Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s italianità


Lawrence Ferlinghetti deliberately reclaimed an Italian surname and an Italian patrimony. His father, an immigrant from Lombardy during the 1890’s, had already shortened the family name to “Ferling.” Fluent in French and English as well as in Italian, the father had left the Italian neighborhood of Brooklyn where he worked as an auctioneer, moving wife and children to more “mainstream” Yonkers. The future poet’s native-born mother was not of Italian extraction; rather, she was the daughter of a Frenchwoman and of a Sephardic Jew whose family had emigrated to the Netherlands and the Virgin Islands before reaching New York. Born in Yonkers, on March 24, 1919, several months after his father’s death, Lawrence was the fifth son in a bereaved but cultivated family; his maternal grandfather had taught at the Naval Academy in Annapolis and at a college in New York City. The child was not “raised Italian.” Until 1955 he was Lawrence Ferling.Then at age 36, by his own choice and act, Lawrence Ferling became Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Three full-length biographies detail how the family fell apart after the father’s death.[1] Overwhelmed by grief and cares, the mother suffered a collapse and for five years was hospitalized in Pough-keepsie. While his brothers were boarded in Ossining, the posthumous baby was taken by his mother’s aunt to Strasbourg, to be raised French during the preschool years.[2] On returning to the states, this “French mother” placed the boy for seven months in a New York State orphanage before she fetched him to live where she had found employment, in the Bronxville mansion of Presley and Anna Lawrence Bisland. (Sarah Lawrence College was founded by Anna Bisland’s father in memory of her mother.) Later, after she disappeared, Lawrence was raised by the Bislands. Though not childless, they had lost a son named Lawrence. They provided comforts and privileges, and the relationship endured as long as they lived, but they were not demonstrative. They were not at all “Italian.”

At age ten and a half Lawrence Ferling had a visit from his mother and brothers. Forced to choose, he chose to stay with the Bislands rather than go with strangers (Cherkovski 16). As Lawrence Ferling he graduated from Chapel Hill in 1941, joined the Navy (before Pearl Harbor), married in 1951. As Ferling he had five of his Prévert translations accepted for publication. He was still Lawrence Ferling when he and Peter D. Martin opened the City Lights Bookstore in June 1953. Then, precisely upon publishing, under the City Lights imprint in August 1955, his first book of poems, Pictures of the Gone World, he became Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Cherkovski 82). The restored full name declared an Italian identity confirmed when Ferlinghetti named his own son, born in 1963, Lorenzo.

Clearly other influences could have been determinant, supplanting the Italian father he never knew and the cultural legacy that was never transmitted directly. Yet the poet came to recognize a usable and even necessary Italian past—and an alternative present, alternative possibilities. Italian identity came to involve living in an Italianate milieu, visiting Italy, having his poetry translated into Italian, translating and publishing work by Italian and Italian American poets, achieving honor in Italy as well as in the United States and elsewhere, helping to honor other Italian Americans and the image of the Italian immigrant, and transmitting the names. World-traveling American son of transplanted Europeans, anti-totalitarian utopian anarchist by affinity and conviction, yet prudent in business, determined to explore his own psyche and to actualize talents in painting and performance as well as in poetry, translation, and editing, Lawrence Ferlinghetti in his life and work continues to find inspiration in Italy.

Ferlinghetti is closely identified with City Lights, the first all-paperback bookstore in the United States; and his partner in founding City Lights, Peter D. Martin, was the son of Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca. When they met, Martin, who taught sociology at San Francisco State College, was already publishing a popular-culture magazine called City Lights in homage to the Chaplin film. Their store was meant to support the magazine and to constitute an independent intellectual center. Open seven days a week till midnight, it subsidized the publishing venture that included the popular Pocket Poets Series.

The partners shared a dissident posture during the McCarthyism of the 1950s. A protest over San Francisco murals dating from the FDR administration roused Ferlinghetti, himself a painter, because he had been the target of reactionary opinion while teaching, for a short time, at conservative Catholic University of San Francisco (Cherkovski 74). Disaffected with consumerism, conformity, and Cold War, with elitism and insulation among many academics, Ferlinghetti used the bookstore and the press to change consciousness and foster possibilities. Poetry readings, often with jazz accompaniment, were popular in San Francisco coffee houses, and Ferlinghetti, having reviewed for the San Francisco Chronicle readings by Dylan Thomas and Kenneth Patchen, gradually became a public person, performing his poems as an extension of his Chaplinesque posture.

