A man of letters

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and publisher, recognised the spirit of the Beat Generation and nurtured it.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died on Monday in San Francisco aged 101, defined poetry as “insurgent art”. Ferlinghetti was primarily a poet — his 1958 debut collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, has sold over a million copies. But every aspect of his life — as publisher, bookshop owner, activist, public intellectual — reflected an insurgent spirit. Born in New York, he had a difficult childhood, “I looked homeward and saw no angel”, but he overcame the odds to land a career in journalism. After a stint in the Navy, he returned to live in San Francisco, where, in 1953, he set up the City Lights Bookstore, which became an extension of his identity and a city landmark.

At City Lights, Ferlinghetti redefined the bookshop as a public space, where writers and activists could meet, do readings, talk and plot, besides of course, buy books, especially those that were radical and non-conformist. On one of those days, he got to listen to a young poet recite a long poem that was nothing like what he had heard or read before. Howl, Ferlinghetti knew instantly, was poised to be the anthem of a generation and he sent a telegram to the author, Allen Ginsberg, invoking the lines Emerson wrote to Walt Whitman — “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” — and sought permission to publish it. The authorities seized the copies of Howl and Other Poems, and sent Ferlinghetti to jail on charges of “wilfully and lewdly” printing “indecent writings”. The American Civil Liberties Union fought on behalf of Ferlinghetti and won, which, later, set a precedent in free speech cases involving books that were sought to be censored.

Ferlinghetti published edgy writers, including many of the Beat Generation, such as Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles and Gary Snyder. But he saw himself as “the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats”. A “philosophical anarchist”, Ferlinghetti dreamt of a political revolution in America till his end, but felt it would require another generation that was less enamoured of consumerism and capitalism to usher in radical change.

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