Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and founder of City Lights bookshop, dies aged 101

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Mary Beach

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and founder of City Lights bookshop, dies aged 101

Poet and countercultural pioneer put on trial for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl went on to become a beloved icon of San Francisco

Sian Cain
Tue 23 February 2021

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, publisher, painter and political activist who co-founded the famous City Lights bookshop in San Francisco and became an icon of the city himself, has died aged 101.

Ferlinghetti died at home on Monday night. His son Lorenzo said that the cause was interstitial lung disease.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York in 1919. His father died before he was born and his mother was committed to a mental hospital, leaving him to be raised by his aunt. When he was seven, his aunt, then working as a governess for a wealthy family in Bronxville, abruptly ran off, leaving Ferlinghetti in the care of her employers. After attending university in North Carolina, he became a journalist in 1941, then joined the US navy during the second world war. While studying for his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris on the GI Bill, he began to write poetry.

Returning to the US in 1951, he was drawn to California as a place to start afresh. “San Francisco had a Mediterranean feeling about it,” he told the New York Times. “I felt it was a little like Dublin when Joyce was there. You could walk down Sackville Street and see everyone of any importance in one walk.”

In 1953, he co-founded the City Lights bookshop and publishing company with friend Peter Dean Martin, who left soon after, with the mission to democratise literature and make it accessible to all. “We were young and foolish,” he told the Guardian in 2019. “And we had no money.”While most bookshops across the US closed early and on weekends at the time, City Lights stayed open seven days a week and late into the night, fostering a countercultural community that attracted the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. City Lights initially focused on selling paperbacks, which were cheaper but looked down on by the literary establishment, and publishing poetry, offbeat and radical books by the likes of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Paul Bowles, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso.

In 1955, Ferlinghetti heard Ginsberg’s seminal poem Howl read for the first time at the Six Gallery in North Beach. The next day, he sent a telegram to Ginsberg: “I GREET YOU AT THE BEGINNING OF A GREAT CAREER. STOP. WHEN DO I GET MANUSCRIPT OF HOWL?” The epic poem was printed in Britain and shipped to San Francisco, where the copies were seized. Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg were arrested on obscenity charges in 1957.

“I wasn’t worried. I was young and foolish. I figured I’d get a lot of reading done in jail and they wouldn’t keep me in there for ever. And, anyway, it really put the book on the map,” Ferlinghetti told the Guardian. Having already sent the poem to the American Civil Liberties Union, “to see if they would defend us if we were busted”, the ACLU successfully defended the poem at a trial that lasted months. The verdict set an important precedent for reducing censorship, and heralded a new freedom for books around the world, while also making both men internationally famous.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (left) and Allen Ginsberg in London in 1965.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (left) and Allen Ginsberg in London in 1965. Photograph: Stroud/Getty Images

In 1958, Ferlinghetti published his own first collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, which sold more than 1m copies. He went on to write more than 50 volumes of poetry, novels and travel journals. As a publisher, he maintained a lifelong focus on poetry and books ignored by the mainstream, even as it became harder in the face of behemoth, profit-driven presses.

He self-identified as a philosophical anarchist, hosting many sit-ins and protests against war at City Lights. He regarded poetry as a powerful social force and not one reserved for the intellectual elite, saying, “We have to raise the consciousness; the only way poets can change the world is to raise the consciousness of the general populace.”

In later decades, Ferlinghetti became an icon of his city. In 1978, when San Francisco was rocked by the double assassination of the city’s mayor, George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk, Ferlinghetti wrote a poem that ran two days later in the San Francisco Examiner. It was titled An Elegy to Dispel Gloom, and he was personally thanked by the city for helping maintain calm. In 1994 a street was named after him, and four years later he was named San Francisco’s first poet laureate.

He remained active in City Lights until the late 2000s, chatting with fans and tourists who popped in just to meet the legend. “When he was still here every day, fixing a lightbulb or some other little thing, he never refused somebody who wanted to talk to him,” Elaine Katzenberger, the current manager of the shop, said. “He usually looked for some commonality to have a little conversation with them.”

Though mostly bed-bound and nearly blind in his later years, he remained busy, publishing his final book, Little Boy, on his 100th birthday. A loosely autobiographical novel, Ferlinghetti refused to describe it as memoir: “I object to using that description. Because a memoir denotes a very genteel type of writing.”

