Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919–2021)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti with Anne Waldman at Washington Square in North Beach, 2006. Photo: Ambrose Bye.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI—poet, painter, international literary hero, bookshop keeper, and publisher of renowned City Lights—is in anarchist heaven with a Buddha’s smile. He is in the poetry bardo of scrying and in Antonin Artaud’s shamanic mantras, Whitman’s luminous details. He is in the Kabbalistic night of bohemian magic and anticapitalist joy, in liberated public hipster space, where he archives his century of adventure and speaks for Everyman. A cosmic night of celestial chat in Paris, and the pounding waves of Big Sur, crystalline reckonings, political acumen and alternative creation. He’s in a courtroom at the Howl obscenity trial patiently awaiting Allen Ginsberg’s exoneration. He’s sounding off about academia and the East Coast literary mafia. Crisp white wine at lunch! Populist sidewalks! The “autonomous zone,” under his gentle guard and strong, blue-eyed stamina, lifted the bar on how to create a countercultural world, a capacious ethical common ground for generations. Ferlinghetti is in the pantheon of humanists and visionaries, a maverick poet and lyric painter who was often referred to as the father of the Beats for his for care and friendship with and publishing of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso.

I first read Coney Island of the Mind on the D train to Coney. Still the most widely sold edition of poetry ever. Schoolchildren in the late ’50s had encountered the iconoclastic “Christ Climbed Down” and never forgotten it.

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings.

We toured together in Italy, rode a ferry on the Hudson River near his childhood haunts, enjoyed time in Colorado, when he read and performed at the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, and tête-à-têtes in San Francisco.

After hearing “Fast Speaking Woman” in the early 1970s at a Buddhist benefit in the Bay Area, he invited me to send him the long poem, an homage to the Mazatec Maria Sabina, the humble seer of the god-speaking hongos (mushrooms), who wove consciousness into both litany and spiritual shield. And he brought the poem into shape as Pocket Poets 33, his signature magnetizing series, a vision for inexpensive paperbacks the world over. My high-school fantasy come true: a City Lights book!

Named for the egalitarianism spirit of Charlie Chaplin, the legendary mecca City Lights lives on, thriving with devotees making the pilgrimage to North Beach. He gave generously of his indomitable spirit, nourishing writers and readers around the world to rise and shine as he did in his century-long, prodigious, generative life in poetry, community, art.

Anne Waldman is a poet living in New York who also directs the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics Summer Writing Program in Boulder, Colorado.