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Vale Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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

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

and balancing on eyebeams

above a sea of faces

paces his way

to the other side of the day

performing entrachats

and sleight-of-foot tricks

and other high theatrics

and all without mistaking

any thing

for what it may not be

For he's the super realist

who must perforce perceive

taut truth

before the taking of each stance or step

in his supposed advance

toward that still higher perch

where Beauty stands and waits

with gravity

to start her death-defying leap

And he

a little charleychaplin man

who may or may not catch

her fair eternal form

spreadeagled in the empty air

of existence

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.



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