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Life Sketch of Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Writing life sketches of poets, philosophers, politicians, and saints offers space for learning and honing critical thinking skills.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Early Life and Education

Born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling on March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, New York, to an Italian father, Carlo Ferlinghetti and a French mother of Sephardic Jewish descent, Albertine Monsanto Ferling. His father, who was an auctioneer, had shortened the family name, but Lawrence reclaimed the original spelling as an adult—reminiscent of the chef Guy Fieri, whose Italian grandfather upon coming to the United States had changed the family name to "Ferry," and then Guy reclaimed the original family name, after he got married.

Lawrence’s father died shortly after his son’s birth, and his mother was soon committed to a mental institution, so Albertine’s sister Emily took Lawrence to France where they spent the first seven years of his life. Then Emily brought Lawrence back to America; she took a job as a governess for the Lawrence family, the founders of Sarah Lawrence College. However, Aunt Emily then abandoned her nephew, and the Lawrence family took over the task of raising Lawrence.

In 1941, Lawrence completed a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina. In 1947, he earned a master’s degree in English literature at Columbia, where he composed his thesis focusing on the works of William Turner, a noted British painter and John Ruskin, a preeminent art critic of the Victorian period. Finally in 1949, he was awarded the PhD degree from the Sorbonne in Paris, where he studied comparative literature and wrote his dissertation on the symbolism of Paris in modern poetry, titled "The City as Symbol in Modern Poetry: In Search of a Metropolitan Tradition."

City Lights Bookstore

City Lights Bookstore

On Trial for Obscenity

Ferlinghetti was brought to trial for obscenity after Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems was sold to an undercover police officer at Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore.

Ginsberg’s "Howl" had been published in his collection Howl and Other Poems in 1956. The eponymous poem graphically depicts certain sex acts that violated the constraints of the mores for the time—for example, "those who let themselves be f*cked in the a** by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy." The poem also touted approval of the use of illegal drugs.

Nine "expert witnesses" including professors, book reviewers, and editors from the New York Times Book Review and the San Francisco Chronicle offered testimony that "Howl" actually possessed literary value in that it afforded "a significant and enduring contribution to society and literature." They further claimed that the poem was a "prophetic work" and "thoroughly honest." Professor Mark Schorer explained, "'Howl', like any work of literature, attempts and intends to make a signifiant comment on, or interpretation of, human experience as the author knows it."

The prosecution also called on "experts" to rebut the defense witnesses, but their credentials were less impressive and their arguments too weak to prevail against those of the defense. One prosecution exert conceded that the poem had "some clarity of thought" but ultimately was just an "imitation of Walt Whitman." The other witness simply claimed that the poem "had no value at all."

Since that time, however, many readers, which include schoolteachers, parents, critics, and literary scholars have railed against the notion that Ginsberg's frenzied derangement possesses anything near literary merit or "value." An example of this view is on this very page: note the quotation I cited above required that I block out letters in certain offending words; otherwise the word processing system for this cite would disallow the entire article plus the article could never be monetized. Thus, it is not literary value that "Howl" offers, but instead it does demonstrate a confrontational struggle with dignity and morality.

Fortunately, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was acquitted of the charges against him, which was fair and just. Despite the depravity of the Ginsberg poem, censorship is never the answer to rebuke obscenity—only by arguing for a better poetry with better material can such depravity be overcome.

Obscenity Trial

Obscenity Trial

Marching to a Different Beat

Ferlinghetti’s name became associated with the Beat poets because he was the owner of the establishment called City Lights, the bookstore and publishing house that printed the first edition of Allen Ginsberg's infamous Howl and Other Poems and the works of other poets who became the core of the Beat movement.

Ferlinghetti's work is quite distinct from the Beats. The perceptive critic, Levi Asher, has remarked,

I hope I won't seem politically incorrect for saying this, but after immersing myself in the writings of the guilt-obsessed asexual Jack Kerouac, the ridiculously horny Allen Ginsberg and the just plain sordid William S. Burroughs ... it's nice to read a few poems by a guy who can get excited about a little penny candy store under the El or a pretty woman letting a stocking drop to the floor.

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Although he dubs himself "unconventional," Ferlinghetti denies that he was ever a member of the Beat movement. He explains:

I was a straight man keeping the store back home; I was leading a respectful married life on Potrero Hill. These guys were much too far out for me. I didn’t go out on the road with them. And I came from a former generation. When I arrived in San Francisco I was still wearing my beret from Paris, and we were known as bohemians ... people who led an unconventional creative life before the Beats came along.

Ferlinghetti became a pacifist after serving in World War II as a Navy lieutenant commander in Normandy and Nagasaki. He has quipped about his military experience in war: "That made me an instant pacifist."

Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned 101 years old on March 24, 2020, but sadly died February 22, 2021—just one month shy of 102—after receiving the first dose of the experimental COVID-19 vaccine.

Sample Ferlinghetti Poems

The following two poems offer a glimpse into the style and subject matter for which Lawrence Ferlinghetti became known. For commentaries about each poem, please visit "Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 'Constantly Risking Absurdity'" and "Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 'In Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem'."

Excerpt from "Constantly Risking Absurdity"

Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making

This poem maneuvers across the page, mimicking the manner in which a tight-rope walker would move across a rope, as the speaker metaphorically compares the machinations of a tight-rope walker and a poet. The tight-rope walker is risking death as he walks across that thin strip of rope.

The absurdity of that act remains blatant to those watch in amazement, knowing that the acrobat could fall any moment. And a poet’s experience comes with its own level of absurdity as s/he strives to create his/her little dramas that can communicate with certainty as well as delight.

Excerpt from "Goya's Greatest Scenes We Seem"

In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see
the people of the world
exactly at the moment when
they first attained the title of
‘suffering humanity’

In this poem, the speaker has observed paintings by Francisco Goya, possibly those done in the painter's later years, a series titled, Los Desastres de la Guerra (The Disasters of War).

The speaker of the poem is comparing/contrasting the suffering of humanity that is portrayed in those paintings to the suffering of American citizens who are killed or maimed on American freeways.

The chief literary device employed in this poem is exaggeration. As horrific as car crashes are, they are surely far less disastrous than devastation from war.


© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes


Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on April 17, 2021:

Thank you for commenting, Sankhajit Bhattacharjee.

Ferlinghetti certainly holds a special place in the poetry world. Ideologically, his views would preclude him from entering the hallowed halls of legitimate, enlightened verse, but his basic honesty and business acumen demonstrate a level of spirit that many pobiz characters lack. Thus, he remains a force to contend with, and cannot be lumped into the plethora of postmodernist frauds that have soiled the literary world since mid-20th century.

Sankhajit Bhattacharjee from MILWAUKEE on April 16, 2021:

interesting piece to read.....great!!

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