Review

Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti takes vivid shape in new books

It wouldn't be the first time Lawrence Ferlinghetti would kick up a hive. On this occasion in 1982 it would be as part of a panel at the Naropa Institute where he served the role of august first-hand witness. The topic: Beat Generation and Censorship.

What did it mean to really "threaten the Establishment" ... the status quo? What did it mean for a writer to press into difficult or uncomfortable regions — both in the world and within his/herself?

"'Do you consider yourself to be a revolutionary writer?' a woman asks from the audience. "I did not want to seem pretentious and egotistical, and I demurred along those lines," Ferlinghetti recalled. "She insisted loudly, boring in with her question. 'Well of course!' That brought a kind of relieved laughter to the audience." But a contentious debate swarmed about ethics, politics and the role of the intellectual as a "free" and "individual."

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Later in reflection, in his journals, the poet revised the line: "The word revolutionary should have not been used at all. 'Dissident' would have been more precise. To say one is revolutionary is a little like saying one is a Zen Buddhist — if you say you are, you probably aren't.

If the poet's role, as he pointed out on that dais 30 years ago, is to take a stand, ethically or politically, something might be sacrificed in that reach. Ferlinghetti, now 96, has crafted a life — as a writer, editor and publisher — with this sort of precision, years of sharpening, eliding, revising. Two books arrive, just months apart, that provide a deeper look at the man who erected a necessary and essential foundation — his City Lights Publishing and City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco — to host and promote generations of writers.

As a writer, Ferlinghetti himself eschewed the Beat label, but it was his City Lights that provided that essential infrastructure for the voices (Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso) who would go on to embody and define the movement.

All the while in fragments of time, he wrote himself — poems, novels, plays — and with the publication of "Writing Across the Landscape" and "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997," we learn what a prodigious diarist and engaged personal correspondent he's been over that great wash of time as well.

"Writing Across the Landscape" shows Ferlinghetti to be a man of the world, literally. It also underscores the expansive and multifold reach of poetry and the lives of poets as not just artists but emissaries. The volume records five decades of travel, across continents, through political hotspots and contested territories. And though it contains some previously published journals, the bulk of entries have been typed from handwritten notebooks archived in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. The bonus is Ferlinghetti's artwork: sensuous fluid sketches and drawings in ink and charcoal that lend another layer of telling.

Having some sense of Ferlinghetti's biographical arc is important. At more than 500 pages, the journals paint a vast, impressionistic canvas of place and mood — real and imagined. The writing is playful, luminous and trenchant. While some entries provide sure footing, others assume the reader is outfitted with enough history and context to navigate the territory (the editors' introduction does lay out touchstones and specifics, but midway through the swim you're in a trance, lost in the rhythm of his recollections and digressions).

What these pages reveal is that if poetry and prose propelled him across the globe, politics pulled him deeper into the heart of a place. In Havana in 1960, he arrives ready to get behind the official U.S. story. Absorbed in conversation with locals, quite by accident, he looks up casually to see Fidel Castro himself floating by — a dreamy newsreel unfolds: "I see a big guy with a beard wearing fatigues smoking a cigar.... I rush outside [and] shake Fidel's hand and tell him I am poeta norteameicano — he's speechless — my news really astonishes him."

And when he arrives in Prague in the mid-1990s, he makes note, almost with a reporter's remove: "Czech poets are reading my poetry aloud, day and night for seventy-two hours. Strangers come up and tell me the poetry we published in San Francisco was a beacon of hope to them during the dark years …" Almost as an aside he remarks, at the entry's outset: "As usual, Ginsberg had already been there."

In "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career," the Ferlinghetti who takes shape in these letters possess a vivid inner life, but is tethered to his desk more than he might like to be: Plans to meet up with writer friends are sometimes realized but more often shelved because some fire needs tending or dousing.

If Ferlinghetti is the fixed point, Ginsberg (who died in 1997) was the satellite: That dichotomy and the looping switchbacks of their long friendship is played out nakedly in this collection. Editor Bill Morgan's notes are concise and sharp, lending context decade-by-decade while also identifying cultural and social shifts that might affect the flow of correspondence (travel, long-distance rates) and how that shaped their communication.

Ginsberg's landmark collection "Howl and Other Poems," the fourth volume in City Lights Pocket Poets Series, was one of the first hives Ferlinghetti kicked over. It was coaxed and refined under Ferlinghetti's fine eye. Much of the fine details would be negotiated within letters, from edits to publication, and into its long life beyond. Ultimately, the book would put Ferlinghetti on trial for obscenity — and of course it would forever alter the landscape of poetry.

The details of their correspondence fill in history from a different angle; they add contour to a moment that Ferlinghetti's journals might only sketch (and vice versa), and as such are a fine complement. What's important about these documents is that not only do they shed light on the editor-writer relationship (and the galaxy of relationships that developed under the aegis of City Lights), but also the tensions and tenderness of long and true friendship.

While Ginsberg later struggled with the press of his fame (at variance with his empty pockets), Ferlinghetti was frustrated by the role he'd been painted into by some of his cohort in thinly veiled characterizations in their work. A candid round of letters between the two underscores what letters can do best: give space to explore a difficult topic and time to absorb, compose and respond.

"Thanks for the insults," Ferlinghetti fires back in a rare blast "... used to worse put downs from [poet, Gregory] Corso most of the mob who consider me a business man with a loose pen."

These letters and journals reveal otherwise. But more importantly, they underscore the cost of making a choice and taking a firm stand over the very-long haul. Ferlinghetti's "business" has always been about seeking: pushing into those difficult territories, making the comfortable uncomfortable.

Late in their friendship, after a public reading, Ferlinghetti writes Ginsberg with an open heart: "You've developed your voice to the fullest. It keeps getting better and better, clearer. Fine articulation, volume, modulation and power."

The same could be said of Ferlinghetti's legacy — with City Lights' ever-open door and its lasting imprint across the globe.

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Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010

Edited by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson
Liveright/Norton: 552 pp, $35

I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997

Edited by Bill Morgan
City Lights: 284 pp, $26.95

George is an L.A.-based writer and a columnist at KCET Artbound.

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