurricanes
yet do not die
They lie in wait wherever
they can hide and hang
their fine wings folded
and when the killer-wind dies
they flutter forth again
into the new-blown light
live as leaves

About Lawrence

City Lights Biography
Poetry Center Reading Dates: April 2001