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Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919–2021), poet who owned City Lights bookstore

by Linnea Crowther

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a poet who co-founded and owned the famed City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and championed Beat poets including Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997).

Building a scene in San Francisco

Ferlinghetti, a native of New York, settled in San Francisco in 1951, just as the city was beginning to become a haven for iconoclasts. Soon after, in 1953, he co-founded City Lights along with Peter D. Martin, creating a home for books and authors that more traditional bookstores didn’t feature. In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers, publishing his own collection “Pictures of the Gone World” as its first book.

It wouldn’t be long before Ferlinghetti and City Lights created controversy as he published Ginsberg’s 1956 poem “Howl,” one of the great classics of Beat poetry that was beloved by some and called obscene by others. Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried for obscenity for publishing and selling the book, and the trial became national news. Supported by the ACLU, Ferlinghetti won a victory for the First Amendment when he was acquitted by the California State Superior Court. Ginsberg was one of several Beat poets whose works Ferlinghetti published, also including Gregory Corso (1930–2001) and Diane di Prima (1934–2020).

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Ferlinghetti’s own best-known poetry is from his 1958 collection “A Coney Island of the Mind,” which includes the poems “I Am Waiting” and “Junkman’s Obbligato.” In 1967, he was a featured presenter at San Francisco’s Human Be-In, the large gathering that ushered in the Summer of Love. In 1998, he was named Poet Laureate of San Francisco – the city’s first – and his 100th birthday was declared Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day in San Francisco.

Ferlinghetti’s poetry

“The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then”
—from “The World Is a Beautiful Place,” in “A Coney Island of the Mind”

Tributes to Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Full obituary: SF Gate

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