We have seen the best minds of our generation I destroyed by boredom at poetry readings.
—from Who Are We Now?
No poet of the 1950s “beat generation” sang more clearly in tune with his times than Lawrence Ferlinghetti. His most popular work, A Coney Island of the Mind (nearly a million copies sold), became a kind of neo-testament to that decade’s Whitmaniacal renaissance of American poetry. Ferlinghetti opened the City Lights Books store in the North Beach district of San Francisco in 1953 as an underground poets’ exchange, where the currency was mutual criticism and encouragement. Two years later he started the City Lights Publishing Co. to give many of the most original writers of his generation their first public exposure. In 1957 he fought and won a decisive legal battle against those who labeled obscene such modern classics as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems.
But for the past few years, from his garret above the publishing company, Ferlinghetti, now 57, has been watching his old neighborhood change, in fact and in spirit. Bearded intellectuals and smoky coffeehouses have given way, he laments, to “Hell’s Angels and fast food chains.” In his recently published seventh book of poetry, Who Are We Now?, he charges his colleagues with falling into esthetic isolation. “The hour of oming is over,” he writes. “Poets, descend to the street of the world once more.”
This month Ferlinghetti made his move toward simplicity. He closed the publishing house—a literary landmark on Grant Avenue for the past 10 years. “We were getting too successful,” he says. “We were having to worry as much about overhead as the quality of the poetry we were publishing. We were having to produce new titles just to satisfy our salesmen.”
From one book in its first year, 1955 (his own Pictures of the Gone World), City Lights now has about 90 volumes in print. Its closing will not stop the presses; City Lights will put out Ginsberg’s new book (Mind Breath) later this year and five others. But editorial space will be reduced to a desk in the basement of his bookstore. “That’s where we began,” Ferlinghetti says. “I guess you can say we’re literally returning to the underground.”
Such changes are nothing new in Ferlinghetti’s volatile life. His father died before he was born, his mother underwent a long hospitalization for pernicious anemia when he was an infant, and a maiden aunt raised him in Paris and New York until she committed herself to an insane asylum. Much of Ferlinghetti’s youth was spent in orphanages and foster homes. At the University of North Carolina, where he was an indifferent C student, he made food money by selling the New York Times on campus. In World War II he served aboard subchasers, attaining the rank of lieutenant commander. After a few postwar months “sorting and mis-sorting mail” at Time Inc., he went to Columbia University on the Gl bill for a master’s degree in English. With that, he moved back to Paris, where he earned a doctorate at the Sorbonne and became an ardent student of wines. He chose San Francisco as his permanent stateside residence, he says now, “because I heard they had plenty of good cheap wine.”
A year and a half ago Ferlinghetti and his wife, Kirby, were divorced. Their son, Lorenzo, 14, has been a frequent boarder since then. The boy has “completely and radically changed my life,” the poet says. “I always stayed up late and never got up early, but now I have to rise at 7 a.m. to cook for him.” And when daughter Julie, 16, joins her father in new digs on North Beach later this month, she’ll bring with her a marked coolness toward “beat poetry.” No matter, says Ferlinghetti, who shares her love for Bob Dylan’s work. He even seems to like the writing on the wall. “I think lyrics may be a new direction for modern poetry,” he says. “Did I tell you I’m writing Country & Western songs today?”