What You Didn't Know About Legendary Beat Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dead At 101

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, legendary poet and proprietor of one of the United States' most historically relevant counter-cultural landmarks, City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, passed away on February 22, 2021. His daughter Julie Sasser has confirmed that the cause was interstitial lung disease, a general term for a group of disorders that cause progressive scarring of the lung tissue, per the New York Times.

Ferlinghetti founded City Lights in 1953 as a "literary meeting place" — part athenaeum, part literati debate center, part cultural nexus of the avant-garde-minded — as a now-monument of San Fran's North Beach neighborhood along Columbus Avenue, and has stood as its proprietor ever since. As the City Lights website says, Ferlinghetti was "instrumental in democratizing American literature by creating (with Peter D. Martin) the country's first all-paperback bookstore." This is a huge deal in and of itself, in helping to deliver an affordable proliferation of the written word to the masses in a time long before easily-searchable Wikipedia articles or SparkNotes study guides. 

Of equal importance, though, is the role that Ferlinghetti played in the beat generation: the "jazzy, funky, druggy refutation of convention" in the 1950s, per Grunge, that led to the rise of key names in American literature history, most prominently Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs. Ferlinghetti's publishing of Ginsberg's generation-defining poem "Howl" (listenable on YouTube) led to him being arrested for "willfully and lewdly" printing "indecent writings," which led to his touchstone, free speech-based, First Amendment acquittal. 

A rebellious artist and facilitator of other artists

Ferlinghetti didn't just house poets or help facilitate the creative "poetry as insurgent art" attitude of the day, he was a renowned poet, himself. Lawrence, last living legend of the beats, never considered himself a "beat poet," merely a man who was, in his own words, "perpetually awaiting a rebirth of wonder," as his poem "Am Awaiting" states (readable online).

Lawrence, born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling in Yonkers, New York, attended the prestigious Sorbonne University in Paris with a dissertation titled The City as Symbol in Modern Poetry: In Search of a Metropolitan Tradition, per Eco Poetry. After graduating, he moved to San Francisco and opened City Lights, the name of which was based on a 1931 Charlie Chaplain film (the ending, watchable on YouTube, is considered one of the finest scenes of cinema ever filmed). 

In a similar vein to the tragic realities of American "peace and prosperity" (critiqued in the film), Ferlinghetti considered himself an anarchic agent of free will finding irreverence and wit in all things. As The Guardian says, he called City Lights "the only rebellion around" as late as 1996. Ferlinghetti's own poetry is largely "irreverent, cajoling, casual and loose-limbed," as well as highly tongue-in-cheek and unabashedly political, such as "Underwear" (about the constraints of underwear resembling fascism) or "Dog" (about a dog's perspective on poverty and city life being the most accurate one of all).

Indeed, Ferlinghetti's wit and wisdom will be missed.