After Peter Martin sold his interest to return to New York, where he opened the New Yorker Bookstore on Broadway, Ferlinghetti was legally the sole proprietor of City Lights Pocket Book Shop. In January 1955, he took a new partner, Shigeyoshi Murao, who effectively ran the business in the spirit of its founders, staying on for more than twenty years, while Ferlinghetti put more and more time into publishing. By August 1955, when City Lights Press issued Pictures of the Gone World, a new American poetry found locus, articulation, and support. The Italian name Ferlinghetti, in contradistinction to such names as Di Maggio or Sinatra, was linked to dissident rather than officially endorsed patterns of Success.

During burgeoning American corporate and governmental dominance, while postwar Italy was still a sort of client state of the U.S. but with the largest Communist Party in Western Europe, the bookstore in North Beach, a neighborhood with Italian groceries and cafes and other small businesses, aromatic of fresh bread and Italian (and Chinese) cooking, functioned as a countercultural haven. There anarchic and commercial traditions could survive together. Ferlinghetti, who had been in the United States Navy during World War II and remained preoccupied with ideals for which that war was fought, understood profoundly the postwar struggles—profoundly and evenly, while others found excuses to be irresponsible or self-destructive. The year 1955 was definitive for his commitment as a published poet and as a resister. Restoring the name meant endowing it with significance.

Also in 1955, Allen Ginsberg stepped into City Lights. Ferlinghetti published his poem Howl, with a foreword by William Carlos Williams. San Francisco police arrested Ferlinghetti. An obscenity trial ensued.[3] Successes of the San Francisco renaissance launched the Beat Movement. Readings continued to draw large audiences. By the late 1950’s City Lights was an important San Francisco institution. It served as a center of resistance to what a recent interviewer calls the “ ‘soft Fascisms’ peculiar to America, amorphous glows of repression gathering momentum now for better than four decades.”[4]

The novel Her, conceived and written while Ferlinghetti studied in Paris, 1948-50, and several times revised, issued from New Directions in 1960. This three-part labyrinth-dream-quest resembles Ulysses in Nighttown, or the carnivalesque Orfeu negro wanderings in Hades, as well as certain French works. Whereas the first and last sections are set in France, the crucial central part surveys Italian landscapes. Protagonist-narrator Andy Raffine, “bearing a white phallus,” as he says, pursues both woman and Woman, the real and the Idea. Toward the end of the first part[5] in Paris (66 ff.), a waiter clutches his arm, shaking it, as they drink Ricard: “Dung of Europa, aren’t we the lost tribesmen, and me your wandered father come back again? The same wash, in a different bundle, sent to be laundered in America. The long return!”

In Part Two a train through Switzerland (99) brings Raffine to “Venice’s floating by by night”—he describes the stones, the gondolas and bridges and courtyards, and an encounter with “La Bella Muchacha” (102), then a hurtling “across the lost blue plains and Giotto landscapes in night and traintime whirling on through the Roman country . . . and past Fiesole in sun and past Florence crooking its river . . . the train . . . rocking and bulging (103) with country pilgrims and more and more of them crowding on at every drag stop in the Roman country . . . flying on toward Rome. . . .” He invokes Dante, “that eternal tourist in Hell who followed the conducted tour with various official state department guides who always kept him strictly within the officially prescribed itineraries. . . .” He is making love with the flax-haired farmgirl who has squeezed into the crowded carriage, and so they arrive in Rome, where he loses the girl but feels her in himself as he enters Rome “through jungles of tenements overhead trolleylines owls and madonnas” (106). In Rome he wanders “as if I had never left Paris and myself still gooking about among old monuments statues and clichés . . . like some sculptor perpetually enrolled at the American Academy in Rome . . .” (111). He tries to paint—“I made one nice clean underivative line,” he says (112)—but sees a lighted window in a stone hotel, goes there, and is offered tea by a tall thin American girl. He stays. She lets him sketch her; she reads poetry. Their lovemaking does not succeed: “Too much thinking ruined it all . . .” (120). When he wakes, she is gone. Outside, deserted streets curl away: “Mistaking the deserted temples of Rome for deaf mutes, I clapped my hands to awaken them, my claps bouncing back like thrown stones” (122). Through an arched doorway he sees a woman among the dark pews, who does not recognize him. Along the Appian Way he hears a nightingale. By Villa Borghese children play. The voice that calls, though, at the end of Part Two, is a “phallic voice beyond the world.” For all the French influence, the sexual and religious quest transmuted into impressionistic fiction is set, at its center, in Italy.

