Happy Birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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This weekend, Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrated a birthday that not everyone pulls off. The former poet laureate of San Francisco and founder of City Lights Bookstore turned 99 on Saturday. Although he’s moving somewhat slower than he did during North Beach’s Beatnik heyday, Ferlinghetti’s voice is as vital as ever, says the San Francisco Chronicle.

Lawrence Monsanto Ferling was born in Yonkers, New York, on March 24, 1919. His father, Carlo Ferlinghetti, died before his birth, and his mother, Clemence, was committed to a mental hospital shortly thereafter. Lawrence spent part of his childhood in a state-run orphanage before moving with his aunt to France. After living near Strasbourg “long enough to learn the language,” young Lawrence and his aunt returned to New York and took up residence in a stately mansion owned by the Bisland family in Bronxville.

The young man who would one day be declared the poet laureate of San Francisco attended Riverdale Country Day School and a preparatory academy in Massachusetts before enrolling at the University of North Carolina where he worked on the student staff of The Tarheel. Ferlinghetti told the San Francisco Chronicle that he chose to attend the Chapel Hill school because Thomas Wolfe, who wrote Look Homeward, Angel, had gone there.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in journalism from UNC, Ferlinghetti enlisted in the U.S. Navy and ultimately used his G.I. Bill benefits to continue his education at Columbia University where he received a master’s degree in 1948, according to his bio at the Poetry Foundation. Lawrence Ferlinghetti completed his doctoral degree at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, in 1950. As an adult, Lawrence Ferling reverted to the original family name, Ferlinghetti.

On January 1, 1951, Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco where he painted, worked as an art critic, and taught French in an adult education program before founding San Francisco’s first paperback book shop, City Lights Bookstore, with former sociology professor Peter D. Martin in June, 1953.

In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers. After publishing the second run of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl & Other Poems in 1956, (the first run sold out almost immediately), Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges. The trial that ensued drew worldwide attention to the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat movement writers. Ultimately, Ferlinghetti and others were acquitted in a precedent-setting First Amendment case.

Ferlinghetti’s autobiographical first novel, Her (1960) centered around the narrator’s pursuit of a woman. Ferlinghetti’s 1988 novel, Love in the Days of Rage, was better received. Set against the backdrop of student revolution in 1968 Paris, Love in the Days of Rage chronicles a love affair between a Portuguese banker named Julian and an expatriate American painter named Annie. Los Angeles Times book reviewer, Alex Raksin, lauded the work as an “original, intense novel” that clearly evinced Ferlinghetti’s sensitivity as a painter. The San Francisco Review of Books noted that the book mirrored the anarchistic events of 1968 which briefly united intellectuals, artists, and the proletariat in a common cause.

When Lawrence Ferlinghetti isn’t writing novels, he paints and writes poetry, essays, and plays. Sometimes, he reminisces aloud. Just days before the poet’s 99th birthday, he talked about “provincial” 1950s San Francisco with the San Francisco Chronicle‘s John McMurtrie. Ferlinghetti recalled that in 1951, the only place in town to buy a croissant was in the basement of the City of Paris department store.

As for the current state of the city, Ferlinghetti noted the following.

“It’s Boomtown USA. It’s a bigger boom than after the Gold Rush in the 1850s and ’60s. The boomtown today is transforming San Francisco into something you’re not even going to recognize in another 15 years. It hasn’t quite hit North Beach yet, but the rest of the town, it’s just a huge traffic jam everywhere. The automobile is transforming and ruining most of the cities, not just San Francisco. I call it Autogeddon. Autogeddon is ruining the cities.”

Published in 1968, Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind remains the best selling poetry book in the U.S, according to City Lights. The book has been translated into nine languages. His most recent poetry books include Poetry As Insurgent Art (2007) and the 2014 chapbook, Blasts Cries Laughter. Last September, The Nation magazine published the near-centenarians newest poem, “A Buddha Sighting.”

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Although Ferlinghetti was central to the Beat movement of the 1950s, the birthday boy said that he prefers to be called a “wide-open poet.”

“Wide-open poetry refers to what Pablo Neruda told me in Cuba in 1950 at the beginning of the Fidelista revolution: Neruda said, ‘I love your wide-open poetry.’ He was either referring to the wide-ranging content of my poetry, or, in a different mode, to the poetry of the Beats.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti marked his 99th birthday on March 24. Did he celebrate? Maybe not. Ferlinghetti told the Chronicle that he doesn’t see a reason to celebrate getting old, but did plan to enjoy a small family gathering to commemorate the occasion.

“I Am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti