Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919 Bronxville, New York, USA – 2021 San Francisco, California, USA) was an emblematic figure of the American cultural scene. A poet, novelist, playwright, bookseller, publisher, painter, and activist, he was the founder of the San Francisco-based City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, an independent bookstore that became a landmark for the Beat Generation in the 1950s. Ferlinghetti himself shared deliberately contradictory biographical information about his youth. He grew up between the United States and France among different foster families and attended the University of North Carolina. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Ferlinghetti completed his studies at Columbia University in New York City, eventually receiving a doctorate in Comparative Literature from the University of Paris in 1951. Back in the United States, he settled in San Francisco. Two years later, City Lights Bookstore was born, a lively and hearty hotspot for the city’s enthusiastic readers, writers, poets, and artists.
In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched the Pocket Poets Series, a collection of paperback volumes to be easily disseminated, making poems from around the world accessible to a broader audience. Reversing the cliché of intellectualism in favor of a militant democratization of poetry was a crucial political stance for Ferlinghetti. The series began with his own Pictures of the Gone World, with translations by Kenneth Rexroth. The fourth volume was Allen Ginsberg’s infamous Howl. In 1956, Ferlinghetti was arrested in a First Amendment trial on charges of distributing indecent material. The notorious court case revolving around freedom of speech and expression was eventually won by Ferlinghetti the following year. He was an anarchist sympathizer and a committed activist for multiple issues of his time, such as the Cuban Revolution and the Vietnam War.
Ferlinghetti’s bibliography is extensive. His second collection of poems, A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), has been widely recognized as his masterpiece and has been translated into nine languages. With his straightforward poetry, Ferlinghetti critically engaged with people from different backgrounds, borrowing visual impressions and images from American culture and modern jazz.
Ferlinghetti was connected to Fluxus through Francesco Conz in Verona, who particularly supported Ferlinghetti’s interest in painting. In Verona, he coined the term “Fluxare,” meaning “to make love without touching.” A retrospective of his painting was held at the Museo di Roma (2010), and his works are in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Ferlinghetti was named San Francisco’s Poet Laureate in 1998; he received numerous other awards and honors, such as the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal (2003), a National Book Award (2005), and a John Ciardi Award for Lifetime Achievement in Poetry (2007).