Part Three returns the wanderer to Paris, still wandering. He sees his life in print (125), “wrapped around a fish in the hands of a Brooklyn fishmonger . . . Written in the fourth person singular, it was very clear, very accurate. . . .[6] But his hand cannot reach it. His hand becomes roots: “Someone had planted me.” Punning on mold—mold that grows on statues, mold into which sculptors pour metal; and punning on that pour of molten metal and the pores of the skin (128), he undergoes metamorphosis. Feet “tangled in shadows” (129), he drifts through Paris, through memory too (144), and eventually a voice calls Death Death and the narrator realizes “I’m my own autodidact fallen off my cycle and always about to remount and my voice losing its leaves for I’m no longer anybody’s son for I grew up against grownups and now myself am one against myself and yet have a long way to go . . .” In a blown newspaper he sees his obituary and remembers love. At the end God reels him in. Death can be contemplated in Paris only after life has been contemplated in Rome.

Contrary to critic Koos van der Wilt, who reads this ending as suicide,[7] I understand Ferlinghetti as trying to see his life whole. In imaginative excursion from France and back again he explores, unguided, on the loose, on his own, contemporary Italy and Dante’s Italy, to claim a usable past and possible future, and to glimpse cultural alternatives to postwar America. A better reading than van der Wilt’s is offered by Gregory Stephenson, who understands the interior monologue as “a quest for identity, a search for the whole or completed self, which [the protagonist] images as a sexual union,” and “a quest for vision, for a true perception of existence, a perception beyond habit and preconception, beyond subjectivity and objectivity” (and this latter is called, in the novel, “the fourth person singular”).[8] Stephenson reads the unconsummated erotic encounters in Italy as convincing Raffine that he must free his psyche from abstractions and preconceptions concerning women (Stephenson 143). According to Stephenson, “Raffine’s sexual and artistic failures are extensions of his essential failure to achieve identity and vision, a failure which ultimately results in his death” (Stephenson 141). This Jungian, Blakean reading confirms the novel as “diagnostic, essentially pessimistic” (Stephenson 153), but allows the ending to be interpreted as an affirmation. It accords with Ferlinghetti’s mainly spiritual orientation, from which his political stance follows as a corollary.

For Ferlinghetti, citizenly duty requires political protest because he cannot deny, evade, or flee the confrontations of conscience. To support unofficial or anti-official speech meant refusing to self-censor work because it might offend sponsors, refusing to take subsidies with strings attached. As Ferlinghetti made explicit in 1969 in Tyrannus Nix, he was against writers and magazines accepting support from the National Foundation (now National Endowment) for the Arts. He wrote (and Silesky quotes it, page 195), “The State, whether capitalist or Communist, has an enormous capacity to ingest its most dissident elements.” He wanted no more than political equilibrium in an uncongenial political atmosphere—just basic political comfort, which through the postwar decades required resistance on many fronts.

As Silesky says (113), in many ways his life was conventional:

As he continued to work daily at the store, on the publishing, and to give readings around the country and write his own poems, his attention also focused much on his family. . . .

    At the same time, he was interested in the exploration of consciousness that Ginsberg and other friends were pursuing, an interest no doubt encouraged in part by his friendship with Ginsberg, and by the steady stream of letters Ginsberg continued to send from his outposts. . . .


In short, the values of the counterculture were competing with values of the traditionally imaged family.

When he already had a wife, and two children under two years old, in late May Ferlinghetti “went alone, back to his youth, to what was in so many ways a source of his creative energy” (Silesky 126 ff.) After visits in London, notably to William S. Burroughs (after which he wrote in his journal “We agree to publish a book”), he visited painter/writer Jean-Jacques Lebel in Paris (a French-born younger counterpart fluent also in English and Italian); then traveled through the Dordogne, Spain, and North Africa (where he visited Paul and Jane Bowles—he had in 1962 published the former’s One Hundred Camels in the Courtyard). To Rome he allotted only a night and day that time, before returning to France. Then he flew home on July fourth to begin work on the second City Lights Journal, which included Grazia Livi’s interview with 78-year-old Ezra Pound, and a new group of his own plays, Routines.

