Updated: Aug 22, 2021
The once young and dynamic American poet and publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, died in late February at the age of 101.
You've heard his name, right, but not sure who he is? That must be because the effects of his writing and that of his literary colleagues infiltrated culture so effectively that we all take the liberation of literature from many of its pre-1950s shackles as a given these days. In both subject & style.
When a group of rebellious writers burst into the consciousness of a youth generation in the 1950s, Ferlinghetti was with them, getting their ideas and writing out into the world.
He played a pivotal role as a publisher and bookshop owner in spreading the word - the new word of the Beat Generation - of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and others, including Ferlinghetti himself.
The bookshop he set up in 1953, City Lights, was the first all-paperback bookstore in the US, established to 'democratise' American literature with a credo to 'help make diverse and inexpensive quality books widely available'.
That same bookshop announced this week that, 'those of us who have worked with him at City Lights have been inspired by his knowledge and love of literature, his courage in defence of the right to freedom of expression, and his vital role as an American cultural ambassador'.
Our very own British-born, Oxford-educated Sydney University Emeritus Professor, Michael Wilding, visited City Lights bookshop in San Francisco in the '70s after he and Pat Woolley set up a small publishing business in Sydney:
'Since the late ’60s there had been a cultural change, there was a lot of energy, a sense of community, poetry readings in the pubs of Balmain,' he explains.
'There was a lot of writing around but publishing was dominated by big overseas companies. The media were interested in something new and we got a lot of attention. We went to San Francisco and met Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights bookshop and became the supplier of their books in Australia.'
Lawrence Ferlinghetti's son Lorenzo told Associated Press his death was a result of lung disease, adding that his father had received his first dose of a COVID vaccine the previous week.
Constantly risking absurdity
Constantly risking absurdity
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
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces
paces his way
to the other side of the day
and sleight-of-foot tricks
and other high theatrics
and all without mistaking
for what it may not be
For he's the super realist
who must perforce perceive
before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
to start her death-defying leap
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
Poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Text Christine Williams with credits to Michael Wilding and Rossella Venturi (interviewer) & AP. Images BBC & Getty.
This SSOA writers' blog is made possible by grant assistance from the City of Sydney.