Profiles: Contemporary Writers

by Linda Bieze

"Are we talking about cannon with two n's?" asks Lawrence Ferlinghetti at the beginning of the phone conversation. "Maybe we should be." And the renowned Beat poet proceeds to launch a salvo of thoughts on the condition of society and the literary canon in the late 20th century.

"Manhattan Island is drifting further from the mainland. The Hudson River is getting wider and pushing Manhattan further away from the rest of the country.

"San Francisco is where it's happening. This city is looking more and more like a Pacific rim nation, with Asians and Latinos becoming more prominent. Old whitey is definitely in the minority here, while the other groups are definitely coming together. For example, the city council recently declared a city-wide holiday to honor César Chávez.

"And recently, a Latina city councillor told the San Francisco city council that the schools have to do a better job of providing all their ethnic students with the tools to make it in the dominant, English-speaking culture. The education they're getting now is short-changing them."

"I don't identify with WASP culture," he adds. "I feel Italian-Americans should be included with Latinos as a cultural group." Ferlinghetti was born Lawrence Ferling in Yonkers, New York, and was raised in France and the eastern United States. When, as an adult, he learned that his father, an Italian immigrant, had shortened the family name, Ferlinghetti restored the full-length name as his own.

Following service in the U. S. Navy during World War II and completion of a doctorate at the Sorbonne, Ferlinghetti settled in San Francisco in 1951. He became (and remains) co-owner of City Lights Bookshop, then a gathering place for Beat writers, and still a place where booklovers can browse undisturbed at any hour of the day or night. (Novelist Jack Kerouac first used the term "beat" to describe the group of writers he and Ferlinghetti were a part of, writers who were worn down by the bureaucracy of America in the 1950s.)

Ferlinghetti also founded (and still directs) City Lights Press, which published his first collection of poetry, Pictures of the Gone World, in 1955. He was also publisher of Beat poet Allen Ginsburg's Howl and Other Poems (1956), an enterprise that led to international recognition of the Beat movement, for Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried for printing and selling Ginsburg's book, which was deemed "lewd and indecent material." With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti won his trial, a victory for First Amendment rights, in 1957.

Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind (New Directions, 1958), which became, along with Howl, one of the most popular poetry books of the decade, is described by biographer Larry Smith as a "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Poet of Dissent." Smith also notes that many in the academic community found Ferlinghetti's work "simplistic, sentimental, undisciplined, and in open violation of the conventional form." But what the academy condemned was precisely the goal of Ferlinghetti and the rest of the Beat Generation: to make art accessible to ordinary people, not just the well-educated few.

More than 30 years after the publication of A Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti continues to challenge the status quo. "My poetry has become more dissident over the years," he observes. "Now I'm dealing with subjects like ecology and the state of national security. My dissent takes the form of satire rather than anger. The art critic Joseph Beuys said art's function is a total transformation of life. I think that goes for literature, as well as painting."

His latest poetry collection, These Are My Rivers: New and Collected Poems, 1955-1993, was published in December by New Directions; it's already in its second printing and is due out in paperback this fall. He describes his latest novel, Love in the Days of Rage, published in 1988 by E. P. Dutton, as "an anarchist novel about Paris in the '60s." Unfortunately, the novel is now out of print because "when Dutton was bought out by Penguin the novel was short-shafted--and my senior editor got fired." Ferlinghetti is looking for another publisher who will reissue it.

And then he issues another volley: The expansion of the literary canon, Ferlinghetti asserts, is due to "the increasing tribalization of education. Every tribe insists on having a piece of the action, and the canon struggle is one part of this ethnocentricity."

And "whitey" is not the tribe that's going to win this struggle. "I feel the day of whitey is over, worldwide. The future of `American' literature is that it's going to be called Panamerican literature. It's time we started calling `American' writers North American writers, because we don't own the hemisphere. The most interesting writing today is coming out of Latin America, like the magic realism of García Márquez. Latin America is where the revolutions are happening today. Whitey doesn't even have a revolution of his own to win any more. White women and Latinos are still fighting their revolutions; the Sandinistas and Zapatistas are still struggling. White males have to latch onto these revolutions. I'm a Sandinista myself!"

Unless Manhattan has drifted too far out to sea, readers can attend a conference on Beat writing May 18 and 19 at New York University and can view a show of Beat graphic art, including paintings by Ferlinghetti ("I was working as a painter in Paris before I ever started writing poetry"), at New York University's 80 Washington Square East Gallery May 18 through June 7 Call 212/998-5090 for more information and to request a conference brochure.

Contents, No. XI