Simply, the former naval officer traveled more and more. In February 1965 he began another extended trip to Europe, this time with his whole family. His wife’s allergies forced her return to Florida with the children. He stayed on in Paris. On June 11, 1965 he was at the Albert Hall event where he read “To Fuck is to Live Again.” Afterwards he traveled to Rome and to Spoleto (for the First International Poetry Week of the Festival of Two Worlds). The prose poem describing Pound was one result. The third City Lights Journal published work by the poets at Spoleto. “Most all the work engaged major issues of the time—the beginnings of the women’s movement, Eastern spirituality, the victimization of American Indians, among others” (Silesky 145). According to Silesky (149), “regularly over the years, Ferlinghetti’s journal asks directly the reason for his compulsion to travel, but never finds a direct answer.” It must have been hard for his wife, who did not share the compulsion. (Their divorce became final in 1976.)

Ferlinghetti had gone overseas as a poet with Ginsberg, to a conference in Chile, mostly, as it turned out, of doctrinaire communists, during the Cuban Revolution. From Chile, he saw differently from how most North Americans saw. He felt akin to new South American writers and later published Nicanor Parra’s Anti-Poems. While Ginsberg stayed on with Parra, Ferlinghetti traveled with his wife, keeping journals, accumulating material. Nurtured as he was by Italian and French culture, Ferlinghetti did not ignore relatives elsewhere. When he first published with New Directions, he was described as being of French, Italian, and Puerto Rican background (Cherkovski 85). Mistakenly he thought his mother’s family had come from Puerto Rico; later he would connect with relatives in the Caribbean, drawn by political and familial motives to the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Haiti. These travels yielded alternate perspectives on what was happening in the United States. Thus an Italian identity was never constricting, but rather accorded with the exploratory role of sailors from Genoa, Venice, and other ports, Italians famous before there was a unified Italy, who laid the foundations of Italia al’estero.

Meanwhile Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and the Beat movement generally were gaining a reputation abroad. Ferlinghetti’s poems in translation were appearing in Italy as also in Argentina, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Mexico—and in English in Australia and England. Fernanda Pivano should especially be credited with making his work known in Italy. An Americanist born in Genoa, schooled in Turin, graduated with a thesis on Moby-Dick, she had studied with Pavese and written a biography of Hemingway. Critic, translator, and journalist, Fernanda Pivano published articles, essays, interviews, and translations of the Beat poets and interpreted the American popular culture.

In Italy, American ideological rage and its outbursts in utopian creativity and cultural revolutionism could be seen as appropriate resistance to repression. Pivano wrote, in earlier works and again in Beat Hippie Yippie (1977), of the vision of a world freed from violence, economic competition, racial hostility, national boundaries, with a common language in music and a costume of bluejeans and sandals (sandali francescani)—a vision in which Ginsberg was the saint and Kerouac the hero. She understood from a historical Italian perspective voluntary poverty, non-violence, popular theater, leftist politics; she had a bicultural view of the American military-industrial complex and McCarthyism; and she was geographically closer to the spread of the counterculture throughout Western Europe.

When, in 1961, Pivano met Ferlinghetti in his bookstore, she saw for herself the posters, manifestos, and reviews—and the corner where “Larry’s” typewriter was submerged in


. . . un cumulo caotico di carte, lettere, buste, giornali, fogli ciclostilati, annunci di readings e di marce. In libreria quell’ angolo lo si chiamava senza alcuna ironia ‘l’ufficio,’ e di li si mandava avanti una delle librerie piu famose del mondo occidentale e si organizzavano, anni prima che cominciasse la guerra in Vietnam, le prime marce dimostrative pacifiste.[9]


She describes “Larry” as “cool e sorridente.” In her essay “Lawrence Ferlinghetti: poeta bestseller,” she also describes a visit to his home, and a meeting years later in Paris when “Larry” read at one of the happenings of the Festival for Liberty and Culture:


    Alla fine della lettura una severa giornalista svizzera intervistò Larry; e non ho più dimenticato i suoi occhi mentre cercava di indovinare che cosa ci fosse di vero in quello che Larry le diceva sorridendo impassibile.[10]


He had mastered the “loud words in a quiet voice” (Cherkovski 76) and the inscrutable smile. Other meetings followed in San Francisco and in New York.

