Poet Backed the Beats, and Change, With Bookstore

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 101, owned influential City Lights in San Francisco
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Feb 23, 2021 3:42 PM CST
Poet Backed the Beats, and Change, With Bookstore
Author Lawrence Ferlinghetti recites a poem in 2005 in New York.   (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams, File)

Poet, publisher, and bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who helped launch and perpetuate the Beat movement, has died. He was 101. Ferlinghetti died at his San Francisco home Monday, the AP reports. The cause was lung disease. Ferlinghetti was known for his influential bookstore, City Lights, an essential San Francisco meeting place for the Beats and other bohemians in the 1950s and beyond. Its publishing arm released books by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S Burroughs. The most famous release was Ginsberg’s anthemic poem, "Howl." It led to a 1957 obscenity trial that broke new ground for freedom of expression. Few poets of the past 60 years were so well known or influential as Ferlinghetti. His books sold more than 1 million copies worldwide, a fantasy for virtually all of his peers. Although he never considered himself one of the Beats, he was a patron and soulmate and, for many, a lasting symbol—preaching a nobler and more ecstatic American dream.

"Am I the consciousness of a generation or just some old fool sounding off and trying to escape the dominant materialist avaricious consciousness of America?" he asked in “Little Boy,” a stream of consciousness novel published around his 100th birthday. As the internet, superstore chains, and high rents shut down booksellers in the Bay Area, City Lights remained a thriving political and cultural outlet, where one section was devoted to books enabling "revolutionary competence." Employees could take the day off to attend an anti-war protest. "Generally, people seem to get more conservative as they age, but in my case, I seem to have gotten more radical," Ferlinghetti said in 2013. "Poetry must be capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic." He called his style "wide open," and his work was often lyrical and childlike: "Peacocks walked/under the night trees/in the lost moon/light/when I went out/looking for love," he wrote in "Coney Island." Ferlinghetti also was a playwright, novelist, translator, and painter.

(Read more obituary stories.)

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