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Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Restless Revolutionary of Prose, Dies at 101

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Lawrence Ferlinghetti — the poet, the publisher, the painter, the activist, the man who propelled the Beat Movement and brought City Lights to San Francisco — has died at the age of 101.

According to his daughter, Julie Sasser, the lifelong provocateur lost his battle Monday with interstitial lung disease.

Ferlinghetti was no stranger to battle — a revolutionary at heart, a founding father of Beat (though he’d argue against that title), he never shied from controversy. The man brilliantly embraced a life of stirring the shit. His legend, in life and now in death, is intrinsic to the character of that gritty and beautiful city by the Bay.

His journey from Bronxville, New York to California was marked by pursuits of the mind and traumatic wars. He knocked out a journalism degree, a Master’s in English and eventually a Doctorate from Université de Paris, and threaded between his halls of education were years in the U.S. Navy during World War II as a submarine commander who fought at Normandy. He later bore witness to the devastation in Nagasaki, which shaped his characteristic antiwar passion. 

Ferlinghetti opened the doors at City Lights in 1953 in North Beach, a venture he called a “literary meeting place,” which two years later would evolve into a publishing house that still stands today. The store attracts touring visitors who crave a stroll through the once-vibrant world of beatniks where prose was weaponized to taunt “the man” and the status quo, a full decade before the Free Speech Movement stormed the UC Berkeley campus. 

He was arrested in 1956 for his stand in support of friend and fellow icon Allen Ginsberg — Ferlinghetti published Ginsburg’s revolutionary poem “Howl.” He was charged with printing “indecent writings” “willfully and lewdly.” What happened as a result became a landmark moment in First Amendment law and he was ultimately acquitted. 

He was a champion for the Beats, though he never considered himself a true Beat poet. Regardless of categorization, Ferlinghetti was at heart a writer. His most famous work was the “Coney Island of the Mind” poetry collection published in 1958, which was translated in nine languages — more than one million copies were sold.

“Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights in 2007”
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

He embraced what it means to truly live and marked this place with his soul, his words as tied to the history of this city as the Golden Gate Bridge. 

He continued writing until just last year at the age of 100 when he was celebrated by the city on his March 24 birthday, which was proclaimed “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day.” 

He will be remembered not only for his amazing work, but for his dedication to inspiring great works from others. He perhaps put it best himself in “From Poetry as Insurgent Art”:

“If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words. …”

May he rest in poetry and power…and forever inspire restlessness.

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.