She herself translated poems of his. She knew and published about all the major figures of the movement, Gregory, LeRoi, Ted, Larry, Allen, Mike, Neal, Phil—and in her bilingual anthology Poesia degli ultimi Americani she explained their ways, their values, and their works to an Italian readership. One poem she includes is Ferlinghetti’s “Berlin”; the passage


Ah but

the Rhine maidens

still are singing

And “underneath the lamplight Lily Marlene”

Dumb siren song!




Ah ma

le fanciulle del Reno

stanno ancora cantando

E “sotto il lampione Lily Marlene”

Canto di sirena muta![11]


It may be quibbled whether “dumb” should be “muta” here or “stupida,” but the point is Ferlinghetti’s poems can go very very well in Italian, and Pivano saw to it that they did.

A strong advantage for the Beat poets was their translatability. Other, more formal American poets who spent time in Italy, at the American Academy in Rome for instance, poets like Anthony Hecht and Richard Wilbur who wrote in meter and rhyme, are very much harder to translate, even when they pay tribute to Italian marvels like the fountains of the Villa d’Este or the Villa Sciarra. In translating and anthologizing, Pivano linked values and sensibilities shared internationally though expressed differently; in a deeper sense she and the American poets understood each other and “spoke the same language.”

In Europe Ferlinghetti had been getting more and more attention—and in 1968 the Sicilian government awarded him the Taormina Prize (or more precisely the Premio Internazionale de Poesia Etna-Taormina), given every three years to one or more poets from different countries. (It had earlier been awarded to Dylan Thomas.) Ferlinghetti went to Taormina; the prize provided occasion in fact for a more extended trip, and he was away for over two months. That December, as Silesky notes (163), he traveled through Italy. Pivano says of his work that by then, he had moved away from earlier influences of French surrealism and echoes of e. e. cummings, of Eliot and of Pound, in favor of more colloquial diction, the ear-and-eye testimony of the streets. As he had stated at the obscenity trial of Howl (his biographer Larry Smith quotes him, page 27), “Each person has to determine his or her own language—from the level of their own mind and their own body.” Pivano herself was similarly experimental and likewise cosmopolitan, and she was not merely “Italianizing” but rather globalizing both the poet and herself. Her own first novel Cos’è più la virtù; romanzo quasi d’amore, in which Allen Ginsberg is recognizable in the first chapter, includes settings in the south of France, Lebanon, Egypt, India. Respecting cultural differences, writers like the Italian Americanist Pivano and the American Italianist Ferlinghetti inhabit the planet as a whole, and their work subordinates national boundary-lines to a sense of common humanity.

During the 1950s and 1960s, while the US waged cultural war with the USSR, and the political left consistently challenged the Christian Democrats in Italy, both private and public funding sent Americans abroad for scholarship and the arts. The American Academy of Rome, referred to in Her, had been privately funded initially as an architectural school, then expanded its range of fellowships and served as a sort of second embassy in its palatial quarters on the Gianicolo. Architects, sculptors, painters, and composers, as well as classicists, lived and worked there. Writers had spent time as guests, but in 1952 a new writing fellowship was initiated, through collaboration between the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Rome Academy. Often miscalled the “Prix de Rome” after the French award, it went, that first year, to poet Anthony Hecht, who had been recommended by W. H. Auden—they met in Ischia. Second on the list, had Hecht declined, would have been Jack Kerouac, supported by the influential Malcolm Cowley.[12] It is interesting to speculate on how the course of American letters might have shifted had Kerouac gone to the Rome Academy, had Ferlinghetti visited him there . . . instead, as Larry Smith details, Ferlinghetti lent Kerouac his own Bixby Canyon cabin in the summer of 1960, and in the resulting novel Big Sur Ferlinghetti appears as “Lorenzo Monsanto,” a figure Ferlinghetti didn’t particular like; but that didn’t impede his support of Kerouac, or his tribute afterwards, for he published two of Kerouac’s books, the second posthumously. Through his own extraordinary entrepreneurship, Ferlinghetti thus provided alternative support for American writers, parallel to governmental, corporate, and foundation funding—and with alternative sociopolitical values.

