Expect No Light Verse From San Francisco’s Poet


Let us feed the pigeons

at the City Hall

urging them to do their duty

in the Mayor’s office.

--Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from his poem “Junkman’s Obbligato,” 1958.



As a rule, Lawrence Ferlinghetti disdains government and avoids contact with officialdom.

But after a lifetime of thumbing his nose (poetically speaking) at respectability and authority, the Beat Generation poet-painter-publisher finally got an offer last year he could not refuse.

“I was walking along North Beach in my dirty painter’s clothes,” Ferlinghetti, 79, said, “and when I got near a fancy restaurant, a long limousine stopped. [Mayor] Willie Brown--I didn’t even think he knew me--jumped out and said, ‘I want you to be my poet laureate.’ How could I say no?”

His has not proved a poet laureateship geared to delivering celebratory verse on official occasions, like the British poet laureates.

After consulting Plato’s “Republic” on the role of the poet as gadfly, Ferlinghetti decided to put his own spin on the post, which carries a stipend of $5,000 for a year’s unspecified labors.

“I see being poet laureate as a great bully pulpit,” Ferlinghetti said. “It’s a chance to say the kind of things that people say all the time but never get into the newspapers.”

With that in mind, Ferlinghetti hit the ground ranting--albeit in his distinctively mild-mannered voice--and he has yet to stop. Think of it as a kind of cultural victory lap for a charter member of the poetic rebellion that withstood scorn and attack and prevailed in changing American letters forever.

An Authentic, Pioneering Radical

Ferlinghetti’s book “A Coney Island of the Mind” remains one of America’s most enduring and biggest-selling volumes of poetry, at a million copies and rising.

Ferlinghetti is a survivor from the long-ago days before cultural radicalism was housebroken, merchandised and allowed to compete for government fellowships, tenure and big-money contracts from the entertainment industry.

He published Allen Ginsberg’s angry, X-rated poetry when other publishers were afraid, and was the center of a landmark 1st Amendment court case. He has been investigated, prosecuted and jailed for putting his political beliefs into action.

For more than four decades, his bookstore, City Lights Books, wedged in a funky corner of the traditionally bohemian neighborhood of North Beach, has been a beacon of avant-garde literature and left-wing political thought in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Ferlinghetti’s preferred persona is that of an “anarchist among the floorwalkers.”

His favorite autobiographical poem is “Director of Alienation” with its self-mocking lament:

Always the Outsider

What a drag

Why don’t you get with it?

It’s your country

What a cliche this Outsider

a real bore . . .

Indeed, Ferlinghetti has refused to rein in his politics or his poetry to fit current fashion. America may be agog these days with risk-free patriotism and the romance of big business, but Ferlinghetti is unreconstructed, telling anyone who will listen that the U.S. bombing of Iraq is immoral and that the American soul is being rotted by the modern corporation.

And so it was no surprise that in his maiden speech at the city’s new main library, with Mayor Brown sitting serenely nearby, poet laureate Ferlinghetti said San Francisco is headed pell-mell for urban hell, squeezing out working-class ethnics and immigrants and becoming an enclave for the rich and privileged.

He railed about chain stores (“chain gangs”), automobile traffic choking city streets (“stop Autogeddon from happening here”) and poets being marginalized into “poetry ghettos.”

He said his beloved North Beach is becoming a “theme park overrun by tourists [where] kitsch is king.” He took a whack at the new library--decrying the abandonment of the old library and calling the city’s budget for book acquisition appallingly chintzy.

And he lashed the Brown administration’s annual invitation to the Navy’s precision flying team, the Blue Angels. “Killing machines,” Ferlinghetti harrumphed.

A Unique Job in a Unique City

If there is another big city where the mayor would be willing to hear such public grousing from an appointee--can you imagine, for example, the reaction from the thin-skinned mayor of New York?--its name does not come to mind. In fact, though the Library of Congress names a U.S. poet laureate each year, San Francisco is now alone among the nation’s big cities in insisting on its own laureate.

But this is San Francisco, where dissent and nonconformity are prized, and so hizzoner merely sat there and beamed at his poet. When a woman in the audience jumped up and launched into her own list of grievances, Brown merely smiled and offered her a private audience.

State Librarian Kevin Starr, a historian and longtime friend of Ferlinghetti, says the post of poet laureate is helping return San Francisco to that long-ago era when cities “were known by the quality of their clergy and the quality of their poets.”

Ferlinghetti is a natural for the one-of-a-kind post, according to Starr and others. He has “something rabbinical in his moral imagination and his willingness to use poetry for prophetic utterance,” Starr said in introducing Ferlinghetti for a recent lecture at the University of San Francisco.

The invitation to speak at the Jesuit institution was a kind of triumphant return for Ferlinghetti.

In his early years in San Francisco, when he was struggling to make a success of City Lights Books and its then-novel idea of selling only paperbacks, he was sacked from a teaching job at the university for suggesting that some of Shakespeare’s sonnets have a homoerotic tinge.

When he was prosecuted for obscenity in 1957 for publishing Ginsberg’s revolutionary poem “Howl,” a teacher from the university testified that the poem was pure filth. Now, the “Howl” decision--in which the judge threw out the charges--is hailed as a landmark case in defense of the 1st Amendment. And Ferlinghetti’s notes from the ill-fated Shakespeare class are kept in a display case in the rare book room of the campus library.

The university is also having a showing of Ferlinghetti’s paintings, charcoal drawings and lithographs (some of his favorite images are of birds, sometimes forlorn, sometimes menacing).

