This sample Lawrence Ferlinghetti Essay is published for informational purposes only. Free essays and research papers, are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality essay at affordable price please use our custom essay writing service.
As poet, playwright, publisher, and spokesman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti helped to spark the San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1950s and the subsequent Beat movement in American literature. Ferlinghetti was one of a group of writers, later labeled the ”Beat Generation,” who felt strongly that art should be accessible to all people, not just a handful of the highly educated. His lively poetry is imbued with American idiom and the influence of modern jazz. Ferlinghetti’s most important contribution to American literature may have been the bookstore he founded, City Lights Books, which continues to publish counterculture writers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Fortune Amid Tragedy
Lawrence Monsanto Ferling was born in Yonkers, New York, on March 24, 1919. His father, an Italian immigrant, had shortened the family name upon arrival in America. only in his adulthood did Ferlinghetti discover the lengthier name and restore it as his own.
He began his life in the midst of crisis and loss. His father died suddenly before he was born, and when he was two, his mother suffered a nervous breakdown and was institutionalized. It was his mother’s aunt Emily Mendes-Monsanto who rescued him from this tragic situation and whisked him off to France for several years. When Emily returned to her estranged husband in New York, Lawrence suffered a second loss. Breaking with her husband for the final time, she was forced to put the child into an orphanage for seven months until she found a position as governess to a wealthy family in Bronxville, New York. When his aunt disappeared suddenly, Lawrence was allowed to stay with the family and was sent to elite private schools, first in the Bronx and then in Massachusetts.
Ferlinghetti enrolled at the University of North Carolina in 1937 and graduated with a degree in journalism four years later. He then joined the navy. During World War II he was stationed in France, participating as a lieutenant commander during the Normandy invasion in 1944. After his discharge, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to continue his education. He completed a master’s degree in literature from Columbia University before returning to France to study at the Sorbonne, where he achieved his doctorate with a dissertation on the city as a symbol in poetry.
City Lights and the Pocket Poets
Ferlinghetti returned from Paris in 1951 and moved to San Francisco. For a short time he supported himself by teaching languages and by doing freelance writing for art journals and the San Francisco Chronicle. Attending literary soirees at Kenneth Rexroth’s apartment, he became attuned to the city’s offbeat character. In 1953 he joined with Peter D. Martin to publish a magazine, City Lights, named after a 1931 Charlie Chaplin film. In order to subsidize the magazine, the two men opened the City Lights bookstore on the edge of Chinatown—where it flourishes still.
City Lights was the country’s first all-paperback bookstore, and before long it was a popular gathering place for San Francisco’s avant-garde writers and artists. Ferlinghetti began publishing his Pocket Poets series in 1955, leading off with the first book of his own poems, Pictures of the Gone World. The left-wing political sentiments in these verses met an appreciative response among young people agonizing over the nuclear arms race and cold war politics of the time, as the United States and the Soviet Union each sought to build up arsenals of weaponry with which to potentially destroy the other. San Francisco became a hub of artistic experimentation and left-wing social activism during the 1950s, with the Beats leading the charge. By the late 1960s, San Francisco was the center of the counterculture movement in America.
The Howl Trial
Ferlinghetti was now at the center of a literary and cultural groundswell. Among his friends were writers such as Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, and Jack Kerouac. In 1955, a young Allen Ginsberg walked into the bookshop and introduced himself to its proprietor with a collection of poems. It was Ferlinghetti who drove the poets to the historic Six Gallery reading at which Ginsberg unveiled his poem “Howl.” Immediately recognizing it as a classic work of art, Ferlinghetti offered to publish the work. The Pocket Poets edition of Howl and Other Poems appeared in 1956 and sold out quickly. A second shipment was ordered from the British printer, but U.S. authorities seized it on the grounds of alleged obscenity. Thus began a landmark censorship trial that helped spark a new literary movement.
Under arrest for printing and selling indecent material, Ferlinghetti engaged the American Civil Liberties Union for his defense and welcomed his court case as a test of the limits of free speech. Not only did he win the suit on October 3, 1957, but the case established a legal precedent in the United States that allowed for the publication of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928) and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) in the next decade. Through the attention the trial generated, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg became national and international public figures, leading a revolution in thinking as well as writing.
In another arena Ferlinghetti became a public figure during the late 1950s. He and Kenneth Rexroth had taken to experimenting with a combination of brother arts, poetry and jazz. They performed nightly in clubs and theaters. Ferlinghetti’s motives were explicit: he sought to expand the audience for poetry by redeeming it from the ivory towers of academia and offering it as a shared experience with ordinary people. His efforts revived an almost forgotten oral tradition of poetic improvisation.
In 1958, New Directions Press published Ferlinghetti’s second book, A Coney Island of the Mind. It is a broad collection including his open-form work from Pictures of the Gone World, seven poems that came out of the poetry-and-jazz work as ”Oral Messages,” and the lyric and surrealistic writing of the ”Coney Island” poems. This collection became a key work of the Beat period and one of the most popular books of contemporary American poetry, rivaled only by Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems.
Ferlinghetti’s novel Her was published in 1960. It is an autobiographical work, absurdist and expressionistic in vision and form, that focuses on the narrator’s pursuit of a woman. Like all Ferlinghetti’s work, Her is forcefully driven toward expanded consciousness. The 1960s also witnessed Ferlinghetti’s work with experimental theater. In two collections of short plays, he employed the gamut of theatrical devices—clowning, mime, verbal nonsense, dream and fantasy scenes, and black comedy—in a spectacle of assault on the audience. The basic goal, intrinsic to the Beat movement, was a head-on confrontation with existence.