By 1962, the Academy poet in Rome was Alan Dugan, who reviewed Ferlinghetti’s Starting from San Francisco with sympathetic compre-hension that same year.[13] Dugan understood Ferlinghetti’s vaude-villian poetic persona, “half a committed outsider and half an innocent Fool” (quoted by Smith, 79). Dugan was instrumental in forcing the two Academies to reexamine their fellowship-awarding process.

Contest for dominance at home and abroad was waged through cultural politics as well as other means, and in this context even the “purest” poetry could not be politically neutral, regardless of its “political content” or a “political position.” In any case it had political coordinates even if only in terms of what it was not. Ferlinghetti did not wait for a fellowship from the American Academy such as had been awarded for instance to John Ciardi for 1956-57; he and his friends negotiated, rather, an alternative diplomacy.

Without detailing all the Italian travels, mention might be made of a trip to Rome and Spoleto in 1979 in company of Paula Lillevand, the woman with whom he lived after his divorce and with whom he remained until 1980. (The sponsoring organization included Fernanda Pivano, as Silesky notes, 216.) Ginsberg, diPrima, and Corso were also there, as was Yevtushenko. There was a trip to Rome in 1983 for the Fourth International Poetry Festival, and again the following year for the Fifth International Poetry Festival. Through the 1980’s, as Silesky notes (220), “Italian festivals brought him to Milan, to Tuscany, to Rome.” In July 1986 he attended the World Congress of Poets in Florence, reading with Gregory Corso—after which he traveled by train through Italy.

A Trip to Italy and France, a sequence of forty poems, issued from New Directions in 1981. It opens with “Canti romani,” a poem in eleven parts, in which flying from Kennedy Airport to Fiumicino the poet arrives to hear how “The clock in the Piazza del Popolo sets up its knocking / on the doors of time.” In Part Two, church bells raise the dust and shake the towers with their tolling. In Part Three, over morning coffee, the poet imagines “Dante learning the lingua / at his mother’s knee.” In Part Five, children along the Appian Way play at war; they sound like the swallows Dante saw; after they vanish at dusk, the great pines remain—and the road seems to resound with marching legions “in new strange uniforms / no one has ever seen before.” Next, a glimpse of the Vatican, followed by the beach at Ostia; then families on the black sand and fishermen out at sea at Castelporziano. The sun “opens its furnace.” Later, folded umbrellas and abandoned cabanas make “un riflusso rosso.” The final section that follows description of the landscape conflated in time, Dante modified by Blake, plays with the famous opening lines:


In the middle of the journey

of my life

came upon my self

in a dark wood

white body dark mind

upon the shadowed ground

And saw my self awaking there

as in a mirror made of air

and saw how self still tried

to rise from there

and fly as spirit should

and fly as spirit could

through the dark wood.


In “Canti toscani,” the towns of Volterra and Piccioli enter American poetry. “Fables of the So-Called Birds” fantasticates the landscape from Rome through Umbria—Assisi, Castiglione del Lago, Siena, San Gimignano, and back via Rome to the United States. Utopia is not geographic, in this poem; rather, its site is “in a garden called Love / in a district no longer shown on maps / and no longer represented / in the national legislature.”

Having found himself, in both senses, in Italy, Ferlinghetti keeps his bearings by touching down there from time to time for perspective. As recently as October 16, 1990, speaking from KQED-FM in San Francisco,[14] he posed as a “reporter from another planet.” He referred to having returned from Italy “the day before yesterday,” and commented that return to the US is always a shock: “Strange country. Very strange.” He reported a happening on his return to North Beach, read the poem about it, and announced his new book due next year, A Wild Soft Laughter.

