Not Really a Beatnik

Poet and Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poet and Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the Late 1950s

I met Lawrence Ferlinghetti in person over fifty years ago when he came to Dartmouth College for reading of poems from his book A Coney Island of the Mind. The picture above was taken in the late 1950s, and I saw him somewhere between 1962 and 1966 when he still looked that way.

My fellow students asked the usual bozo questions—based primarily on his association with the beat generation writers—and he fielded them so effectively that I kept my mouth shut. After all, I had never heard of the man before he showed up, though I bought a copy of A Coney Island of the Mind the next day.

Ferlinghetti still lives in San Francisco, though he no longer actively runs the City Lights Bookstore. It is his misfortune to be conflated with the Beatnik poets, though his primary interaction with them was as publisher of many of their works. According to an interview with Robert Scheer of Truthdig.Com:

I was a straight man keeping the store back home,” he says cheerfully. “I was leading a respectful married life on Portrero Hill. These guys were much too far out for me. I didn’t go out on the road with them. And I came from a former generation. When I arrived in San Francisco I was still wearing my beret from Paris, and we were known as bohemians … people who led an unconventional creative life before the Beats came along.

We must not forget that Ferlinghetti is also a major U.S. poet in his own right, as is evident in his poem “The World Is a Beautiful Place”:

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind some people dying
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn’t half bad
if it isn’t you

Oh the world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t much mind
a few dead minds
in the higher places
or a bomb or two
now and then
in your upturned faces
or such other improprieties
as our Name Brand society
is prey to
with its men of distinction
and its men of extinction
and its priests
and other patrolmen

and its various segregations
and congressional investigations
and other constipations
that our fool flesh
is heir to

Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
‘living it up’
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling