Why you should read: Lawrence Ferlinghetti


Sitting with a cup of coffee and some Major cigarettes, freshly arrived from Ireland via my parents’ duty-free allowance, on a bright, unhot, August morning in 2015, 60 miles east of Manhattan, on Long Island. I was all-set to begin what I hoped would be a pleasant, gentle Friday, to slide right into an easy, fun, relaxed weekend of outdoor dining and drinks, lit by tiki torches, and sprinkled with banter on music, literature, philosophy, and art, and what better way to instigate such a vision than with the verse of the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, that gentle soul, great “United Statesian,” renegade publisher, champion of the Constitution, who has espoused poetry, prose, art, and progressive thought through his own writing, painting, and his City Lights Bookstore and Publishing Company for over sixty years. Or so I thought, because the peace of the rabbits and squirrels and chipmunks and blue jays and cardinals, the peace of the absence of human sounds, was shattered when I found that Lawrence Ferlinghetti had been shouting at me, and I wasn’t even reading Poetry as Insurgent Art, but that I had not been hearing him. I was reading Americus, Book I, again, and planning to follow it up with a rereading of Time of Useful Consciousness (Americus, Book II): preparations due to the euphoria of my anticipation of the arrival at my house via UPS sometime later in the day of I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allan Ginsberg 1955 – 1997 and Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960 – 2010. I was slapped awake to the depth of what Ferlinghetti was doing, or since I am only really interpreting, what he might have been doing: embedding the history of the human in a poetic history of the Americas.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti went west while there was still a lingering of “the West” in San Francisco and has lived long enough to see the gentrification of bohemian North Beach and feel the barbs of the brash young comers telling him he is outdated, out of touch, and should basically get lost when he laments not the past but the shallow commercialization and commodification of our world and ourselves. If Whitman’s Leaves of Grass chronicle America from a 19th Century point of view, Ferlinghetti’s body of work maps-out America from a 20th Century perspective: he does see himself as one of Whitman’s “wild children” (Poetry as Insurgent Art: p. 73). Ferlinghetti is like the Tralfamadorians of Vonnegut: he sees where we have been, where we are, and where we, most likely, will be going; sadly, and shamefully, we may be too cocky, too arrogant, too ignorant, to listen to a sage, to heed a wise man: a man who lived through the Great Depression; a man who commanded a subchaser during D-day at Normandy; who walked the destroyed city of Nagasaki six weeks after Fat Man exploded above it, and became a pacifist; a man who helped create hippies and then witnessed many of them become yuppies; who has traveled the globe; who has experienced the most rapidly changing period of human history and chronicled it in his poetry and journals. Perhaps we might garner something from his writing.

His works have a very American flavor, they investigate “America,” but go beyond to consider the many realities that the United States is to the myriad peoples of the world, Ferlinghetti transcends the concept(s) of the country to deal with being in existence, with being human, in all its joys and sorrows. He exults the good and derides the rotten of the U.S., of us, of humans; he is honest, writes with an impassioned objectivity, and a hopefulness for “us” even when he is turning his poet’s eye on our darkest elements. Ferlinghetti encourages us all to find and nurture the poet, the altruistic passionate lover of life, ours and all others, within ourselves.

Enough of what I think, I leave you with Ferlinghetti:

“And yet–and yet–” great rapper Homer went on–
“Dare I say to you that poetry
ain’t what it used to be
since there ain’t no Ulysses around to carry tales
Oh lend me your ears lend me your tears
all you finger-poppin’ daddies of poetry
gifted with ‘giftlessness’
you poet’s poets writing poetry about poetry
you deconstructed language poets
you far-out freaked-out cut-up poets
you prestressed Concrete poets
you pay-toilet poets groaning with graffiti
you cunnilingual poets
you A-train swingers who never swing on birches
you eyeless unrealists
you self-occulting supersurrealists
you Nuyorican slammers and gangsta rappers
you bedroom visionaries
and closet agitpropagators
you Groucho Marxist poets
and leisure class comrades
(who sleep ’til noon
and talk about the working-class proletariat)
you poetry workshop poets
you masters of the sawmill haiku
in the boondock heart of America
you lovers of suicided poets
you den mothers of poetry
you Zen brothers of poetry
you hairy professors of poesie
and all you poetry critics
drinking the blood of the poet
all you poetry police–

“Take heed take heed
all you who still should be
the gadflies of the state
Here is my burning answer
to the ever-moldering question
as to what poetry can be
(which I being blind can see
better than thou)–

“Poetry a graph of high consciousness.
Poetry the truth that reveals all lies.
Poetry a camera eye without a shutter
looking down both roads that diverge in a narrow wood.
Words wait to be reborn in the shadow of the lamp of poetry.
The flight path of a poem must be upward or it will crash.
Poems are emails from the unknown, beyond cyberspace.

Poetry the last refuge of humanity in dark times.
And the poet
as the bearer of Eros
as the bearer of love
and pleasure and joy
and total freedom
must by definition
be the natural born
enemy of the State,
which would eat
your liberties!”
(Americus, Book I: pp. 11-12; 17-18)

Even though I doubt he would want it, I think I will write-in his name on the ballot in November. I cannot think of a better choice: he is a successful businessman, having started his own company with little capital and managed it to become one of the most recognizable, worldwide, and successful ventures in its field, while remaining ethical and championing the rights of all peoples. I know he has little hope of winning, but there is great hope in his work.


Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. Americus, Book I. New York: New Directions, 2004.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. Poetry as Insurgent Art. New York: New Directions, 2007.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. Time of Useful Consciousness (Americus, Book II). New York: New Directions, 2012.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence. Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960 – 2010. Edited by Giada Diano & Matthew Gleeson. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence & Allen Ginsberg. 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. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015.


Michael Kearney
New York (August 2015) & Tokyo (April 2016)

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