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Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the beat poet, has died at 101


The iconic poet and literary figure of anti-conformity, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has sadly passed away aged 101.

An intricate part of the beat generation of the ’50s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti owned and ran the San Francisco based City Lights Bookstore, which published various dissident books of cutting edge literature. Ferlinghetti was a poet himself and operated largely as a political iconoclast, using the medium of literature and specifically the art of poetry as a means of challenging conformity. He was considered the godfather of the Beat Generation; the cause of his death is allegedly interstitial lung cancer, according to his daughter, Julie Sasser. 

The bookstore and publishing house City Lights Bookstore was established in 1953 and was a meeting place and literary hub for many involved in the beat movement. The bookstore developed a reputation as a cultural force and, in 2001, was named by San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors as an official historic landmark. 

Ferlinghetti often got into political and legal battles in the name of freedom of speech. The literary works of famous writers Ferlinghetti worked with included Gregory Corso, Michael McClure and Allen Ginsberg. With Ferlinghetti’s help, they challenged society’s obscenity laws. One of these major cases occurred when Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s infamous epic poem, Howl. Ferlinghetti was subsequently arrested on charges of “lewdly and wilfully printing indecent writings,” according to The New York Times. He would eventually win the case, further opening the doors for more dissident and challenging art.

In 2003, Ferlinghetti was awarded the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal. As a prolific writer and poet, he noted about poetry, “Every great poem fulfils a longing and puts life back together, as well as a poem should “should arise to ecstasy somewhere between speech and song.”

His most successful book of poetry was A Coney Island of The Mind, published in 1958. Despite Ferlinghetti’s association with the beat generation, many had argued if he himself should be considered a beat. He once commented, “When I arrived in San Francisco in 1951 I was wearing a beret. If anything I was the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the beats.” As an iconoclast and provocateur, he, however, shared the same principles as the beats, in that poetry and literature can serve as a cultural counterforce for change. He wrote in his poem, ‘I am Signaling You Through The Flames’:

“If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of
apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.
You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words. …”

As a poet and writer, Ferlinghetti was often considered a populist with populist themes permeating through his work. He did not believe that poetry should be this high-art concept only able to be accessed by the elite, commenting “that art should be accessible to all people, not just a handful of highly educated intellectuals.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was instrumental in bringing beat poetry and literature into the mainstream and will forever remain a significant figure in contributing to the betterment of society.