Lawrence Ferlinghetti, SF Literary Icon, Dies

Forever the city's poet laureate, the founder of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers passed away at the age of 101.

It seemed like it would never happen. For so many years, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a fixture of the city, getting older and older without apparently aging.

But finally, on Monday, the singular writer and publisher passed away at his home in San Francisco at the age of 101.

The founder of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, and an acclaimed poet in his own right, Ferlinghetti was the beating heart of San Francisco’s literary scene for nearly 70 years. After its founding in 1953, City Lights Books in North Beach quickly became the epicenter of the Beat movement, hosting early readings by the likes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder. The store also stocked many texts that were at the time considered radical, including gay and lesbian works. 

In 1957, Ferlinghetti stood trial on obscenity charges for publishing Ginsberg’s sexually explicit epic poem, “Howl.” Ferlinghetti’s acquittal in that case represented a landmark First Amendment victory, paving the way for the ensuing explosion of controversial art and literature in the 1960s. It also turned Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti into literary rockstars, and City Lights into hallowed ground. 

Ferlinghetti looks down from his kitchen window at well-wishers singing Happy Birthday to him on his 100th birthday, on March 24, 2019, now known as “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day.” (Photo: Lou DeMattais)

Ferlinghetti was deeply involved in left wing politics throughout his life. He was a featured speaker at the Human Be-In that kicked off the Summer of Love, and a prominent anti-war activist. After being named the first poet laureate of San Francisco in 1998, Ferlinghetti used his acceptance speech to advocate for the removal of the Central Freeway and rail against the Blue Angels. Among his hopes for the city: “give bicycles and pedestrians absolute priority over automobiles, and close much of the original inner city to cars” and “uncover our city’s creeks and rivers again and open up the riparian corridors to the Bay.” 

Ferlinghetti’s 1958 collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, remains one of the best-selling poetry books of all time. It’s just one of more than 30 books of poetry and fiction to his name. Ferlinghetti was a multimedia artist: Some of his poems were intended to be accompanied by jazz, and his paintings have been displayed at galleries around the world. 

Ferlinghetti will continue to be honored in San Francisco long after his passing, in the streets and cafes of North Beach; on his birthday, March 24, “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day;” and, most of all, at City Lights Books. “We intend to build on Ferlinghetti’s vision and honor his memory by sustaining City Lights into the future as a center for open intellectual inquiry and commitment to literary culture and progressive politics,” the bookstore wrote in a statement. “Though we mourn his passing, we celebrate his many contributions and give thanks for all the years we were able to work by his side.”

Ferlinghetti’s spirit will also live on in his poems, where he provided clues as to how he wanted to be remembered, as in the final lines of “Autobiography,” from 1958: 

And I may cause the lips 
of those who are asleep
to speak.
And I may make my notebooks
into sheaves of grass.
And I may write my own
eponymous epitaph
instructing the horsemen
to pass.
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