JUNE 2, 2019
ON THE MORNING OF his 100th birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, San Francisco’s first poet laureate, woke up to a celebratory phone call from his 98-year-old literary agent. The calls kept coming from relationships he’d built over the last century as friends and family flooded his small North Beach apartment just blocks away from his bookstore, City Lights. The poet, nearly blind, received gifts including audio books of Swann’s Way and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. A choir gathered outside and sang “Happy Birthday” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” (“It’s root, root, root for the Giants!”) as City Lights’s current publisher, Elaine Katzenberger, led Ferlinghetti by the arm and opened a window for him to hear. It was officially Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day, proclaimed by the mayor of San Francisco, with celebrations of his poetry, paintings, publishing work, and the defense of free speech ringing out down the street and around the world.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born on March 24, 1919, in New York. His father died from a heart attack before he was born, and his mother gave him up soon after, when she entered a mental hospital. The tumultuous childhood that followed is the inspiration for Little Boy, Ferlinghetti’s most recent book, which was published by Doubleday this March. Days before his birthday, a crowd of San Franciscans had lined up down the street for the book’s release at City Lights. The novel — part fiction, part memoir, part poetry — opens with the story of a boy who was shuffled around by a series of relatives. The child’s first language was French due to an aunt’s move to Paris. The little boy and aunt lived there together, although she had to give him up, for a time, to an orphanage. Ferlinghetti notes repeatedly that the child in the book did not receive hugs or tenderness from adults.
“I think it shows your upbringing is not your fate,” Little Boy editor, Gerry Howard, said, standing outside of City Lights. “You can actually make a soul out of your reading material … you can furnish your inner life. For any reader, that’s a wonderful tool for psychic living.” Howard was referring to Ferlinghetti’s early years (and the first 25 pages of Little Boy) when he returned to the States and lived with a relative’s wealthy employer who had a substantial library.
Katzenberger was also moved by Ferlinghetti’s early years. “I’ve often thought about the starkness of his childhood and the kind of damage that could be done to a child (facing abandonment and no affection),” she said.
And I’ve always marveled at how resilient he must be to have emerged from that as a life force, instead of folding inward. It’s not that he doesn’t have melancholy, but it doesn’t rule him. In some ways he says that in the book. He got very comfortable inside of his own head. And thank goodness he was intelligent enough and witty and curious enough to keep himself going.
It’s a love of literature that propels the title character and the narrative itself in Little Boy. After the introduction, which contains traditional punctuation and a narrative arc, the book explodes into a wealth of literary references and musings on meaning and mortality, consciousness and dissent, America and global citizenship. With a cascade of warnings, memories, and literary figures, we hear the familiar, often funny poet (who once began a poem, “Don’t let that horse / eat that violin / cried Chagall’s mother”) unafraid to blend lowbrow humor with quotations of Proust, to unapologetically address the reader in both a decisively new style and in his signature voice.
Because the book is so densely allusive, Ferlinghetti’s editors had to keep checking if his references were full quotations, puns, slants, or misquotations. “It’s wild in the best way,” Howard reflected, adding, “It was very strenuous to edit.” Trish Bransten, a director at the Rena Bransten Gallery hosting Ferlinghetti’s painting exhibit Lawrence Ferlinghetti: 100 Years Without a Net, had a similar problem. “I constantly have to double check the sources, because he grabs from so many poets,” she said. “He is layering literary traditions, visual arts traditions, his own experience with World War II and the Beat poets, the Bible. He celebrates his influences.”
Ferlinghetti’s habit of playfully borrowing from his influences is lifelong. When he telegrammed Allen Ginsberg in 1955 regarding the Howl manuscript, he wrote, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” intentionally quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s letter to Walt Whitman in response to the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The title of Ferlinghetti’s most famous poetry collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, was taken from Henry Miller’s Into The Night Life, and the Poetry Pocket Series, which highlights 61 poets in small accessible booklets, was modeled after a French series. The most recent Poetry Pocket Series author, Tongo Eisen-Martin, was one of the featured readers at Ferlinghetti’s birthday.
Staff at City Lights suggested Ferlinghetti’s work as a translator was largely responsible for his initial success. After all, it was his translations of Jacques Prévert’s poetry that were published in City Lights Magazine, which led to his later conversations with Peter Martin, which led to the two men buying the bookstore together. In the midst of championing other voices, often international, Ferlinghetti began to find his own. “There’s always a sense of humor,” Katzenberger said, referring to his poems. “And emotionally it’s very available and real. There’s wonder, outrage, inspiration. And there are a lot of funny poems — he likes slapstick. I think that appeals to people too.”
City Lights, as a bookstore and publishing house, has Ferlinghetti all over it, although both have been running successfully now without his direct decision-making for some time. The idea that Ferlinghetti is still responsible for everything is a sweet misconception that staff find amusing, one that was perpetuated by his availability when he was there — his willingness to stop and change a light bulb well into his 80s, or help at the front desk, or chat with patrons between visits to his upstairs office. His fingerprints are everywhere, from painted signs in his handwriting (Sit here and Read 14 Hours a Day!) to display tables and chairs he helped purchase early on.
Throughout the celebration, Ferlinghetti’s life and his example prompted questions like: “What does it mean to live a good life?” “How do you keep ideals alive?” and “How does one stand up for what they believe in?” For Ferlinghetti, this included promoting free speech, the subject of another book published on his birthday, The People v. Ferlinghetti: The Fight to Publish Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL.
