"Pity the nation"
He's grown "frail and nearly blind," writes Chloe Veltman at The Guardian in an interview with the poet this month, "but his mind is still on fire." Ferlinghetti “has not mellowed,” says Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, "at all." If you’re looking for him at any of the events planned in his honor, City Lights announces, he will not be in attendance, but he has been busy promoting his latest book, a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel about his early life called Little Boy.
The poet would later write he was a “social climber climbing downward,” an ironic reference to how some people might have seen the trajectory of his career. After serving in the Navy during World War II, earning a master’s at Columbia, and a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne, Ferlinghetti decamped to San Francisco, and founded the small magazine City Lights with Peter D. Martin. Then he opened a bookstore on the edge of Chinatown to fund the publishing venture.
He has published somewhere around forty books of poetry and criticism, novels and plays, been a prolific painter for sixty years, as well as a publisher, bookseller, and activist. He does not consider himself a Beat poet, but from his influential first two books—Pictures of the Gone World and 1958’s A Coney Island of the Mind—onward, Ferlinghetti’s philosophical outlook has more or less breathed the same air as Ginsberg et al.’s.
Ferlinghetti urged poets and writers to “create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic… you can conquer the conquerors with words.” Despite this stridency, he has never taken himself too seriously. Ferlinghetti is as relaxed as they come—he hasn’t mellowed, but he also hasn’t needed to. He’s a loose, natural storyteller and comedian and he’s still delivering sober, prophetic pronouncements with gravitas.