Windows & Mirrors


An interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Aryanil Mukherjee

This year (2005) marks the fiftieth anniversary of the historic poetry reading by two iconic American poets, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder at Gallery 6, San Francisco. HOWL, Allen Ginsberg’s maiden poetry pocket book was published the same year by fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights bookstore. HOWL unleashed a fiery and candid poetic accent that went on to not only refurbish American sensibility but ended up creating a whole new counter-culture called “The Beat Generation”. HOWL soon was taken to court for charges of obscenity but came out unscathed. Beat Generation is a closed chapter now and is much part of American cultural history of the last century. While most of its torch bearers have had their exit, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, numero uno of American lyric poetry and owner of the legendary literary joint, City Lights bookstore, is still alive and active at 86. The following interview was conducted in the summer of 2005, shortly following the release of his new book AMERICUS I.


AM: In the late fifties and sixties, the Beat Generation Poets were able to create a cultural upheaval that America had probably never seen before or after. Looking half-a-century back at those times, what do you think were the factors that led to its germination ?

LF: I don’t think the Beats had in mind a cultural upheaval of any kind. It just happened. I have said this before – when I think of the counter-culture of the 60s and the Beats, I tend to think of the Beats as “Stone Age Hippies”. The main themes of this counter-culture that was articulated by poets like Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder had to draw a lot from Buddhism, asserting a new spiritual consciousness. Ginsberg articulated it the most. The word “Beat” came from Kerouac’s original coinage “Beatitude” (adj) that meant a state of utmost bliss. To Kerouac, it was the idea that the downtrodden are saintly, thinking in a Buddhist context. These are all the precursors of what became of the counter-culture. The Beat messages were Anti-war pacifism, demonstration against the war, anti-materialism, anti-technocracy…like the you know about the Luddites ?

AM: No

LF: Luddites were British activists from the early 19th century who would destroy machines. They destroyed a factory in Manchester, I believe. So, the Beats were able to create such an elevated consciousness. The world today needs it more than before. American corporate mono-culture is just wiping away native cultures all over the globe. I’m sure in parts of India too.

AM: Could you recall your very first meeting with Allen Ginsberg? When did you first get to read the “Howl” manuscript? Could you briefly describe that experience ?

LF: City Lights started in June 1953. We had started this poetry Pocket-Book series. Ginsberg came here (in San Francisco) in 1955. He gave me the manuscript a week before the historic readings at Gallery 6, San Francisco. I liked it, but I was more impressed when I heard it at Gallery 6. Look, the Beats believed that poetry had to be a loud oral message. So when I heard him reading Howl, that was a remarkable experience. Ginsberg’s career got off to a start and he went onto become a fantastic public reader.

AM: When did you discuss the possibility of publishing “Howl” with Allen?

LF: That night. That very night. I came back from the Gallery that night completely convinced that what I heard was a great message – a poetry whose oratory was unheard of. Around mid-night, I sent a telegram (there was no e-mail or fax those days) to Ginsberg that I wanted to publish it. I used a phrase from Emerson who wrote this to Walt Whitman upon receiving Leaves of Grass – “I greet you at the beginning of a great career”.

AM: Going back to your formative years, between your Sorbonne days and the time you wrote “A Coney Island of the Mind” (the most widely sold book on contemporary poetry in the United States in the last century), what or who did you derive your early inspiration from?

LF: Well, that is difficult to answer….see; I read a lot during those early years. I read Baudelaire when I was 14. A lot of the great European poets.

AM: While you were in France during your early years, before you wrote A Coney Island of the Mind, you translated Jacques Prévert. I have read your preface to that book (Paroles, by Jacques Prévert , translated into english by Lawrence Ferlinghetti)where you…..

LF: Oh, yes. Prévert did have an influence on me. A major influence. I would even say that Jacques Prévert did influence A Coney Island of the Mind too.

AM: The Beat Poets, in style and structure, have written so differently than let’s say the New York Avant-Gardes’. Yet, the Beat Poets feature in several anthologies on Post-modern American Poetry. How do you react to that?

LF: I don’t know why the Beats shouldn’t be there. Post-Modernism is about the The Art of Dissent and the Beat writers wrote a lot in that tradition. The abstract expressionists of New York… you know about them ?

AM: Do you mean John Ashbery & co.?

LF: No, not the poets. I meant the painters who represented Abstract Expressionism like ….

AM: Jackson Pollock ?

LF: Yes, Pollock and Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning, Kline etc. were contemporary artists who like the Beat Poets were portraying disintegration of the Old World. After the 2nd World War, the values of the Old World needed destruction. The Beat poets were doing that – articulating new concepts. When we heard Ginsberg read “Howl” at Gallery 6….when we heard this kind of language, it felt like the sheer power of words were shattering traditional images just like the Abstract Impressionist painters of New York were making non-objective paintings.

AM: Did the Beat Poets often interact with the Abstract Impressionist painters then?

LF: Oh, yes….in Greenwich Village in New York City there’s a bar called the Cedar Bar. It is still there you know, this bar…I was walking past this bar just last month….and I realized that few seem to know about the great intellectual discourses once held here, few artists and writers meet here now, but the bar is still around. It was here that these painters met with the Beat writers.

AM: Many of us (especially poets) in India tend to think of you as the “most lyrical of the Beat poets”.