In 2019, San Francisco named 24 March, his birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day to mark his centennial, with celebrations lasting all month. In an interview from his bed to mark the occasion, he told the Guardian that he was still hoping for a political revolution, even though “the United States isn’t ready for a revolution … It would take a whole new generation not devoted to the glorification of the capitalist system … a generation not trapped in the me, me, me.”

When asked whether he was proud of his achievements, Ferlinghetti said: “I don’t know, that word, ‘proud’, is just too egotistic. Happy would be better. Except when you get down to try and define the word happy, then you’re really in trouble.”


Sunday, February 21, 2021

How Keats lives on

John Keats

How Keats lives on

His radical depictions of desire and oblivion changed the course of English poetry – and, 200 years after his death, they disarm us still.

Rowan Williams
17 February 2021

As Jonathan Bate observes, the American critic Edmund Wilson “never allowed his friendship to dull his critical intelligence”. He had been close to F Scott Fitzgerald as a student, but, writing in 1924 about Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, he was unforgiving towards what he saw as its central weaknesses – a lack of energy and coherence, which he attributed to the intertwining malign influences of Compton Mackenzie and John Keats. Mackenzie, whose stock as a novelist was still high in the 1920s, had himself attributed features of his florid literary style to Keats’s example; but Fitzgerald had certainly gone direct to the source as well.

Bate chronicles with admirable thoroughness the consistent enthusiasm for Keats that appears not only in Fitzgerald’s correspondence (and in the literary reading list that he drew up for his lover Sheilah Graham in 1939) but, most famously, in the title of his second most celebrated novel, Tender is the Night (1934), which is taken from “Ode to a Nightingale”. Keats’s sonnet “Bright Star!” furnished a kind of subtext for more than one of Fitzgerald’s fictions, and Bate’s title neatly associates it with the “green light” on the headland in The Great Gatsby (1925), which signifies to Jay Gatsby both the nearness and the distance of his beloved Daisy.

The idea of a “binocular” biography of Fitzgerald and Keats – the bicentenary of whose death is commemorated on 23 February – is, Bate says, an attempt to follow the classical example of Plutarch, whose biographies couple Greek and Roman figures together, inviting the reader to compare and contrast. However, Bate’s subtitle – the “beautiful and damned lives” – comes dangerously near to trivialising the notion, and does less than justice to the book itself. It seems to imply that the two writers are primarily examples of a common type: self-destructive aesthetes. Keats died, aged 25, from tuberculosis in 1821; Fitzgerald’s alcoholism probably contributed to his death, aged 44, in 1940. But Bate’s typically lively and well-researched narrative shows clearly enough that Keats’s tragically early death had nothing to do with any self-destructive impulses, and that Fitzgerald’s most distinctive and mature work has a sparseness, tightness and irony that cannot be reduced to a bundle of exotic special effects.

Keats may explore the sensations of apathy and anomie, and show a fascination with “easeful Death”, but his letters and the recollections of his friends present a figure of unusual confidence, curiosity and forcefulness; part of his attraction is the enormous conviction about the sheer importance of what he is doing poetically. Likewise, Fitzgerald may be capable of riskily extravagant descriptive adventures, on the edge of overripeness; but he also possesses a starkly economical vision, ready to show more than tell. It is just this combination (and the tension it generates) that makes The Great Gatsby the remarkable novel it is.

Perhaps the more interesting convergence – and one which Bate depicts with clarity – is that both men came from outside the literary and cultural establishment: Keats from a modestly successful commercial family; Fitzgerald from a background of both “new money” and Roman Catholicism, which marked him as an outsider in his complicated relations with the very different aristocracies of the American South and the East Coast. Both writers needed all the confidence they could muster, and both were unembarrassed about self-promotion. Both suffered from the condescensions of those who felt cultural authority was a quality you were born with; not something to be struggled for.

Bate’s book is certainly an excellent introduction to each writer, but I think it is Fitzgerald whom we learn more about. His self-image as a “Keatzian” (Bate consistently uses Fitzgerald’s idiosyncratic spelling) tells us a great deal about the novelist’s sense of writing within a tradition. This was not the tradition of an upper social class that constantly obsessed and eluded him, but the tradition of literary craft by which language is stretched and kneaded into surprising shapes so as to build unexpected connections across ages and cultures. It was the tradition of using language strangely enough to be recognisable to a stranger, so that, as he wrote to Sheilah Graham, two solitudes are broken open to each other. And Keats was emphatically a poet who was prepared to write “strangely”.