Throughout his career, Ferlinghetti has consistently asserted that a poet’s life and work must remain engaged with current social and political issues. This sentiment divided the Beat movement in the 1960s, between the “engaged” and the “disengaged,” the aloof “cool” of the Beat hipster and the heated protest of the activist spokesman whose social consciousness burned to transform the world. Ferlinghetti’s social and political commitments were overt, but he also sought to maintain his credibility and his “cool.” Two books of his poetry from the 1960s, Starting from San Francisco (1961) and The Secret Meaning of Things (1969), reflect the poet’s expanded consciousness as he journeyed outward and inward through Europe, Zen Buddhism, drugs, and social issues. Ferlinghetti published most of the poems from these two collections as broadsides, in the tradition of printing political and lyric poems on sheets to be posted for the public. This pattern of broadside publishing has since become a main feature of small-press publication. For Ferlinghetti, it was a way of allowing his personal confrontations with the world to become a public matter.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti has remained a literary fixture for decades, through his bookstore and publishing ventures as well as his own writing. Two later collections of his poetry, Endless Life (1984) and These Are My Rivers (1993), provide insight into the development of his style and thematic concerns, not only with political matters but with the nature of beauty and the poetic imagination. In 1998, Ferlinghetti was named poet laureate of San Francisco—a position he used, characteristically, as a soapbox to advocate for several progressive causes.
Works in Literary Context
Early in his life, Ferlinghetti was inspired by two American writers from two different centuries, both associated with the romantic movement: Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Wolfe. A third American master, Walt Whitman, helped him find the free, open form and the public, bardic voice that he would refine into his own style. Ferlinghetti’s literary identity took shape in San Francisco among the contemporaries who became the core of the Beat movement. Breaking the dam of cultural convention, the Beats recognized as their predecessors other innovators and rebels, writers like William Blake, Arthur Rimbaud, Whitman, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Ezra Pound.
Ferlinghetti often claimed that he was actually a bohemian, not a Beat. Nevertheless, he performed numerous functions essential to the development of the Beat movement, through his bookstore and City Lights Press, as well as his role in the Howl obscenity case. At the same time, his own body of work contributed to the signature Beat style. The Beats created a poetics akin to the practices of abstract expressionist art, or of jazz. The Beat writer, like the jazz musician, was measured by the authenticity, spontaneity, and intensity of his response to the world. Ferlinghetti developed his own spontaneous form in the ”Oral Messages” poems of A Coney Island of the Mind. Employing the language of the streets, Ferlinghetti and his fellow Beats expanded the boundaries of acceptable literary language and subject matter. They wrote about sex, drugs, and other vices with defiant nonconformity.
The Oral Tradition
One of Ferlinghetti’s most lasting contributions to literary culture is the oral poetry he fashioned, which in fact re-created an oral tradition in contemporary poetry. Using colloquial bluntness, mocking alliteration and wordplay, internal and multiple rhyme, and other lively techniques, he created a highly accessible vehicle for satire and social commentary. He made creative use of everyday American idioms, alluding to sports and entertainment as easily as to literary precursors. Biographer Larry Smith observes that Ferlinghetti became ”the contemporary man of the streets speaking out the truths of common experience, often to the reflective beat of the jazz musician. As much as any poet today he . . . sought to make poetry an engaging oral art.” The contemporary genres of performance poetry, such as poetry slams, owe a debt to Ferlinghetti, as well as to Ginsberg.
Works in Critical Context
Ferlinghetti’s writing has brought him notable popular success. A Coney Island of the Mind ranks along with Ginsberg’s Howl as one of the most widely known volumes of American poetry published after 1950. However, Ferlinghetti’s work has met with a lukewarm critical reception. Some critics have remarked that his verse is undisciplined, sentimental, and lacking in stylistic variation. Others praise what they see as his honest energy and the spontaneous, oral quality of his work. General critical assessment of Ferlinghetti’s writing seems to be that it contributed to the open, vibrant sensibility of the Beat movement, but that unlike the work of Ginsberg or Kerouac, it was not particularly innovative. The retrospective collection Endless Life: Selected Poems (1984) prompted some critics to reappraise the importance of his work to contemporary poetry.
If certain academics grumbled about Ferlinghetti’s work, it is worth recalling that he spent his career railing against the kind of poetry geared to the educated elite. Other critics respected his engagement in current events. John Trimbur, writing in the journal Western American Literature, defends Ferlinghetti from the charge of being ”the literary entrepreneur of the Beat generation,” and applauds him for writing ”public poetry to challenge the guardians of the political and social status quo for the souls of his fellow citizens.”
- Cherkovski, Neeli. Ferlinghetti: A Biography. Garden City, N.J.: Doubleday, 1979.
- Ehrlich, J. W. Howl of the Censor. San Carlos, Calif.: Nourse Books, 1961.
- Rexroth, Kenneth. American Poetry in the Twentieth Century. New York: Herder & Herder, 1971.
- Silesky, Barry. Ferlinghetti, The Artist in His Time. New York: Warner Books, 1990.
- Skau, Michael Walter. Constantly Risking Absurdity: The Writings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1989.
- Smith, Larry. Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poet-at-Large. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
- Hopkins, Crale D. ”The Poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti: A Reconsideration.” Italian Americana (1974): 59-76.
- Ianni, L. A. ”Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Fourth Person Singular and the Theory of Relativity.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 8 (Summer 1967): 392-406.
- Trimbur, John. Review of Endless Life: Selected Poems. Western American Literature 17 (Spring 1982).
Free essays are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to order a custom essay, research paper, or term paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price. UniversalEssays is the best choice for those who seek help in essay writing or research paper writing in any field of study.