My First Poet

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021) As He Looked When I Met Him

It was my freshman year at Dartmouth College. When I heard that beatnik poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was going to visit the campus, give a poetry reading from his recently published collection A Coney Island of the Mind, and answer questions, I decided to show up. In all, there were about twenty-five students in the audience, plus a few professors.

I really enjoyed the poems, such as this one, which is called “I Am Waiting”:

I am waiting for my case to come up  
and I am waiting 
for a rebirth of wonder  
and I am waiting          
          for someone to really discover America  
and wail 
and I am waiting  
for the discovery 
of a new symbolic western frontier  
and I am waiting 
for the American Eagle  
to really spread its wings  
and straighten up and fly right  
and I am waiting 
for the Age of Anxiety  
to drop dead  
and I am waiting  
for the war to be fought 
which will make the world safe  
for anarchy 
and I am waiting  
for the final withering away  
of all governments  
and I am perpetually awaiting  
a rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the Second Coming  
and I am waiting 
for a religious revival 
to sweep through the state of Arizona  
and I am waiting 
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored  
and I am waiting 
for them to prove  
that God is really American  
and I am waiting 
to see God on television  
piped’ onto church altars  
if only they can find  
the right channel  
to tune in on  
and I am waiting 
for the Last Supper to be served again  
with a strange new appetizer  
and I am perpetually awaiting  
a rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for my number to be called  
and I am waiting 
for the Salvation Army to take over  
and I am waiting 
for the meek to be blessed 
and inherit the earth  
without taxes and I am waiting  
for forests and animals  
to reclaim the earth as theirs  
and I am waiting  
for a way to be devised  
to destroy all nationalisms  
without killing anybody 
and I am waiting 
for linnets and planets to fall like rain  
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers  
to lie down together again 
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the Great Divide to ‘be crossed  
and I am anxiously waiting 
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered  
by an obscure general practitioner  
and I am waiting 
for the storms of life  
to be over  
and I am waiting  
to set sail for happiness  
and I am waiting  
for a reconstructed Mayflower  
to reach America  
with its picture story and tv rights  
sold in advance to the natives  
and I am waiting  
for the lost music to sound again  
in the Lost Continent  
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting for the day  
that maketh all things clear  
and I am awaiting retribution  
for what America did 
to Tom Sawyer  
and I am waiting  
for the American Boy  
to take off Beauty’s clothes  
and get on top of her  
and I am waiting  
for Alice in Wonderland  
to retransmit to me  
her total dream of innocence  
and I am waiting  
for Childe Roland to come  
to the final darkest tower  
and I am waiting  
for Aphrodite 
to grow live arms  
at a final disarmament conference  
in a new rebirth of wonder 
 
I am waiting  
to get some intimations  
of immortality  
by recollecting my early childhood  
and I am waiting  
for the green mornings to come again  
youth’s dumb green fields come back again  
and I am waiting  
for some strains of unpremeditated art  
to shake my typewriter  
and I am waiting to write 
the great indelible poem 
and I am waiting 
for the last long careless rapture  
and I am perpetually waiting  
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn  
to catch each other up at last  
and embrace 
and I am waiting  
perpetually and forever  
a renaissance of wonder            

Lawrence Ferlinghetti died on Monday, February 22, which is Washington’s birthday, at the ripe old age of 101, just a month shy of his 102nd.

I was too shy to ask the poet any questions, being a detested freshman. But I did enjoy seeing him handle the know-it-alls that asked questions only to make themselves look good. Ferlinghetti may have been a poet, but he knew how to handle wise asses.

Serendipity: “Nonparticipation in Humanity”

An Incident at a Coffee Shop

San Francisco writer/publisher/bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti puts the whole Millennial/Generation Z digital revolution in its place:

AND a young stud at the next table typing on his laptop, both ears stopped with earphones…. I’m just five feet from the guy. Finally I say in a friendly voice, “You from around here? Haven’t seen you before in the neighborhood.” No answer. He continues typing, staring at the laptop. He heard nothing? Is this body alive? I’m alarmed. I call 911. After some time a cop car arrives and he’s arrested for “nonparticipation in humanity.’ They haul the corpse away.

 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti at Dartmouth

Dartmouth Hall

I was shocked to find that Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born in March 1919) was still alive. Today, I borrowed one of his poetry collections from the L.A. Central Library and remembered with great pleasure running into the poet himself at Dartmouth College around the mid 1960s. He was on campus to read a selection of poems from his collection A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) and to answer questions.

Never in my life had I seen someone with his uncanny ability to deflect questions. My classmates posed the usual bullshit queries that were typical of people who wanted to look very intellectual but didn’t know what they were talking about. I enjoyed the poems, and I liked all the anecdotes of the beatnik poets he published, such as Allen Ginsburg,  Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. But I kept my mouth shut lest I be exposed like so many of my classmates were.

Ferlinghetti’s Poetry Collection

I was pleasantly surprised to find that A Coney Island of the Mind is the best-selling poetry collection ever published in the United States, having sold in excess of a million copies.

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
dancing
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
‘living it up’
Yes
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling

mortician