Fitzgerald is right to see Keats (as the poet boldly saw himself) as close to Shakespeare in his innovative forcefulness. Lucasta Miller’s brilliant life of Keats, told through a close reading of “nine poems and one epitaph”, reminds us more than once of the way in which Keats can deploy Shakespearean techniques to stop us in our readerly tracks – not least the transmutation of nouns into adjectives (“pulsed”, “torched”, “lavendered”, “be-nightmared”), and the evocation of both emotional and physical atmosphere through a single unexpected detail (“The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass”).

She also brings out the significance of the Keatsian imagination for the Pre-Raphaelites (a point touched on by Bate also): Keats’s fascination with sensuous detail, fabric, texture and grain, is exactly what makes him so appealing a source for Millais and other artists. What might be called the “wovenness” of detail in Keats – above all in “The Eve of St Agnes” – is a charter for the minute attention to texture in Pre-Raphaelite painting; just as it foreshadows Tennyson’s fascination with surface and sheen.

Keats emerges as an exceptionally important link in the history of a verbal and visual poetic tradition that allows itself to be led by the sensual associations of its own elements: by aural resonances, onomatopoeia, rhythm, contour, folds and shadows, rather than by the disciplined argument of 18th-century verse. But equally his writing resists becoming a vehicle for specific “feelings”: one of the features of Keats’s poetry that has most often struck readers is the fluidity of its emotional register, as in the unexpected twist in the “Ode to a Nightingale” that takes us within a few lines from “magic casements” to the tolling bell of “Forlorn!”, pushing the focus back to the listener’s alienated solitude.

When contemporary critics complained that Keats was hard to understand, they had in mind not simply the verbal oddities but the skilful refusal of a secure place for readers to settle emotionally. Keats’s abidingly famous but almost throwaway remark in his letters about Shakespeare’s “negative capability”, the capacity to keep diverse perspectives and sensations in a sort of fruitful suspension, tells us a great deal about his own practice – which makes it all the sadder that so many of his best-known lines, such as “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, are so regularly conscripted into a fridge-magnet philosophy that he would have found comically inadequate.

In Keats there is not only fruitful suspension but also, as he exclaims in the “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, “Cold Pastoral!” The unchanging image of a frozen ecstasy, a fulfilment eternally deferred so that its realisation can never be spoiled or displaced, is a “friend” to the human observer, a witness to that unity of beauty and truth with which the ode ends. But the object is in itself “cold”, “silent”, silencing our thought.

The “Bright star!” sonnet written for his not-quite-fiancée Fanny Brawne in (probably) 1819 leaves us with a similar suspension: the beloved is immobile, and the changelessness that the lover longs for is simply to be eternally “pillowed” on her breast: there is no movement towards consummation. What is sought is that animated but also somehow frozen hair’s-breadth border between sleep and waking that other poems evoke so powerfully. St Augustine describes one kind of ecstasy as “the stroke of a shuddering glance”; Keats might well have appreciated the image and its conjuring of something instantaneous, arousing, but also without consequence.

Possibly the most important difference between Keats and Shakespeare is that Shakespeare (whatever may be said about negative capability) stages the processes of self-recognition and highlights how we move towards a steadily sharper awareness of the parts we are playing; while Keats is reluctant to move on from the moment of healing stillness or suspension. And, as Bate and Miller both note in diverse ways, this difference has something to do with an erotic sensibility in Keats that imagines sexual consummation as somehow fatal.


Part of what makes Keats such a compelling and haunting voice is this simultaneous sensuality and stasis, the freezing of desire on the very edge of fulfilment, with all the disorienting consequences this has (dreaming and waking melting into each other, the infinitesimal gap between happiness and tormenting lack). If all great poets mark out a distinctive territory of sensibility, this is surely Keats’s. And once again it makes sense of his appeal for the Pre-Raphaelites: their medieval world, like his, was a deeply secularised version, in which what mattered was the concentration of skill and beauty in a wonderful intricacy of material texture and a fixed moment of aesthetic ecstasy.

But Keats is a poet not a painter, and the manifest energy and verbal force that goes into this process means that his poems feel anything but static, even when they pivot around images of fixity, rest or sleep. The Pre-Raphaelite picturing of his imagination is far less vital than his own words, despite what many would have thought of as those words’ archaic density and strangeness.

