Without him, the Beat generation would probably not have existed: poet, bookseller and publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti died, Monday, February 22, at the age of 101. He was the magnificent survivor of this counter-culture movement born in the United States in the 1950s.
Author of the poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), sold over a million copies – almost unheard of in such a confidential field – he was a major poet of the XXe American century. If he minimized his role in the history of the Beat generation and annoyed that he was always questioned about this era, brilliant but distant, he was nonetheless a pillar of this nonconformist and rebellious group.
It was he who created the legendary City Lights bookstore (after City Lights, by Charlie Chaplin), in San Francisco, laboratory of movement. He who was the first to publish, as part of the City Lights Books editions, the books of Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. It was he who, in 1957, was arrested and tried for obscenity, during a historic trial (before being finally acquitted), for having published one of the great books of the Beat generation, Howl, long hallucinated poem by Ginsberg.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born March 24, 1919 in Yonkers, New York. His father, Italian, died before his birth. His mother, Franco-Portuguese, could not stand the shock and was interned in a psychiatric hospital. He spent his childhood in France, with his aunt. Returned to the United States, he participated in the D-Day landings in June 1944, and found himself, a year later, in Nagasaki, in ruins after the atomic bombardment. “It made me a pacifist”, he will say. After the war, he returned to Paris with a scholarship and obtained a doctorate at La Sorbonne.
In 1953, he opened a bookstore in San Francisco, entirely devoted to pocket books, where young writers met who refused the ambient academicism and the “Coca-colonization” of America, to use Ferlinghetti’s phrase. They love jazz and read William Blake, Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Aldous Huxley; they want to express sensations in what they have most immediate, thanks to a writing which would be like “A beating heart”. Many artists of all disciplines, Bob Dylan in the lead, owe a lot to the Beat generation.
Author of several collections, plays and a novel (Her), Lawrence Ferlinghetti designed many poems to be read aloud or to accompany a piece of jazz. Also editor of Charles Bukowski and Paul Bowles, he translated Jacques Prévert into English.
Both a moral anarchist, as he described himself, and a socialist, a friend of the Buddhists, also gifted at painting, he was finally a great traveler. Throughout his life, he traveled from Australia to Vietnam, from the cobblestones of Paris to Nicaragua, via the Trans-Siberian and the roads of America.
He told in Writing Across the Landscape (Wandering Life, published in France in 2019) how he crossed paths with Fidel Castro and Pablo Neruda, plunged into Franco’s Spain, met Soviet dissidents, poets and wonderful anonymous people. “If you claim to be a poet, he exclaimed, don’t just sit there! “
“Inspired and sensual, these intimate notebooks read like an open letter to the reader. We can hear his distinctive voice, that of an American baladin ”, said her friend, singer Patti Smith, while director Francis Ford Coppola shared the “Happiness” proven to follow his adventures and his furiously beat pen.
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