Bohemian or Beatnik, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti had cultural impact
The renowned publisher and artist referred to himself as 'the last bohemian.'
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.
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
Designed to be democratic, it's held on to some of the same energy that poet Michael McClure saw at the start.
"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:
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.