The many sides of a Beat legend

Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been a legendary poet and bookseller since he helped put the Beats on the cultural map in the 1950s. His San Francisco City Lights Booksellers published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1956, which wound up getting Ferlinghetti put on trial for obscenity. His 1958 poetry collection, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” has sold more than a million copies.

But before he was a poet, Ferlinghetti, now 93, was a painter. He took up the brush as a student in Paris in the late 1940s, has sold his work in galleries and not long ago had a 60-year retrospective of his art shown in Italy.

Now the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art is featuring an exhibition that seeks to tease out the recurring themes in both parts of Ferlinghetti’s creative work. Called “Cross-Pollination: The Art of Lawrence Ferlinghetti,” the show runs through Sept. 23.


Throughout Ferlinghetti’s long career, poetry and painting have twirled around one another like a double helix. Ferlinghetti scribbled in his sketchbooks and sketched in his notebooks -- examples that are on exhibit for the first time. He’s written poems about Goya and painted an expressionistic portrait of Ezra Pound. The latter depicts a brown-toned, shaggy, bearded Pound and a scrap of his poetry: “I have beaten out my exile.”

Ferlinghetti’s own poems have addressed the compulsion to create. As he put it in a “Coney Island” piece that starts, “One of those paintings that would not die”: “Painting over it did no good / It kept on coming through / the wood and canvas ...”

The show includes paintings and videos of Ferlinghetti reading his own work, which he once likened to a jazz performance in its improvisational nature. There’s a clip from the 1957 short film “Have You Sold Your Dozen Roses?” that records Ferlinghetti’s voice. Then there’s a cheerfully colored but ominous canvas from 2006 called “Boat People” that shows a small craft adrift on a sea of ghosts, some of the refugees gagged and blindfolded.

Politics too have been a recurring theme in Ferlinghetti’s oeuvre. His painting “The Unfinished Flag of the United States” depicts Old Glory painted across a map of the world, the red stripes girding the globe like the bars of a prison. The painting decorated the cover of Michael Parenti’s book, “Against Empire,” which was published by City Lights.

Ferlinghetti’s early painting took inspiration from the Abstract Expressionists, but he later turned toward figuration. In both words and image, Ferlinghetti leans toward vigorous, muscular expression.

His 1980 painting “Wrought From the Dark,” for example, is a montage of De Kooning-esque women with a snippet from Ferlinghetti’s “To the Oracle at Delphi,” which excoriates America for exporting its monoculture across the globe. “Give us new dreams to dream,” the poem ends. “Give us new myths to live by!”