Miller splendidly shows in her discussion of Keats’s “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” just why George Chapman’s Jacobean physicality and abruptness appealed to Keats so much more than Alexander Pope’s more orderly, condensed and polished rendering of Homer. Bate adds to this sense of Keats’s verbal toughness when he quotes F Scott Fitzgerald disputing Matthew Arnold’s assertion that Wordsworth is the central figure in the next “chapter” in English poetry after Shakespeare and Milton, and claiming that dignity instead for Keats. Here Fitzgerald is challenging the story of English poetry that describes a smooth transition from the tangles and verbal fireworks of Shakespeare and his contemporaries towards some simpler melodic register.

Miller also usefully reminds us that there is no contradiction between Keats’s open political radicalism (think of the savagely angry depiction of industrial exploitation in “Isabella”, a passage quite marginal to the unfolding of the actual narrative) and the “medievalism” of his aesthetic. He and William Morris would have got on very well. For Keats’s kind of radical, the “ancient” identity of English society was communitarian and anti-hierarchical, and its laws were designed to protect popular freedoms.

As Jonathan Bate observes, the American critic Edmund Wilson “never allowed his friendship to dull his critical intelligence”. He had been close to F Scott Fitzgerald as a student, but, writing in 1924 about Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, he was unforgiving towards what he saw as its central weaknesses – a lack of energy and coherence, which he attributed to the intertwining malign influences of Compton Mackenzie and John Keats. Mackenzie, whose stock as a novelist was still high in the 1920s, had himself attributed features of his florid literary style to Keats’s example; but Fitzgerald had certainly gone direct to the source as well.

The stranglehold exerted by a huge landholding interest, systemic corruption and nepotism, and the abuse of law in order to suppress popular assembly and open discussion were all varieties of “modern” dysfunction. Keats belongs in a long and honourable succession of writers whose patriotic traditionalism found natural expression in uncompromising hostility towards existing patterns of power, especially as these were being reinforced by the growth of industrialism and a global colonialist economy. Those who today are engaged in arguments over English or British identity and the continuity of national tradition would do well to pause over this particular scarlet thread in the story.

Both Bate and Miller have done their subject proud, and helped to open a timely and fresh re-appropriation of Keats. Bate’s interweaving of Keats’s story with Fitzgerald’s has its moments of strain, but it illuminates both writers and re-emphasises a depth of sheer literary intelligence in Fitzgerald that can be overlooked in the unflattering overhead lighting of the Jazz Age. For a book that returns frequently to the visual elements of Keats’s imagination and the representations of it in art, it is a shame that the illustrations in the text are so often cramped for room and appear rather muddy. The illustrations in Miller’s book are more satisfying but fewer in number, and we are denied any colour reproductions of paintings inspired by Keats. But these satisfying, engaging and accessible books are well designed to make us return to the work of both Keats and his rather unexpected “Keatzian” devotee.

Bright Star, Green Light: The Beautiful and Damned Lives of John Keats and F Scott Fitzgerald
Jonathan Bate
William Collins, 416pp, £25

Keats: A Brief Life in Nine Poems and One Epitaph
Lucasta Miller
Jonathan Cape, 368pp, £17.99


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A book that changed me / Langston Hughes showed me what it meant to be a black writer


A book 

that changed


Langston Hughes showed me what it meant to be a black writer

This article is more than 7 years old

His 1926 essay, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain made clear that a black writer must write the best work they can, while refusing to be defined by other people's racial agendas

Gary Younge

Thu 1 August 2013


ne of my first columns on these pages didn't make it into the paper. I'd written about the Nato bombing of Bosnia and the comment editor at the time thought I should stick to subjects closer to home. "We have people who can write about Bosnia," he said. "Can you add an ethnic sensibility to this."

The whole point of having a black columnist, he thought, was to write about black issues. I had other ideas. I had no problem writing about race. It's an important subject that deserves scrutiny to which I've given considerable thought and about which I've done a considerable amount of research. I have no problem being regarded as a black writer. It's an adjective not an epithet. In the words of Toni Morrison, when asked if she found it limiting to be described as a black woman writer: "I'm already discredited. I'm already politicised, before I get out of the gate. I can accept the labels because being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn't limit my imagination, it expands it."

But that was not all I wanted to write about or what I imagined the function of a black columnist to be. It wasn't, in short, the only adjective available and I had no interest in being confined by it. The fear of being pigeon-holed is one of the crippling anxieties of any minority. Being seen only as the thing that makes you different through the lens of those with the power to make that difference matter really is limiting. Instead of crafting your own narrative, you get a bit part from central casting in someone else's play.

