“Don’t call me a Beat—I never was a Beat poet,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti declares flatly in Ferlinghetti, filmmaker Christopher Felver’s 2009 documentary screening this Tuesday night at the Del Mar as the main event of Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day in Santa Cruz. Both Felver and his subject will be present as the city honors Ferlinghetti’s monumental contributions to American literary, cultural and political life. Revered poet, highly accomplished painter, successful bookseller and revolutionary publisher, Ferlinghetti at 92 has proved far more venerable than anyone might have guessed in the 1950s when he was on trial for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.
When the poet says he is not Beat, he doesn’t just mean he is undefeated—though that, too—but that he has never subscribed to the reckless, substance-abusing, wild-man ethos of such essentially Beat writers as Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso. Though he published Ginsberg’s seminal poem in 1956, barely escaping a jail sentence when acquitted of obscenity charges (and thereby scoring a landmark victory for free speech), Ferlinghetti not only has a Ph.D. from the Sorbonne but, unlike the typical beatnik—some of them associated with his City Lights bookstore and publishing imprint—he was always a low-key, down-to-earth, sober business owner who has kept his enterprise alive for nearly 60 years.
Arriving in San Francisco in 1951, Ferlinghetti fell under the influence of his mentor Kenneth Rexroth, a philosophical anarchist and intellectual polymath whose legendary salons were the incubator of the San Francisco Renaissance. Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, founded in 1953 as a retail shop and an independent publisher, has been a trailblazer and a beacon to small presses and indie booksellers everywhere. Though he is no longer active in its day-to-day management, the founder’s signature—including, literally, his handwriting, which graces many homemade posters hanging on the store’s walls and in the building’s windows—can still be seen clearly throughout the operation.
But it is probably as a poet that Ferlinghetti is most renowned. He is by far the best-selling living American (and possibly international) bard, his 1958 book A Coney Island of the Mind topping the all-time poetry charts with more than a million copies sold in at least nine languages. With Whitmanic scope, irreverent attitude, satiric wit, dead-serious social criticism and buoyant lyricism, he has carried the banner of rebellious poetic fun through several generations. By now an icon, he is nonetheless an iconoclast, canonized yet not co-opted, remaining, in his word, “indigestible,” never fully assimilated into a system known for neutralizing its most visible critics by absorbing them.
Felver’s film is an illuminating tour of Ferlinghetti’s extraordinary life, from his Franco-Italian origins to his Navy service during World War II (which turned him into a pacifist) and on through the San Francisco counterculture to his eminent old age as a radical agitator and unstoppable creative force. Using archival photos and film, interviews with and testimony from many notable writers (Gary Snyder, Robert Scheer, Billy Collins, Dave Eggers, Anne Waldman, Michael McClure and Bob Dylan among them), and years of interviews and travels with Ferlinghetti himself, Felver creates a vivid and kaleidoscopic portrait of the artist.
One of the most remarkable things about Ferlinghetti is that through his unswerving dedication to anarcho-pacifist and anti-capitalist principles (while handsomely succeeding as an entrepreneur), he has retained his sense of humor and remained lighthearted in his attacks on the status quo. Unlike most ideologues, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. This sense of lightness gives his writing and his persona a playful quality that transcends mere politics.
Nancy Joyce Peters, his longtime publishing and bookselling partner (now retired), describes her comrade as “a romantic idealist who accepts living in an imperfect world with perfect grace”—a description Felver’s movie eloquently illustrates. It comes to Santa Cruz thanks to the organizing efforts of Daniel Yaryan, producer of the Sparring with Beatnik Ghosts poetry series (and a former Santa Cruz Weekly employee).
Ferlinghetti may be no beatnik, and he is certainly no ghost, but his offbeat, upbeat presence and his immense creative accomplishment will continue to move, inspire, provoke and, yes, haunt us for a long time to come.
Ferlinghetti screens Tuesday, Oct. 18, at 7pm at the Del Mar Theatre, 1124 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Christopher Felver and various Santa Cruz dignitaries will be present. Tickets $10.50.