Bohemian or Beatnik, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti had cultural impact

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s death this year at age 101 marks the end of a colourful, artistic life, aligned with the Beat generation. But the poet and publisher’s bookstore, City Lights, survives as a hub of rebellious ideas for all. We revisit Ferlinghetti and friends in San Francisco in 2003.

The renowned publisher and artist referred to himself as 'the last bohemian.'

Renowned poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who helped launch the Beat poet movement, stands outside his bookstore in San Francisco, Aug. 18, 1998. He died earlier this year, leaving behind a literary career full of innovation and impact. (Reuters)

Bob Dylan named him as a writerly influence. As a publisher, he launched a central work of 20th century poetry. His San Francisco bookstore is one of the best-known in the world.

Poet and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti — who died in February, at the age of 101 — was an antiwar activist and progressive thinker who called himself "the last bohemian."

Others connect him with the Beat Generation. 

His independent bookshop and its paperback publishing arm, City Lights, brought experimental writers such as Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs to wider public attention during the straightlaced American 1950s.

In 1957, Ferlinghetti won a landmark obscenity trial that drew worldwide attention. He'd published Allen Ginsberg's aptly-named long poem, Howl. 

Its radical politics and open language offended the so-called establishment. But the work spoke directly to a new generation of readers and radicals.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, left, with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in London in 1965. Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg's poem Howl in 1956. It is considered to be one of the best-known English-language poems of the 20th century, and is still in print. (M. Stroud/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

An outsider voice

Lawrence Ferlinghetti's own poems are published in collections such as A Coney Island of the Mind.

From postwar America right through to the Trump era, his voice was at once full of joy and dissent. 

The world is a beautiful place/to be born into/if you don't mind happiness/not always being/so very much fun/if you don't mind a touch of hell/ now and then/just when everything is fine.-  Excerpt from Lawrence Ferlinghetti's, 'The World is a Beautiful Place'

When IDEAS contributor Bob Chelmick visited San Francisco back in 2003 to make a radio documentary about Ferlinghetti and his milieu, he found young visitors still drawn to City Lights. 

Chelmick convinced a still active Ferlinghetti to speak briefly to him, despite the latter's ambivalent relationship with the "monster media."

Ferlinghetti still seemed most at home in his role as an anti-establishment artist. Yet as the city's first poet laureate, and with a local street named after him, Ferlinghetti was clearly a beloved and admired cultural figure.

A meeting place for rebels

From Beatniks to hippies to punks, from African-American to LatinX writers, many people have found affordable books and new ideas at City Lights over its nearly seven decades.

Designed to be democratic, it's held on to some of the same energy that poet Michael McClure saw at the start.

American poet and playwright Michael McClure (1932 - 2020) was one of the five poets who found fame after reading at the San Francisco Six Gallery in 1955. He was immortalized as Pat McLear in Kerouac's Big Sur. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

"There wasn't anything like City Lights anywhere else, in any part of the world that I'd ever seen before. And you didn't have to buy a book," said McClure.

With its founder's death, City Lights vows on its website to carry on, to "build on Ferlinghetti's vision and honour his memory by sustaining City Lights into the future as a centre for open intellectual inquiry and commitment to literary culture and progressive politics."

Guests in the episode:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021) was a poet, painter, and co-founder of City Lights bookstore and publishers.

David Amram is a musician who collaborated with Beat writers including Jack Kerouac.

Neeli Cherkovski is a poet and author of a biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. 

Albert Huerta was a poet, teacher, and friend of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Michael McClure was a poet and filmmaker.

David Meltzer was a poet and musician.

* This 2003 documentary was written and presented by Bob Chelmick, and produced by Dave Redel. Episode production, Lisa Godfrey.

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