The Smithy of His Soul

Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919–2021).

lawrence ferlinghetti, city lights bookstore
San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

I have a postcard in my office, on the bookshelf facing my desk. It features a photograph from 1960, the year before I was born, of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao at City Lights Bookstore. Murao, the longtime manager, glances away from the camera, but Ferlinghetti, the owner, looks directly into the lens. He holds a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and is surrounded by an array of shelves, all of which are packed with literature, stuffed full of language and of words.

I keep this postcard because it reminds me of something, of who I am, perhaps, or who I aspire to become. In it, Ferlinghetti—who died on Monday at the age of 101—is already 40, but he is exactly where he means to be. Publisher, poet, painter, perhaps the last of the old (read: real) bohemians, Ferlinghetti understood that art was fleeting; this only made it more essential in the end. It was both craft and calling. It was work as a form of engaged, and enlightened, play. “I didn’t know that painters and writers retired,” he once observed. “They’re like soldiers—they just fade away.” I am now nearly two decades older than Ferlinghetti was when the image in the postcard was taken, and I feel exactly the same.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti gave me permission; can I just say that? Not writerly permission necessarily, or exclusively—although that as well. “The world is a beautiful place / to be born into,” he wrote in Pictures of the Gone World,

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 tension in those lines, between hell and heaven, happiness and its opposite, speaks to me of a complex and engaging vision, an ability to see the world as it is.

And yet, for all that Ferlinghetti was a realist—in the early days, he told me in 1995, he “was married and living on Potrero Hill, and working 10 or 12 hours a day at the store. I started meeting the poets because they naturally congregated in bookstores”—he was a visionary as well. City Lights, named for the Charlie Chaplin movie, started as a magazine; among its contributors was a then-unknown film critic named Pauline Kael. In 1953, he opened the bookstore with Peter Martin, son of the anarchist Carlo Tresca; those roots were an important aspect of his sensibility.

“If you would be a poet,” Ferlinghetti wrote in his 2007 book, Poetry As Insurgent Art, “create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic.… If you would be a great poet, strive to transcribe the consciousness of the race.” Poetry, or literature, as revolutionary, in other words, a way of forging in the smithy of one’s soul (to borrow, as Ferlinghetti did, a construction from James Joyce) the uncreated conscience of humanity.

For Ferlinghetti, this notion of art, of literature, as insurrectionary was an article of faith. He never wavered, never compromised, and yet he also never lost his sense of humor, his sly and gentle sense of grace. I remember seeing him at City Lights in 2006, announcing the finalists for the National Book Awards. “It’s sort of like we’ve just been discovered by Magellan, or Lewis and Clark,” the then-87-year-old joked from behind a lectern, referring to the literary establishment’s unexpected turn toward California. “We’ve been discovered at last.”

city lights bookstore, postercard, the beat scene
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao at City Lights Bookstore in 1960. The postcard is one that David L. Ulin keeps in his office.

What he didn’t add—he didn’t have to—was that this had everything to do with him. When City Lights started publishing books in 1955, there were very few publishers outside New York. Yet rather than see this as a detriment, Ferlinghetti understood that distance offered freedom, that from his store on Columbus Avenue in North Beach, he could change American literature from the outside in. In 1956, he published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems and provoked an obscenity trial after copies of the book, which had been printed in England, were seized by U.S. Customs.

“We knew exactly what we were doing,” he would later recall. “We figured we might very well get busted for it, but in those days it was important to take a stand on the question of censorship. This was the McCarthy era.”

I didn’t know Ferlinghetti well. I interviewed him a number of times, including once for a piece in this magazine, and City Lights published my second book, Another City: Writing from Los Angeles. One of the thrills of my life was doing a reading in the poetry room on the bookstore’s second floor with contributors to the anthology. This was in October 2001, in the midst of the anthrax scare, at a moment—we are now in another one—when none of us knew whether or not we’d make it through the day unscathed. And yet, there we were, celebrating literature, the power of the word if not to save us than to offer witness, to say: We are here and we will persevere, if not forever than for this moment at least.

That, for me, is Ferlinghetti’s legacy: his absolute devotion to the transformative force of art. For him, this meant his own art but also showcasing the art of others. The communitarian impulse, one might say. I learned from him the necessity of working collaboratively. I learned from him the importance of making space for other people’s work. It is no understatement to suggest that I am a teacher and an editor because of his influence—or better yet, because of his generosity.

“Modern poetry,” he declared, “is prose because it doesn’t have much duende, dark spirit of earth and blood, no soul of dark song, no passion musick. Like modern sculpture, it loves the concrete. Like minimal art, it minimizes emotion in favor of understated irony and implied intensity. As such it is the perfect poetry for technocratic man. But how often does this poetry rise above the mean sea level of his sparkling plain? Ezra Pound once decanted his opinion that only in times of decadence does poetry separate itself from music. And this is the way the world ends, not with a song but a whimper.”

David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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