A Brief Biography of
A prominent voice of the wide-open poetry movement that began in the 1950s, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has written poetry, translation, fiction, theater, art criticism, film narration, and essays. Often concerned with politics and social issues, Ferlinghetti's poetry countered the literary elite's definition of art and the artist's role in the world. Though imbued with the commonplace, his poetry cannot be simply described as polemic or personal protest, for it stands on his craftsmanship, thematics, and grounding in tradition.
Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers in 1919, son of Carlo Ferlinghetti, who was from the province of Brescia, and Clemence Albertine Mendes-Monsanto. Following his undergraduate years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he served in the U.S. Navy in World War II as a ship's commander. He received a Master's degree from Columbia University in 1947 and a Doctorate de l'Université de Paris (Sorbonne) in 1950. From 1951 to 1953, when he settled in San Francisco, he taught French in an adult education program, painted, and wrote art criticism. In 1953, with Peter D. Martin, he founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country, and by 1955 he had launched the City Lights publishing house.
The bookstore has served for half-a-century as a meeting place for writers, artists, and intellectuals. City Lights Publishers began with the Pocket Poets Series, through which Ferlinghetti aimed to create an international, dissident ferment. His publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl & Other Poems in 1956 led to his arrest on obscenity charges, and the trial that followed drew national attention to the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat movement writers. (He was overwhelmingly supported by prestigious literary and academic figures, and was acquitted.) This landmark First Amendment case established a legal precedent for the publication of controversial work with redeeming social importance.
Ferlinghetti's paintings have been shown at various galleries around the world, from the Butler Museum of American Painting to Il Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome. He has been associated with the international Fluxus movement through the Archivio Francesco Conz in Verona. He has toured Italy, giving poetry readings in Roma, Napoli, Bologna, Firenze, Milano, Verona, Brescia, Cagliari, Torino, Venezia, and Sicilia. He won the Premio Taormino in 1973, and since then has been awarded the Premio Camaiore, the Premio Flaiano, the Premio Cavour. among others. He is published in Italy by Oscar Mondadori, City Lights Italia, and Minimum Fax. He was instrumental in arranging extensive poetry tours in Italy produced by City Lights Italia in Firenze. He has translated from the Italian Pier Paolo Pasolin's Poemi Romani, which is published by City Lights Books.
In 2012, Sonoma Valley Museum of Art in Sonoma, California, presented the retrospective exhibition "Cross-Pollination: The Art of Lawrence Ferlinghetti." Marin Museum of Contemporary Art, Novato, California, presented a solo exhibition in 2015. In San Francisco his work has been exhibited at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, George Krevsky Gallery and other venues, and can be seen at www.ferlinghettiart.com.
Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind continues to be the most popular poetry book in the U.S. It has been translated into nine languages, and there are nearly 1,000,000 copies in print. A 50th anniversary edition was published by New Directions in 2008. The author of poetry, plays, fiction, art criticism, and essays, he has a dozen books currently in print in the U.S., and his work has been translated in many countries and in many languages. His most recent poetry books are Americus Book I (2004), Poetry As Insurgent Art (2007), and Time of Useful Conscsiouness (2012) all published by New Directions. His most recent work of poetry is the chapbook Blasts Cries Laughter (2014).
On the occasion of City Lights Publishers' 60th anniversary in 2015, three books were released celebrating this milestone. I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg 1955-1997, edited by Bill Morgan, and City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology: 60th Anniversary Edition, edited by Ferlinghetti. 2015 also saw a commemorative, restored edition of the first City Lights book and Ferlnghetti's first book of poetry, Pictures of the Gone World.
Also in the Fall of 2015, Norton/Liveright published the long-awaited collection of Ferlinghetti's travel journals, Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010.
In November 2017, just in time for his 99th birthday, New Directions published a new edition of selected poems, Ferlinghetti's Greatest Poems, edited by Nancy J. Peters. This book features work from his first books, A Coney Island of the Mind and Pictures of the Gone World, as well as his new poetry from the 21st century.
He has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Los Angeles Times' Robert Kirsch Award, the BABRA Award for Lifetime Achievement, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Award for Contribution to American Arts and Letters, the American Civil Liberties Union's Earl Warren Civil Liberties Award. Ferlinghetti was named San Francisco's Poet Laureate in August 1998, and he used his post as a bully-pulpit from which he articulated the seldom-heard "voice of the people." In 2003 he was awarded the Robert Frost Memorial Medal, the Author's Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, and he was elected to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters.
The National Book Foundation honored him with the inaugural Literarian Award (2005), given for outstanding service to the American literary community. In 2007 he was named Commandeur, French Order of Arts and Letters. In 2012, Ferlinghetti received the Douglas MacAgy Distinguished Achievement Award from the San Francisco Art Institute.
In 2012, Ferlinghetti was awarded the inaugural Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize from the Hungarian PEN Club. After learning that the government of Hungary, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, was a partial sponsor of the €50,000 prize, he declined to accept the award. In declining, Ferlinghetti cited his opposition to the "right wing regime" of Prime Minister Orban, and his opinion that the ruling Hungarian government under Mr. Orban is curtailing civil liberties and freedom of speech for the people of Hungary.