A poet prevails
As regards the recent passing of poet, playwright and Beat publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, exiting at three digits still seems untimely for such a towering figure. This column will not be your encomium du jour—better writers have better remembrances of this particular cartographer of the American soul. But here are mine—all five.
Please note, I fully accede these are not the literary highlights and homilies my colleagues managed in the week since Ferlinghetti’s death at 101. Upon review, I realize now my reveries read more like the diary of a literary stalker and the canny old man who outwitted him at every turn.
1. Justin S. and I ditch a day during our sophomore year in high school, circa 1988, and catch a Golden Gate Transit bus (80) bus to San Francisco. We find our way to North Beach and the citadel of City Lights Booksellers. Our quest? Find Ferlinghetti. At the cash register is a bearded man who resembles the mugshot on the back of his books. We ask if he’s Ferlinghetti. He says, “No.”
2. San Francisco, the Palace of Fine Arts, a double feature of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up and Zabriskie Point—the director is present … so is Ferlinghetti. I conspire to meet him and ingeniously ask him for a light for a cigarette. He says he doesn’t smoke.
3. College days. I’m living in North Beach Adjacent, a.k.a. Russian Hill. I’m hovering around the poetry section of City Lights, which has been moved upstairs near the offices, the door to which is open. Ferlinghetti is in view. I approach, but so does another young literary type. He gets his words in first, but in his haste fumbles with “Do you have a first edition ‘Howl?’” Ferlinghetti replies, “This isn’t a used bookstore.” I’m inwardly glad it wasn’t me who took the hit—close one.
4. North Beach, around New Year’s, mid-’90s. I spy Ferlinghetti crossing the street at Columbus and Broadway. I approach, tape recorder in hand, and ask him for a poem for the new year. He says, “Ferlinghetti Spaghetti.” Well played.
5. I’m a small-town newspaperman asked to emcee a poetry reading at the Phoenix Theater in Petaluma. The star on the bill is Ferlinghetti. Backstage, I busy myself pouring wine for the other poets after having ceremoniously opened the bottle onstage framed as a performance piece I dub “The Poet’s Inspiration.” The gag was almost as cheap as the wine. I’m summoned by a woman who says Ferlinghetti would like to meet me. He says something approving of my “performance piece.” I follow with a pour from the bottle.
“A poet is born
A poet dies
And all that lies between
—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “An Elegy On The Death Of Kenneth Patchen”
Daedalus Howell is at DaedalusHowell.com.