Written with affection and suspense (Ginsberg didn’t show! The judge was a Sunday School teacher!) by Ronald Collins and David Skover, the book unpacks Ferlinghetti’s decision to publish a work that he knew would likely put him, and the nature of free speech, on trial. With attention to his work as a publisher, we get a glimpse of the millions of simple decisions that made so many pieces of art, including Howl, come to life. For example, it was Ferlinghetti’s choice to name the book Howl instead of Howl for Carl Solomon. He decided to add poems behind the title poem, like “Sunflower Sutra,” in what would become the fourth book in the Poetry Pocket Series.
The authors of The People v. Ferlinghetti are quick to mention Ferlinghetti’s poetic warning: “Pity the nation whose people are sheep, and whose shepherds mislead them.” Even with his sometimes shy, behind-the-scenes temperament, they think that everyone should know the name Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “For those who value the freedom of American mavericks,” they say, “the liberty to rail against repression of the kind that robs men and women of their true worth — that name deserves a place in the American mind and in the annals of our free speech history.”
The story of Howl and its significance easily fills an entire book — but it’s only one riveting chapter in Ferlinghetti’s long life. Walking around Canessa Gallery a few blocks from City Lights (another partner in the birthday celebration), I noticed half of the pictures of Ferlinghetti showed his travels around the world, often in defense of free speech and voices elsewhere. In one photo, stateside, he’s sitting in a hallway in an anti-apartheid rally beside Maya Angelou.
In the center of the Rena Bransten Gallery is Ferlinghetti’s painting of a man rowing his boat — blindfolded — beside the Statue of Liberty. According to Bransten, the theme of blindfolds is consistent in his work from 1950 to 1993. “That blindfold is still symbolic of where we might be leading the country or each other,” Bransten said. “I think with our machines of war and industrial complex, he just thinks we’re on the wrong track. And he thinks that artists serve to ring a wake-up bell.” In one painting, the city of San Francisco is floating off on an ocean liner.
Ferlinghetti’s paintings, poetry, and new book insist that we take control of our own minds “signaling us from the flames.” He questions everyone’s motives, including his own. “[I]t’s the American dream but you have to be asleep to believe it,” Ferlinghetti writes in Little Boy. Later he adds: “Let’s get back to the present where the world is coming to an end for the millionth time yes but this time it’s for real.” The warnings pack an extra punch because we know the author is writing against time. In this way, the book feels generous. At this late stage in life, he’s decided to model free thinking and dissent for those who will outlive him.
Back at the gallery, a black-and-white painting of a ship, Voyage 2, is believed to be the last painting Ferlinghetti will ever paint. “I think he was talking about voyage from life to death,” the gallery director said. “There’s a striking composition and it resonates [with] the trip we all take.” Like the painting, Little Boy is expected to be Ferlinghetti’s last book, although he does write with a wink: “[E]very sentence the last sentence I’ll ever write but then there’s always another thought to be spoken or written…”
Gratitude for Ferlinghetti was evident in every exhibit, every interview, every signature from City Lights visitors in his giant birthday card. Outside in Jack Kerouac Alley, actors performed Ferlinghetti’s street plays from the ’70s as fans posted tribute poems on a wall. One super fan (an arborist for the city of San Francisco) had helped organized a tree-planting ceremony in Ferlinghetti’s honor. They planted an olive tree because it symbolized peace and can grow in the Bay Area as well as the Mediterranean.
“You’re all here because you feel you’ve learned something from Lawrence,” Elaine Katzenberg said to the crowd attending birthday festivities at the bookstore. Attendees stood shoulder-to-shoulder leaning on bookcases and under more signs Lawrence painted (Corporations are not people!) listening to dozens of surprise guests including poets Michael McClure, Matthew Zapruder, Guillermo Gómez-Peña, D. A. Powell, Barbara Jane Reyes, Maw Shein Win, Jennifer S. Cheng, and sam sax.
On the morning of the celebration, City Lights book buyer Paul Yamazaki stopped by Ferlinghetti’s house and wished him a happy birthday in person. “One of my favorite things was to accompany Lawrence going down to the waterfront and the ballpark, making the stops at the various coffee houses, then sitting out in the bleachers for a few hours,” he remembered. “He really loved doing that. It was great to see how Lawrence is a really respected citizen of San Francisco and baseball fan. He loves the Giants. He liked to sit in the right field bleachers, he liked the pace of the game.” Paul said it’s one of the hard things about Ferlinghetti’s loss of eyesight that he can’t see the ball anymore.
Of course, many attendees wished they could hear from Ferlinghetti himself on his big day, but after years of hard work and accessibility, he preferred to spend his centennial birthday in the comfort of his own home. “He should just go by in a pope-mobile,” one of the City Lights volunteers joked. Knowing the public would feel this way, Elaine asked the man of honor what he wanted to say. “It should be in your own words,” she urged. Ferlinghetti decided his statement would be: “I’m happy to hear there are so many people celebrating my birthday. Makes it really special.” Then he paused and added: “I figure that with another 100 birthdays that’ll be enough.”
Emily Sernaker is a writer and human rights professional. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Ms. magazine, McSweeney’s, The Sun, Rattle, New Ohio Review, GOOD Media, The Rumpus, and more. She lives in New York.