Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born March 24, 1919, in Westchester County, New York. After being orphaned as a child, he was raised by his aunt in France, returning to this country as a young man to attend the University of North Carolina from 1937-1941. Before pursuing a Master’s in English Literature and a Doctorate in Comparative Literature, he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. After completing his education, he founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1953. Two years later he was introduced to the Beats at the Six Gallery reading where Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl.” This began a lifelong commitment to the values and beliefs of the Beat movement. After the Six Gallery reading, Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956), resulting in a highly publicized obscenity trial that ended in 1957, ironically giving the Beat movement nationwide attention. Ferlinghetti, who was by then at the center of the Beat movement, was a major distributor of Beat literature. He currently resides in San Francisco and continues to respond actively to cultural and political events.
“Constantly Risking Absurdity” was originally published in A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), which remains one of the most popular books of Beat poetry still in print in America today. While many Beat writers relied on more outlandish or brash choices of diction and imagery, Ferlinghetti focused on simple communication with the reader, often through humor, allowing readers to easily grasp the meaning behind his writing.
Ferlinghetti (far right) standing in front of City Lights Bookstore, which played a prominent role in the 1957 obscenity trial over Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg.
Ferlinghetti, displaying Howl and Other Poems, which became a gateway for the other Beat writers who wanted to publish their work and have it read seriously by a rapidly expanding audience.
City Lights Journal Number 3, one of the several little magazines/books published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s press, City Lights Books, featured numerous Beat writers and distributed their work to a broad and growing readership.
Icon, by Sonia Gechtoff, like so much of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s life, brings a subtle brightness into the complex controversies of the Beat movement. Both Gechtoff and Ferlinghetti used their craft to break down social patterns, illuminating the depth and color of humanity that emerged during an exciting period when emotion, passion, and spiritual exploration were driving forces. A central theme that runs through Ferlinghetti’s work is his discernment of purpose and beauty in the mundane. He used this theme to promote critical thinking and to teach people to find truth that empowers citizens to engage with society. Belief in the persistence of beauty and human purpose shared by Gechtoff and Ferlinghetti is captured in his poem “Are There Not Still Fireflies?”:
Is not beauty still beauty
And truth still truth
Are there not still poets
Are there not still lovers
Are there not still mothers
sisters and brothers
Is there not still a full moon
once a month
Are there not still fireflies
Are there not still stars at night
Can we not still see them
in bowl of night
signaling to us
our manifest destiny?
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Sonia Getchoff, poetry, exhibit
Arts and Humanities
Mattinson, Megan; Philllips, Kortland; and Robinett, Bennett, "Ferlinghetti" (2019). ENGL 4310 – Heart Beats Exhibit. 6.