After more than a century of storied life, the legendary Lawrence Ferlinghetti died Monday at the age of 101 after a battle with interstitial lung disease, according to his daughter. Over the course of the 70 years he lived in San Francisco, the poet, publisher and activist was instrumental in shaping the city’s revolutionary spirit.
Throughout Tuesday, people flocked to North Beach to pay respects, to mourn and celebrate the man and the icon who will forever be tied to the Beat generation.
Along the sidewalk in front of the famed City Lights Booksellers & Publishers on Columbus Avenue, where Ferlinghetti first opened the doors in 1953 as a “literary meeting place,” fans and friends left flowers, candles, cigarettes, handwritten poems and a Pabst tall can for good measure.
By the end of the night, the sidewalk and adjacent Jack Kerouac Alley were adorned in chalk drawings of Ferlinghetti’s image and prose.
“Poetry is eternal graffiti written in the heart of everyone.” — Lawrence Ferlinghetti
The publishing piece of City Lights came two years after the bookstore opened, and in 1956 was the center of controversy when Ferlinghetti was arrested and charged for “willingly and lewdly” printing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which authorities considered obscene.
He was eventually acquitted and the case set precedent in First Amendment law.
A prolific writer in his own right, his “Coney Island of the Mind” poetry collection, published in 1958, sold more than one million copies worldwide.
Before emerging as a revolutionary in word and deed, Ferlinghetti climbed the ranks of education, earning a doctorate from Université de Paris, and military service, where he served as a submarine commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
It was the devastation he saw at Nagasaki that would mold his distaste for war and his drive to “raise the consciousness” of the people through poetry.
In “From Poetry as Insurgent Art,” he wrote:
“What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?
The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.
If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.
You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words….”