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The Beat goes on

Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped give voice to an enduring movement.

November 16, 2005|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — IN 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet and publisher at a tiny storefront called City Lights Books, was ordered into the Hall of Justice here on obscenity charges after police officers from the juvenile department turned him in for selling a slender volume, "Howl and Other Poems," by an obscure poet named Allen Ginsberg.

In a decision that surprised authorities and delighted Ferlinghetti, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that a work could not be deemed obscene if it had "redeeming social significance." The legal precedent paved the way for the U.S. publication of a raft of contemporary classics, from "Lady Chatterley's Lover" to "Naked Lunch" and "Tropic of Cancer"; Ginsberg's poem "Howl" ushered in the American counterculture.

Today this cultural icon -- Ferlinghetti, at 86, is a rangy, 6-foot, vigorous-looking presence -- sits in his upstairs office at City Lights, explaining his mixed feelings about accepting a lifetime achievement award tonight in New York from the National Book Foundation when so many Beat poets were passed over by the literary establishment. Not that Ferlinghetti is eager to join.

"Allen Ginsberg was a major force in American poetry and he never got much recognition from the literary establishment. He never got a Pulitzer, he never got a Nobel Prize," Ferlinghetti said, lounging in blue jeans and a black sweater against a wall of windows with a sweeping sunset view of cafes, bars and glowing strip-joint lights in North Beach.

"I think it's an honor, but I still consider myself a dissident," he said, his arresting blue eyes gazing brightly from a kind and surprisingly smooth-skinned face.

Ferlinghetti is one of the last living poets of the Beat generation. He was San Francisco's first poet laureate. When he becomes the first recipient, in New York, of the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, he will be honored for something for which he himself takes pride: his 50 years as anchor of the hole-in-the-wall Beat bookstore that helped reshape the language of American modernism.

Ferlinghetti still works at City Lights. He just co-translated a book of poetry by the late Pier Paolo Pasolini. He rides his bike to work every day from the small apartment near Washington Square Park where Ferlinghetti, who divorced in 1970, lives alone, though he's talking about getting another dog to replace his beloved late companion, Pooch.

He still paints, at his studio in a shipyard at Hunter's Point. On his wall at home, his painting "The Death of Neal Cassady at San Miguel de Allende" alludes to wilder days, when hard-living Beats were fueled by drugs, alcohol and mind-expanding travels.

In this world, Ferlinghetti is a celebrity. Strangers recognize him on the street and stop to talk to him. There is a Via Ferlinghetti near Cafe Trieste. City Lights is an official city landmark, bordered by an alleyway called Jack Kerouac Lane.

"I keep telling people I wasn't a member of the original Beat generation," Ferlinghetti said. "I was sort of the guy tending the store."

This from a guy whose praised poetry collection "A Coney Island of the Mind" has sold a million copies, and keeps on selling.

"My poetry had a very different aesthetic," he insisted. "The Jack Kerouac school of disembodied poetics is 'first thought, best thought,' where you write down the first thing that comes to mind, to get close to the essential being of yourself," Ferlinghetti said, referring to the author of "On the Road" and "The Dharma Bums."

"My poems were not written that way," he said. "I think it can sometimes be 'first thought, worst thought,' unless you have an original genius mind like Allen Ginsberg and everything that comes out of that mind is interesting." With less original minds, he said, the method produces "acres and acres of boring poetry."

Ferlinghetti came by his original mind the old-fashioned way, through a Dickensian childhood. It began in South Yonkers, N.Y. By his account: He was the fifth son of an Italian-born father, who died before he was born, and a mother of Caribbean Sephardic lineage who suffered a post-partum breakdown so severe that the week-old Ferlinghetti was handed to a French aunt.

He lived with his aunt in France, then spent his sixth year in a Chappaqua orphanage, until his aunt found a job as a live-in governess for a member of the family that founded Sarah Lawrence College. They lived in the servant's quarters until his aunt left the house and never returned. He later heard she died in a mental institution.

Ferlinghetti resided with his aunt's employers until he went to college and the Navy. He got a literature doctorate from the Sorbonne on the GI Bill and moved to San Francisco at 32.

The Bay Area was filling up in those days. There were World War II veterans who didn't want to go back to Texas or Tennessee. Black Americans who left the South for wartime shipyard jobs. Interracial military couples who sought camouflage in a multiethnic society.

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