02/04/2013 12:13 pm ET Updated Apr 06, 2013

The Poet Who Brought You Some Freedom of Speech

While we celebrate our singers and actors and, therefore, our songwriters and screenwriters, poetry is one of the hidden arts of American English. Chris Felver's charming new documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder is about an orphan who volunteered for the Navy out of patriotism but then became disgusted with war during a visit to Nagasaki six weeks after the bomb was dropped. The ground was strewn with skulls and bones of the dead. This tour was his first step in deciding to stand out and against the norm, an awareness which would lead to transformative work that shaped our world.

As chronicled in this fast-moving documentary, that man became many things: a businessman, a political instigator, and a painter. But his inner voice was best expressed through honest words. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is now among America's well-known and best-selling poets.

Arriving in San Francisco after years of world travel, Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Bookstore In 1953. At first it was merely the best place to find good books, then it became the best place to discuss them. What turned the store into a scene were staged readings by the poets and continued dedication to publish cutting edge American authors.

In a nearly disastrous turn of events that has ramifications even now, an ambitious prosecutor charged Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," City Lights Bookstore and Ferlinghetti with obscenity. "Howl" is a landmark book-length poem, an acutely personal investigation into the ills of America, life and death. To some, it was only filled with "bad words" and probably even more "bad ideas." But at the trial, the very conservative judge surprisingly ruled that "Howl" had redeeming value as art. His ruling overtly attached the freedom of speech to alternative narratives and critiques -- even ones with homosexual overtones at a time when frank discussion of vanilla sexuality had been banned from libraries and whole states. Through this public affirmation, and its still unwavering support for writers, City Lights has expanded its influence beyond the fringe and literary set to become an American institution from which several waves of American literary ingenuity have flowed.

If you don't know Ferlinghetti's rich story, Felver's film may seem to investigate multiple, divergent storylines, including a stint on J.P. Morgan's yacht, Ferlinghetti's search for his Italian parents, his wonderment with Catholicism, the place of the Beats in American history, and the power of counter-culture which created "The Human Be-In." But the film does a great job of using expert witnesses and friends, like Dennis Hopper, who describe how Ferlinghetti's poetry, paintings and politics were intertwined in their lives and the value of the art they made. There is footage of Ferlinghetti making paintings, doing readings, and speaking out about public issues. In my opinion Ferlinghetti is never the best performer of his own work, but here he is a gentle star -- alone or in front of masses -- over the 12 years Felver shot this film, in archival footage and in video and audio recordings.

I am glad to see this film released because more than 15 years ago I was hired to shoot a documentary about a cross-country tour with historian Douglas Brinkley. Periodically, Brinkley chose a few exemplary Hofstra University students for an epic semester of reading on the road and meeting America's greatest living minds of literature and politics. The students I filmed got to experience Arthur Miller in his backyard, Walden Pond, Maya Angelou, Studs Terkel in his office, William S. Burroughs and Hunter Thompson, John Kenneth Galbraith at his home, Allen Ginsberg (copping a hug from a young man) and Jack Kerouac's ailing daughter.

And at some point, we stopped on Cape Cod to meet poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. My memories of that hour are like tinted sepia postcards -- he looked like a sailor and seemed to be covered in paint, and he was very soft-spoken. He read for us and then we had to go.

I knew Ferlinghetti was famous for his book, Coney Island of the Mind and later I fell in love with the broad spectrum of his work in his collection, These are My Rivers. It's a book that I never put away. On that cross-country tour there also was a short, energetic and rabidly free-speaking photographer, Christopher Felver. We can all be thankful that Felver formed a connection with Ferlinghetti on that trip, which has now resulted in this new documentary, shedding light on a generous and giving, living, patriarch of poetry.

Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder opens up in theaters around the U.S. starting February 8, 2013