Back in the day, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was all the rage. Paperbacks of A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) could be seen stuffed in jean pockets on college campuses, on subways. Even mainstream readers who were not particularly into poetry loved the surreal imagery of this verse. A decade later, books by Allen Ginsberg were not as popular, and those of Jack Kerouac were mainly out of print. Present at the historic Six Gallery reading where Ginsberg's reading of "Howl" galvanized a poetry movement, and Kerouac passed a bottle of tokay, Ferlinghetti took action suggesting he put Ginsberg's beat epic into print. This was the official dawning of a particularly American avant garde literary movement: especially as founder of City Lights Books, publishing house and iconic San Francisco store, Ferlinghetti was at the center of the Beat Generation.
Now 93, he is the subject of a valuable biopic by photographer and filmmaker Chris Felver, portraitist of The Poet Exposed. Illuminated in interviews with Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Dennis Hopper, and Anne Waldman, Ferlinghetti emerges as his own kind of beat hero, much as he would hate to think of himself this way. To gloss over a fascinating life: An orphan, educated at the Sorbonne, a PhD, he seemed more grounded than any of the writers he so famously championed. Politically active, and a visual artist as well, he wrote many books: poems like "Where Is Vietnam?" (1963), and novels such as Love in the Days of Rage (2001). Fans of the film Howl with James Franco will remember that while Ginsberg was missing in action, traveling about in Europe, it was Ferlinghetti who took the heat at the Howl trial, defending our first amendment right to publish a work with the word "motherf--ker," even if this is not a word he much used himself.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.