Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “The Young Yeats” (2008), oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches
Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been with us for more than a century. I mean this literally, as he was born on March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, New York, during the Spanish flu pandemic, and a few months ago celebrated his 101st birthday in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I know I am not alone in saying that Ferlinghetti has had a profound influence on my life, beginning with my discovery of his second book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), when I was 13. After co-founding City Lights bookshop in San Francisco in 1953, he became sole owner by 1955, the same year he started his imprint City Lights, the legendary publisher of Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg and Lunch Poems (1964) by Frank O’Hara, among other landmark books, such as the Artaud Anthology (1965), edited by Jack Hirshman. In the decade bracketed by the publication of these three books, a tectonic shift took place in American literature, giving rise to an alternative to mainstream or official verse.
What is less known or celebrated about Ferlinghetti is that he is also a painter, and that he has been one for as long as he has been a poet, publisher, bookstore proprietor, and political activist.