Citizen and Poet
Recently, Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrated his 90th birthday quietly with the staff at City Lights Bookstore. The documentary on Ferlinghetti will also premiere in San Francisco at the International Film Festival on April 28.
While I knew about the indecency trial over the publication of Howl and had often browsed the stacks of City Lights Bookstore, as well as owning City Lights publications, I didn’t know that Ferlinghetti, as a Navy commander, had been at Nagasaki shortly after the bomb fell there. It was that experience which turned him into a lifelong pacifist and started Ferlinghetti ruminating on politics.
In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Ferlinghetti spoke about the beginnings of his political consciousness:
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: I think Nagasaki did it. I mean, I had grown up as an all-American boy. I had been a Boy Scout in the suburbs, an Eagle Scout, except I got busted for stealing pencils from the five- and ten-cent store the same week I made Eagle Scout. But besides little incidents like that, I was a true blue American boy, and I—
AMY GOODMAN: So they sent you away to—
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: I had no idea—I don’t remember ever even hearing of a conscientious objector on the East Coast during the Second World War. It was only when I came to San Francisco and I started listening to KPFA, which had been founded by conscientious objectors, and—
AMY GOODMAN: Did you know Lou Hill?
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Yes, I met Lou Hill. I think I was on the air while he was still around. And I knew Kenneth Rexroth through—you could say I was totally illiterate politically until I ran into these guys. I mean, that’s where I got my political education from, KPFA and from listening to Kenneth Rexroth and his Friday night soirees. And he considered himself a philosophical anarchist. I mean—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Kenneth Rexroth is, especially for young people.
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: Well, Rexroth was the leading elder poet in San Francisco in the 1950s when I arrived, and he had a program on KPFA. And he didn’t review just literature. He reviewed every subject—geology, anthropology, astronomy, philosophy—and it seemed as he had this encyclopedic knowledge. And I used to go to his house on his Friday night soirees. I would just sit in the—the first six months I didn’t even dare open my mouth. I was totally out of my depth. I didn’t know what he was talking about most of the time.
New Directions recently reprinted Ferlinghetti’s Poetry as Insurgent Art. Here’s an excerpt:
Glory in the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.
Don’t blow bubbles of despair.
Poetry is seeds and buds, not twigs. Smoke it to get high.
Generate collective joy in the face of collective gloom.
Secretly liberate any being you see in a cage.
Liberate have-nots and enrage despots.
Sound a barbarous yawp over the roofs of the world.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Ferlinghetti…poet, citizen, bookseller.