I am a hill
where poets run.
I invented the alphabet
after watching the flight of cranes
who made letters with their legs.
I am a lake upon a plain.
I am a word
in a tree.
I am a hill of poetry.
I am a raid
on the inarticulate.
I have dreamt
that all my teeth fell out
but my tongue lived
to tell the tale.
For I am a still
of poetry.    --excerpted from "Autobiography", 1958

Lawrence Monsanto Ferling was born in Yonkers, New York in 1919.  It is no wonder that the lines from the above-quoted poem came from one of his best compilations,  A Coney Island of the Mind. Ironically, though many other "beat" poets, of which he is one, are famously from Greewich Village in New York City (Allen Ginsberg -lived and died in it, Gregory Corso -was born in it, but he and Kenneth Patchen started in the Village but went to Frisco later); Lawrence Ferlinghetti brought his contribution to this avant-garde genre to San Francisco, California.  It is there he still writes (as of this biography's date) for the San Francisco Chronicle and runs his bookstore, City Lights. 

His real estate dealing father, Charles, actually of Italian-Portuguese-Sephardic descent, who died half a year before the youngest of five boys was born, was the one who had Anglicized the name. It was in 1954 the young man discovered and reclaimed (name-wise) his Italian heritage, but not before he would go through a cosmos of turmoil. Right after his father's death, his mother, Clemence, had a developing and severe mental breakdown, and thus after being fostered by various relatives, even orphanages, his divorced Aunt Emily Monsanto finally took the two of them to Strasbourg, France.  Here the very young Lawrence became fluent in French, and became extremely good with Italian. Fate and the Muses would catch up later. 

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don't mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don't sing
all the time

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind some people dying
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn't half bad
if it isn't you    --excerpted from "The World is a Beautiful Place"

Back to New York they went, at a time and place that money was tight even while living with uncle Ludwig Monsanto. They had trouble keeping good food on the table, (before the day of vitamin fortification, especially D), and the poor boy came down with Rickets. Fortunately Emily got a governess position for the affluent Presley Bisland residence. He was actually allowed to stay with this family after Emily went off elsewhere. Besides Mr. Bisland being a man of letters, and influencing his protege, he sent him in 1927 and 1928 to the Riverdale Country School; afterwards, the Mount Hermon Prepratory in Massachusetts.

Lawrence started his undergraduate work in 1937 at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He got his degree in Journalism in 1941. A Naval Reservist from 1941 until 1945, he was a Lieutenant Commander (his being able to speak French with that degree helped) during the Normandy Invasion known more as D-Day. After the Atomic bomb was dropped in Nagasaki, Japan he was deployed there, and saw the horrors of the 20th Century up close and personal, profoundly affecting him.

After coming home he received his BA in Journalism at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, his Masters of Arts in 1947 from NY's Columbia University, with his thesis on critic John Ruskin and painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. He took advantage of his French studies background, a love of literature, and the GI Bill whereby he received a Doctorate in 1950 from the Sorbonne in Paris.  Impressively his Doctorate thesis, "The City as a Symbol in Modern Poetry," was in Francaise. The Left Bank obviously stayed with him politically and philosophically for the rest of his life.

I want
         the pen to be on a par
                    with the bayonet    -Vladimir Mayakovsky, from "Back Home", 1925

In 1951 he left the "City of Lights" for that Left Coast Mecca for artists, San Francisco, California, obviously bypassing what would seem more typical for a former New Yorker and 'beat' poet, Greenwich Village. Without family or any other contacts in Frisco, he asked a perfect stranger on the street of where the Bohemian district might be.

His girlfriend, Selden Kirby-Smith, he met on another France-bound ship in 1946. They were married in 1953, and they had a son, Lorenzo and a daughter, Julie.

In two years he partnered with ex-New Yorker and Sociology professor at San Francisco State College (since 1940), Peter D. Martin, who aready started City Lights Magazine, to establish their tiny bookstore, named City Lights Pocket Bookstore; and in 1955 they initiated their same named publishing company. Their seed money was 500 dollars each and it was in that hip area he was guided to. Named after the 20's Charlie Chaplain film (and not as one might expect from Paris), it still is at the original location: 261 Columbus Avenue in the North Beach area. Their orginal idea of a flower shop (I guess too early for the Summer of Love) became the unique all-paperbound book venue (drugstores were the normal outlet). They copied the sidewalk displays of books just like the ones in Paris. The magazine, which was destined to have only five issues, published the poems of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, Philip Lamantia, and Ferlinghetti's pre Nom de Plume, Lawrence Ferling, started the West Coast Beat poets competition with their famous East Coast counterparts.