It was thanks to Langston Hughes's 1926 essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, written for the Nation magazine (full disclosure: I write a column in the Nation), which I read shortly after university, that I was able to centre myself within these apparently conflicting demands. Hughes, an African-American poet and essayist from the Harlem renaissance period of the early 20th century, was every bit the renaissance man. Raised in poverty in Kentucky, he wrote plays, worked as a merchant seaman, covered the Spanish civil war for the black press and toured central Asia after plans for a visit to the Soviet Union to put on a musical collapsed.

He was a young, gay black man who was always going places precisely because he did not know his place. And that fearlessness is applied to The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, which is effectively a manifesto for black writers who feel hemmed in by strictures imposed by the race thinking of both blacks and whites. What he makes clear is that the task of a black writer was no different from that of any other writer – to write the best work they could about whatever they wanted, while resisting the pressure to be defined by the racial agendas of others.

The essay starts with him relating an encounter with "one of the most promising young negro poets" who once told him: "I want to be a poet – not a negro poet." Hughes reflects: "And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself … This is the mountain standing in the way of any true negro art in America – this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mould of American standardisation, and to be as little negro and as much American as possible."

The fact that much of the essay – its language, assumptions and even at times framing – feels dated added to the appeal for me. Having grown up in Stevenage and studied in Edinburgh I had not been around enough black people to know that what I was experiencing was neither unique nor new. Clearly, rereading it now, I got out of it what I wanted and discarded the rest. Though the essay explicitly defines the "mountain" as an "urge towards whiteness" I understood it then and now somewhat differently. Not only to withstand the urge towards whiteness but also to resist any mould that was not of your own making, regardless of who made it. To refuse to wear any old suit that didn't fit just because it was given to you and the donor said it suited you.

That means not being in flight from blackness even when it is a category employed more in disparagement than description but acknowledging it as a condition within the human rainbow that is no more or less valid than any other. "I am ashamed for the black poet who says, 'I want to be a poet, not a negro poet', as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world."

But while acknowledging race as one legitimate category among many, it also meant not fetishising blackness; playing to a gallery whose appreciation was no less clouded by the same limitations, even when conveying different impulses. The last paragraph I read as a rallying cry against pressures from all sides to conform – a compass for choppy racial waters: "We younger negro artists who create, now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame," Hughes wrote. "If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If coloured people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves."


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Jessica Wilkinson on New Poetry / Fruitful Playgrounds



Fruitful Playgrounds

Jessica Wilkinson
November 21, 2017

Three new poetry collections, three Australian women poets: Present by Elizabeth Allen (Vagabond), Domestic Interior by Fiona Wright (Giramondo) and Passage by Kate Middleton (Giramondo). All three women are award-winning authors, and each has won a major prize for their previous volumes: Allen won the 2012 FAW Anne Elder Award for Body Language, Wright won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award for Knuckled, and Middleton’s Fire Season was awarded the 2009 WA Premier’s Literary Awards for Poetry. All live in Sydney. These are easy things to report, biographical facts. What is perhaps less known is that each of these poets is a generous spirit and supportive presence in the world of poetry and writing in Australia, as editors, associate publishers, event organisers, colleagues, mentors and poetry champions. I have witnessed this generosity not only from afar but first-hand, at readings, launches, and even through unexpected encounters in cafes; it’s the only thing that would make me consider moving to Sydney. So I emphasise this to begin with, because I think it is important to recognise their contributions in this regard too, and to convey the respect that I have for all three authors not only as poets, but as literary community gems.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

How Poems Make Things Happen


Marion May Campbell

How Poems Make Things Happen

Jessica Wilkinson
December 15, 2020

This is the second of a series of essays co-commissioned by the SRB and non/fictionLab that foreground experimental approaches to the question of value in the sphere of arts and literature.

It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/ of what is found there.

—William Carlos Williams ‘Asphodel, That Greeny Flower’

Can poetry make things happen? Can poetry bring about change? Does it hold that power? In the wake of the heaving 2020 chronicle of civil rights protests, a global pandemic and environmental disasters, what role can poetry play towards a recovering world? While we – poets, non-poets, regular and irregular poetry readers alike – often turn to poetry in the face of grief, trauma, depression or injustice, is this ‘turning to’ the poem merely borne of tradition, in that we call upon poetry for its ability to speak through inarticulable depths of feeling? Or, do we intuitively sense that part of poetry’s purpose is to provoke or invoke change?