The publishing world also has “keystone species.” And in the California branch — and in the world of poets, where I also live — Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a big one.
I only briefly met Ferlinghetti, who passed away Monday at 101
. But I cannot remember a time when I was not conscious of him. I’m old enough to remember the days when the Bay Area was full of bookstores and his fellow Beat poet Allen Ginsberg would still come in to read, casually and easily: I was a teenager in worn-out jeans and Ferlinghetti was still popping in and out such of readings. He was handsome, debonair, vaguely countercultural in his denim jacket, like everyone’s hippy dad, but somehow fiercer and more awesome.
I’m old enough to remember when Ferlinghetti’s 1976 poem “The Old Italians Dying
” was published again 20-odd years later in the San Francisco Chronicle
, and my mom paused to read it aloud to me, before sighing and saying: “Now there’s a poem,” and closing her eyes to let a little beam of sunshine pass across her face.
I’m old enough to remember the feeling that Ferlinghetti was somewhere quite near us in North Beach, when, as teenagers, my friends and I drank coffee at Caffé Trieste and stayed up late pouring heartfelt thoughts into our journals, feeling like we were empowered and enabled to discover our own ways to words. And I’m old enough to remember how, in the days before the internet, I was a hungry teenager who would take a train and two buses to spend an afternoon in City Lights bookstore, the marvelous fabulous charmingly crooked three story building which Ferlinghetti had founded, along with his City Lights Press
. That store, the first all-paperback bookstore, was a revolution in access to literature, and that press published Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems” and devoted itself to defending poets’ rights to free speech.
To enter that bookstore was and is a joy, the kind of thing that will set your mind on fire and your heart thumping. Downstairs were books of critical theory and also a wise selection of children’s books (who knew that e.e. cummings had written children’s stories?), and on the main floor all the fiction the eyes might want to feast on, and a full magazine rack that whose eclectic selection affirmed the presence of journals large and small, glossy and flat, quarterly, letter-pressed, irregular.
Then, joy of joys, one more rickety staircase to the upstairs room that was devoted, shelf after beautiful shelf, to poetry. To sit in that room was to become a bird in the nest of the oak tree that Ferlinghetti had spent his life becoming, to become one bright fish in the coral reef that was Ferlinghetti’s beautiful branching empire. For Ferlinghetti wrote poems and books, yes, but he also published them, and he circulated them, and he also built spaces where I or you or anyone could come and linger with them — this in the days before the internet when you can search up or tweet poems at will. For a hungry young reader, for a hungry young writer, this bookstore was an invitation. Come nestle, come listen, come practice, come read, come learn.
It is also so important to realize the way City Lights and Ferlinghetti gave something to us California writers: this world he built was for us and of us, it was us. He fortified our local Rome: We could argue with it, we could add to it, we could debate inside its multitudes, but most importantly we would inherit it. It was ours, it showed that literature could be made, that we were invited to make more of it.
Here was not only a bookstore but a press. Here was not only a poet but a movement. Here was a hive and honey. Whether we ever wrote poetry like Ferlinghetti, or like the Beat Poets he championed, or like the formalist poet Marie Ponsot, who he also championed, he had made more spaces to which we could respond, as if the web of connections he had built simply made more oxygen in the air. And he built a world where night after night, week after week, year after year, people all crammed into the bookstore, simply to hear one another, simply to be present with authors sharing their words and their visions and their breath.
When, much later, I had become a poet, and published my first book, and had given readings all around the country, it was a reading with the marvelous poet D.A. Powell at City Lights which meant perhaps the most to me, which made the hungry young writer in me feel the greatest sense of pride.
This time two years ago, well before the pandemic, over a thousand people came to City Lights to celebrate Ferlinghetti’s 100th
, even though Ferlinghetti himself
couldn’t make it. (Others gathered to serenade him outside his apartment). It seemed that even a century into his life he could not die, as if he might somehow have a magical other century in him.
Now, in the era of Covid, I try to remember the last reading I attended at City Lights. I cannot remember just one: I remember instead our crowded legs and elbows, the drinks afterwards with friends, the feeling of going home again to face one’s own blank page the next morning fortified a bit by love. We are living in a moment when we will need such love and such perches, where we must think again how to rebuild our communities, the real spaces we come together, where we learn to listen to one another again. I can’t help but thinking that we will need more magisterial presences, people who can build ecosystems, people who are actually oak forests in disguise.
Now, Ferlinghetti the oak forest has also become one of the old Italians he wrote about, in this poem, which I quote here:
“For years the old Italians in faded felt hats have been sunning themselves and dying
You have seen them on the benches in the park in Washington Square the old Italians in their black high button shoes the old men in their old felt fedoras with stained hatbands have been dying and dying day by day
You have seen them every day in Washington Square San Francisco the slow bell tolls in the morning in the Church of Peter & Paul in the marzipan church on the plaza toward ten in the morning the slow bell tolls in the towers of Peter & Paul and the old men who are still alive sit sunning themselves in a row on the wood benches in the park and watch the processions in and out funerals in the morning weddings in the afternoon slow bell in the morning Fast bell at noon
In one door out the other the old men sit there in their hats and watch the coming & going …”
May the writers long gather in your store, Ferlinghetti. May you receive serenades in your going. Thank you for your coming, Ferlinghetti. Thank you for all the places you offered for so many writers to sit, and watch. Hail and farewell, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and we thank you. May you rest under the good oaks. May you find someplace wonderful to sit in your hat, and may you speak long and well with the bards in the beyond.