MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

RIP Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

Poetry as an “insurgent art,” the poet as storyteller, as painter: the many-faceted artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti has died at the age of 101 in his beloved San Francisco.

As a young man freshly armed with a comparative literature doctorate from Paris, Ferlinghetti arrived in San Francisco in 1951. He resembled, in his words, “the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.” See the New York Times assessment here, which adds: “San Francisco remained close to his heart as well, especially North Beach, the traditionally Italian-American neighborhood where he lived for most of his adult life” — and where he joined with Peter Martin to open the City Lights Pocket Book Shop in 1953 (each invested just $500).

“City Lights quickly became the hangout of choice for the city’s radical intelligentsia, particularly Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and the rest of the Beats,” writes Emma Brown in The Washington Post. “The doors stayed open until midnight weekdays and 2 a.m. weekends, and even then it was hard to close on time. From its earliest years, it stocked gay and lesbian publications.”

A brave opponent of censorship and a pioneer of independent publishing, Ferlinghetti sustained his credo about art’s potential to change our world (as quoted in NPR’s appreciation): “I really believe that art is capable of the total transformation of the world, and of life itself. And nothing less is really acceptable. So I mean if art is going to have any excuse for — beyond being a leisure-class plaything — it has to transform life itself.”

He also said: “Everyone is a poet at 16, but how many are poets at 50? Generally, people seem to get more conservative as they age, but in my case, I seem to have gotten more radical, Poetry must be capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic.”

Here’s a group of photos taken outside City Lights showing an impromptu memorial on Tuesday.

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