If the students at the lecture were expecting an all-accepting grandfather-poet, a latter-day Whitman, they were disappointed. Ferlinghetti is shy to the point of appearing remote. He is, by temperament if not by birthplace, the European man of letters, impatient with anything less than rigorous thought.

“He seems quite cold,” said one student.

He declined to recite a poem or discuss his poetic technique: “Trade secret.” He brushed aside questions about the future of poetry: “I don’t know any more than you do.” He offered the students none of the usual your-generation-will-save-things uplift.

“The prospect at the end of the century is very dim,” he said. “I think mankind is too greedy and stupid to save himself from ecological disaster.”

The ‘Beatnik Rabble-Rouser’

Ferlinghetti served as a Navy officer at the D-Day landing and later in the Pacific, but he shares none of the current World War II nostalgia. The movie “Saving Private Ryan,” he said, “sets up a model of militaristic madness as a hero.”

After the war the Yonkers, N.Y.-born Ferlinghetti underwent a political awakening while studying painting and literature on the GI Bill at Columbia University and the Sorbonne. He has been a cultural outlaw ever since.

He moved to San Francisco because it was the most European of American cities, and opened the bookstore in 1953. The FBI investigated him after he wrote a poem, “Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower,” and concluded he was a “beatnik rabble-rouser.”

He was jailed for protesting the Vietnam War and wrote a political tract about President Nixon, “Tyrannus Nix?”

To get rid of a pesky biographer, he once said he wrote his doctoral thesis on “the place of the urinal in French literature"--a piece of disinformation that found its way into print, to Ferlinghetti’s delight.

To Anne Waldman, a poet and a longtime friend, the glory of Ferlinghetti is that he has shown that it is still possible for poets to prosper outside the cultural hegemony of the university, the big-name publishing houses and the grantsmanship game.

“He’s very much in the ‘outrider’ tradition, staying outside academe, the literary mafias, the competition for government grants and the glad-handing at MLA [Modern Language Assn.] meetings that has infected poetry in this country,” said Waldman, co-founder and professor of poetics at the Naropa (Buddhist) Institute in Boulder, Colo. “He is the least careerist of poets.”

When the editors of “Who’s Who in America” asked him to fill out a standard biographical form, he sent it back with the scrawled comment "[bleep] you.”

A Card-Carrying Poet Laureate

Now, as a sendup of the American business of ritual, he hands out poet laureate business cards. As poet laureate, he writes a column on poetry for the San Francisco Chronicle--the latest lashed at “the spectacle of the U.S. Congress inanely debating the president’s private sins” and included a poem by C.P. Cavafy, “Awaiting the Barbarians,” to back up his point.

He gets numerous invitations to speak his mind on this topic or that and accepts only those that fit his mood and leanings: an AIDS benefit, support for Central American refugees, a drive to make North Beach a national landmark. He joined a lawsuit against Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to prohibit what he calls the “un-American” censoring of the Internet, even if it is being done to protect children from pornography.

He spends his days painting in his art studio in Hunter’s Point, writing (his 14th book of poems, “A Far Rockaway of the Heart,” was published last year), and running the bookstore at Columbus Avenue and Broadway that was the West Coast haunt of Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Gregory Corso and others who gave voice to feelings of disenfranchisement and rebellion in the 1950s and forever changed poetry.

J.D. McClatchy, poetry editor at the Yale Review, said that Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind” has joined Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” as must reading for youths “just discovering their unruly feelings.”

Indeed, many a student has ventured from the suburbs to San Francisco with a copy of “Coney” in his hip pocket to search out the statue of St. Francis “in a little side street / just off the Avenue” and perhaps

find a very tall and very purely naked

young virgin

with very long and very straight

straw hair.

In the world of literature, however, popularity can have a price. Many critics, including the British literary lion Martin Seymour-Smith, have suggested that Ferlinghetti sacrifices poetic depth for accessibility. He has never won the Pulitzer Prize, widely considered the nation’s top award for poetry.

Although he is inextricably linked--somewhat to his annoyance--to the Beat Generation poets, much of Ferlinghetti’s poetry has less in common with the rage and X-rated daring of Ginsberg et al than with the wit, careful constructions and mournful lyricism of E. E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams.

“There is a haunting, opaque quality to his poems,” wrote one of his biographers, Neeli Cherkovski, “as if the speaker is looking at the world from a distance, over an unbridgeable gulf. The poems are direct gateways to a rare world of angelic and satanic impulses that gently merge.”

Bombs in ‘the Marketplace of Ideas’

Ferlinghetti is a registered member of the Green Party but harbors a liking for Mayor Brown and his outsize personality and sometimes unconventional ways. Brown returns the compliment and calls Ferlinghetti a San Francisco original, which sidesteps the fact that one of his enduring poetic themes is his difficult childhood in New York.

Brown got the notion for a poet laureate while on a trip to the Far East. After he got back to San Francisco, he formed a selection committee to help pick the first laureate. When Brown saw Ferlinghetti’s name on the list, he knew there was only one choice.

“The mayor thought Ferlinghetti was perfect for the job: the more bombs thrown into the marketplace of ideas, the better,” said P.J. Johnston, an official with the municipal transportation system, the Muni, who works with the laureate committee.

Ferlinghetti’s call for ending the annual visitation by the Blue Angels is picking up popular support. So, too, is his demand that the city provide a sanctuary for struggling poets, possibly on the former Treasure Island Navy base. The veteran government-hater finds the latter proposal a truly revolutionary notion.

The goal of any real revolution, explained the poet laureate, “is to open up the society in a way that the poet does not have to be its eternal enemy.”