Today in Literary History – March 24, 1919 – poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti is born

American poet, publisher, bookseller and political activist Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born on March 24, 1919. As he turns 99 years old he is still active in literary causes. A widower, he lives alone in the same San Francisco apartment he has lived in since 1980.

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Ferlinghetti is most closely associated with the San Francisco bookstore he co-founded in 1953 , The City Lights Bookstore, and the publishing company of the same name that he established two years later. Early on City Lights published poetry and prose books by Ferlinghetti himself as well as by Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski and Gregory Corso.

Ferlinghetti and City Lights became best known as publishers of the Beat poets, whom other publishing houses shied away from. In 1956 City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s now iconic poem Howl and the bookstore hosted a reading by the author. Ferlinghetti himself was arrested on the charge of selling obscene materiel. He was acquitted in 1957 and the trial set a precedent for free speech in literary works and brought the book itself enormous publicity.

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Reflecting Ferlinghetti’s own progressive politics, City Lights also published books by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Tom Hayden. Ferlinghetti was active in the anti-Vietnam War movement and south and central American causes.

Ferlinghetti’s own poetry is witty, accessible and full of wordplay and jazz-like rhythms. I have enjoyed reading it for years, but I especially enjoy Ferlinghetti’s own recorded readings (often accompanied by jazz music) which really bring out the poems’ musicality.

Here’s some Ferlinghetti:

 

The World Is a Beautiful Place

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

Oh the world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t much mind
a few dead minds
in the higher places
or a bomb or two
now and then
in your upturned faces
or such other improprieties
as our Name Brand society
is prey to
with its men of distinction
and its men of extinction
and its priests
and other patrolmen

and its various segregations
and congressional investigations
and other constipations
that our fool flesh
is heir to

Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
dancing
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
‘living it up’
Yes
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling

mortician

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

 

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