Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, publisher and owner of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, has declined a Hungarian award worth more than $64,000, citing concerns over free speech rights and civil liberties.
It is with no small irony that the award Ferlinghetti has declined, the Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize, is from the Hungarian division of PEN. PEN is an international organization that supports the freedom to write internationally, and often campaigns to help writers who have been imprisoned or silenced.
Ferlinghetti learned that the prize was partially funded by the Hungarian government and wrote a letter expressing his concerns. It reads, in part: "Since the Prize is partially funded by the present Hungarian government, and since the policies of this right-wing regime tend toward authoritarian rule and the consequent curtailing of freedom of expression and civil liberties, I find it impossible for me to accept the Prize in the United States. Thus I must refuse the Prize in its present terms."
Ferlinghetti, who is 93, served in the Navy in World War II. He was at the invasion of Normandy and visited Nagasaki weeks after the atomic bomb dropped there. It "was just like a couple of square miles of mulch, nothing but mulch with human hair and bones sticking out, and it was a horrible sight to see," he told PBS in 2002. The experience was the beginnings of the pacifist's political convictions.
But Ferlinghetti is also a fighter. He put his young bookstore and publishing house, City Lights, in the center of free speech arguments in 1956 by publishing Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Ferlinghetti was arrested but later vindicated in court, in a key free speech ruling that found the poem was not obscene.
In rejecting the award, Ferlinghetti attempted to direct the monies to a fund to support free speech cases in Hungary, but was not satisfied with efforts by the Hungarian PEN organization to meet his requirements.