At The Golden Gate

A single plover far at sea
wings across the horizon

A single rower almost out of sight
rows his skull
into eternity

And I take a buddha crystal
in my hand
And begin becoming pure
light-- 1958

Ferlighetti naturally had to attend the big poetry read that Friday night on the 7th October 1955 at Six Gallery on Fillmore Street introduced by Kenneth Rexroth, (somebody who once nay-said Lawrence's endeavors. In this first of several series of artistic gatherings, he saw his friend Philip Lamantia, along with Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, and Allen Ginsberg with Jack Kerouac only passively atttending. After hearing Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" in its first presentation, he was compelled to publish in his fourth City Lights' Pocket Poets Series the famous poem. He had excitedly telegraphed Allen the same message that Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to Walt Whitman, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career."  Graced with a forward by William Carlos Williams, they then received notoriety, as well as an anti-obsenity trial. Customs had confiscated 520 copies of the book. The old saying, "Forewarned is forearmed," played true as they had previously asked the ACLU about the work (namely the 'F' bomb in it): Blessedly for the poets, a judge ruled for free speech in that it had "redeeming social significance." This event really put the West Coast Beatniks on the map, and lots of snapping fingers in between gulps of expresso.


I saw the best of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up
their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Chil-
dren screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old
men weeping in the parks!

Real holy laughter in the river! They saw it all! the wild eyes! the holy yells!
They bade farewell! They jumped off the roofl to solitude! waving! carrying
flowers! Down to the river! into the street!--excerpted from "Howl"

Through the 60's and on, his City Lights could publish Henry Miller and other previously banned authors and writings, and was the main outlet for all of the alternative sexual varieties way before their time. He also can add playwright to his list of achievments.  He was known to be very hospitable to his fellow beats, habitually letting Kerouac sober up, but  wife Seldon put down a firm foot as she had a limit to junkies, threw Corso out of their house. He divorced Seldon in 1973, but stays amicable with his ex.

A San Francisco street was named after him in 1994, and in 1998 he became their Poet Laureate. Coney Island of the Mind is probably the most translated, published and sold poetry book to date. There is an audio version of it, so you can close your eyes, listen, and flash back to those smoke filled coffee house days. He also translated European poetry, as well as earned the Los Angeles Times' Robert Kirsch Award, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Award for Contribution to American Arts and Letters, the BABRA Award for Lifetime Achievement, and the American Civil Liberties Union's Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award. The Robert Frost Memorial Medal, the Author's Guild Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003, and he was voted on to the coveted American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Today, in 2012, Lawrence can be found painting in Hunters Point, (something he did while teaching French upon his settling in San Francisco). Galleries throughout the world show his work; but more newsworthy, the poet has finished an epic work, a whole book containing his latest, "Time of Useful Consciousness." It is a kind of Techno-Doomsday affair, where Walt Whitman is called to come save the day.

I Am Waiting

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting
for someone to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Second Coming
and I am waiting
for a religious revival
to sweep through the state of Arizona
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped’ onto church altars
if only they can find
the right channel
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
without taxes and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Great Divide to ‘be crossed
and I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered
by an obscure general practitioner
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting
to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and tv rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for the American Boy
to take off Beauty’s clothes
and get on top of her
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
for Aphrodite
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and embrace
and I am waiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder --2003


Ferlinghetti lived to 101, dying of lung disease February 22, 2021.


Pictures of the Gone World (1955)
A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)
Her (1960)
Starting from San Francisco (1961)
Unfair Arguments with Existence (1963)
Routines (1964)
The Secret Meaning of Things (1969)
Tyrannus Nix? (1969)
The Mexican Night (1970)
Back Roads to Far Places (1971)
Open Eye, Open Heart (1973)
A Far Rockaway of the Heart (1997)
How to Paint Sunlight (2001)
Americus Book I (2004) pub. New Directions.
Poetry as Insurgent Art (2007)



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