LF: Many in the US say the same, I don’t know why. The Naropa School, I mean the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics that Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldeman founded, represents a poetics that has never been mine. I don’t believe that “first thought is the best thought” (proclaimed by Allen Ginsberg), rather I would say first thought is the worst thought. Like Allen says after William Carlos Williams - “no ideas but in things”; well see, WCW for me, is not one of these Great American Poets. The real American idiom, for me, comes from poets like Kenneth Patchen, e. e. cummings, which is much more close to reality as far as street talk goes. I don’t believe in “no ideas but instincts”. I told Allen once that I would rephrase WCW as – “no ideas but beings”. I will say this, you can quote me.

AM: John Ashbery says – Poetry is trying to avoid ideas.

LF: That’s most obvious. But the Beat poets did not avoid ideas. Let me tell you this – Robert Pinsky, who is an American Poet Laureate, recently did a poetry reading in a University. Someone asked him about his position on the Iraq War? He couldn’t answer that question with clarity; he did not seem to have any position. That is most disgusting. If an American Poet Laureate does not have a position on the Iraq War, that’s absolutely disgusting. The U.S. Poet Laureate is supposed to be a quietus position. That's why they appoint them. The U.S. Poet Laureate's job is just to say, 'Have a nice day!'

Let me talk about Beat poetry a little more. They believed in directly transcribing your mind on the page without censorship, much like the first generation French Surrealists. There is a Buddhist saying – “when mind is comely, anything that comes out of it is comely”. That’s good – an unedited poem that is intellectually honest. When you give this technique to poets like Ginsberg, Kerouac or Snyder who had brilliant minds, they could produce excellent poetry, but when you give this to hundreds of young students, a vast land of literary waste is produced.

AM: From A Coney Island of the Mind to the beautiful title poem in How to Paint Sunlight, you poetry seems woven with an easy-flowing lyrical quality even when you have difficult or prosaic things to talk about. What is the source of this song? Where is the origin of this sunlight?

LF: That is a beautiful question. Hmm…. I’ll say – sex. It’s the lyrical anima that you are either born with or not. There is something called “New Music” these days. "New Music" is a term used for eclectic experimental music blending music from all over the world, sometimes called “World Music." There is such a lack of joy in that– obviously this is not a very joyous age. You have said it right; I have often used a lyricism that is connected to non-lyrical reality, like the twelfth canto from my new book “Americus I”.

AM: Rarely do we come across a great poet who is also a prolific painter (you remind us Bengalis of Tagore). What do you enjoy more – painting a poem or writing a picture? Has the brush ever been a pain-in-the-ass for the pen? Or has the pen, at times, articulated the colors more than the brush?

LF: I don’t make a distinction. It is an expression of the same consciousness. Some of my paintings even have words on them. I have painted maybe, about 300/400 paintings - oil on canvas, some as big as 15ft wide, made about 2000 drawings on paper including lithographs, monoprints and Japanese Sumi brush paintings.

AM: In your recent book, How To Paint Sunlight, you talk about Ginsberg’s ghost alighting on your bedside. Do you want to talk a little about that? Does Allen’s memory haunt you often?

LF: Yes. I think of him quite often, especially these days. I wonder what he might have had to say about the Bush administration. What he might have said would be quite devastating for them. In fact, quite often when a situation comes up like this in the political context, I wonder what Allen Ginsberg would say. His voice seems to come back to me and I get ready to answer him. Allen was the most articulate of poets and the most politically informed. A large number of younger and elder poets in this country couldn’t quite strike a political conversation with him as they were vastly ignorant about what Allen would say.

AM: The Beats were able to precipitate a far-reaching cultural change in the American public life. A majority of them were poets ¬ poetry was at the very center of it. Perhaps, poetry had never enjoyed a higher public profile in America. Half-a-century later, it seems like poetry now belongs to a subculture. Despite the multitudes of undergraduate creative writing programs in the universities, a myriad of new poems printed in magazines both small and large, a whole network of poetry-prizes, grants and endowments and an ever-increasing number of young poets, poetry in an average American home is less and less read or talked about (especially when compared to the high public profile it enjoys in large parts of India)? What is your take on this? What would you blame it on?

LF: I think that in the USA now, there are more books of poetry published and more poets published than at any time in modern history. But I will have to admit that poetry is now a part of the subculture of North America. I would go further to say that intellectuals and intellectual life in general have also been become a subculture in this country. Our dominant culture is of course anti-intellectual TV consumer capitalism, dominated by corporate mono-culture, at once materialist, militarist, and predatory. "Full spectrum global dominance" -- the stated aim of the present U.S. Government-- will make a total waste land of the world.

AM: What according to you is the most significant thing that happened to American Poetry since the Beats?

LF: Huh….good question all right….probably the growth of the anti-war movement. The “Poets against the War” is spreading out, as far as the Latin Americas. A petition has been signed by poets from all over the Americas. This will be sent out to the governments of the world. I will send you a copy soon.

AM: Lawrence, what are you working on now? Tell us about your poetry and paintings.

LF: I am working on book 2 of Americus – totally different type of poetry than before. Part documentary, part public pillow-talk, part personal epic....a descant, a canto unsung, a banal history, a true fiction, political. And lyrical too, much in the tradition of Olson, WCW, Pound and Patterson, much along the lines of the first book – Americus-I.



Lyricizing Non-lyrical Reality
- A historic interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti


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