In Italy as in some other countries where poetry has a longer recognized indigenous history, poetry is more integral and essential to life than in the United States. The Commedia of Dante (1265-1321), for instance, is studied in Italian schools, discussed on television, translated and retranslated globally, considered part of the national patrimony; and as Primo Levi has testified, he was sustained in Auschwitz by lines from Dante. Such is the “survival value” of poetry. It is not surprising that John Ciardi, who translated Dante, and Ferlinghetti, who translates contemporary Italian poetry, in their distinctive ways put so much energy into making poetry accessible to a wider audience here in the United States. Silesky notes:


Philip Lamantia, who has worked in the [City Lights] store for several years, agrees [with Michael McClure’s view that Ferlinghetti’s main influence has been in initiating an enormous audience into poetry]. “Lawrence has been able to actually create an audience for poetry among young people. He seems to have done so now for two decades or more, particularly of the late high school to early college age; and he has a tremendous reputation in that zone. It was especially so in the sixties. . . . He seemed to be tremendously available. He seemed to be intuitive to a need. I’m sure he didn’t think of that consciously, but it’s there, there’s no doubt about it. A Coney Island of the Mind remains a milestone of communication. (Silesky 260)


Translations from Italian that Ferlinghetti has published include his own. With Francesca Valente he translated the Roman Poems of Pier Paolo Pasolini and brought out the book with a preface by Alberto Moravia in 1986.[15] Thus he makes bilingually accessible “the major Italian poet of the second half of this century,” as Moravia refers to Pasolini. He also redirects American-Italian interest to the mother tongue and to Pasolini’s ancestral Friuli.[16] “Serata romana” / “Roman Evening,” opens with these lines:


Dove vai per le strade di Roma,

sui filobus o i tram in cui la gente

ritorna? In fretta, ossesso, come

ti aspettasse il lavoro paziente,

da cui a quest’ora gli altri rincasano?

È il primo dopocena, quando il vento

sa di calde miserie familiari

perse nelle mille cucine, nelle

lunghe strade illuminate,

su cui più chiare spiano le stelle.

Where are you going through the streets of Rome

in buses or trolleys

full of people going home,

hurried and preoccupied

as if routine work were waiting for you,

work from which others now are returning?

It is right after supper,

when the wind smells of warm familial misery

lost in a thousand kitchens,

in the long, illuminated streets

spied on by brighter stars.[17]


Other inclusions are “Il desidero di ricchezza del sottoproletario romano” / “The Desire for Wealth of the Roman Lumpenproletariat,” “Ma era l’Italia nuda e formicolante” / “But it Was A Naked and Swarming Italy,” and “Il dí de la me muàrt” / “The Day of My Death”—this last in Friulan dialect, the language of Pasolini’s mother. The year after Roman Poems, Ferlinghetti edited and published, in Anthony Molino’s translation, Kisses from Another Dream by the Milanese poet Antonio Porta.[18]

Of American Italian poets whom he published, the best known are Gregory Corso and Diane di Prima. City Lights put out Corso’s Gasoline in 1958 and Vestal Lady on Brattle in 1968. Diane di Prima’s Revolu-tionary Letters appeared in 1971, her In My Time: Selected Poems in 1989.

Of his own poems, one of the best-known has been filmed, and it has an Italian subject. Ferlinghetti was realizing, as he said in his radio broadcast of October 16, 1990, that “the poets today are making films and video—the single unaccompanied voice can’t compete with it.” At a time of “gridlock autogeddon” and “universal television brainwash,” documentary forms develop alternative visions and film-arts festivals succeed the coffeehouse readings of an earlier decade. Ferlinghetti had used cinematic technique as early as the novel Her. He wrote a nine-minute filmscript as early as 1957, which was filmed for National Educational Television in 1965. Other works were filmed in 1969 and 1973; and in 1980 Herman Barlandt produced “The Old Italians Dying,” which opens Ferlinghetti’s collection of poems Landscapes of Living and Dying.[19] The poem is a lament not only for the old-timers and, as Silesky says (208), “the disappearance of the older, traditional life which had given the neighborhood its character,” but for the equivalent of North Beach in other older cities too. (And in a sense the not-merely-Italian enterprises like City Lights are part of what does the displacing; in 1978 City Lights expanded into what had been an Italian travel agency.) The poem reads, in part:


You have seen them on the benches

in the park in Washington Square

the old Italians in their black high button shoes

the old men in their old felt fedoras

                        . . .


the ones with old pocketwatches

the old ones with gnarled hands

                                             and wild eyebrows

the ones with the baggy pants

                               with both belt and suspenders

the grappa drinkers with teeth like corn

the Piemontesi the Genovesi the Sicilianos . . .


As Larry Smith comments (89), “Ferlinghetti’s heart and voice have found each other here in this realistic tribute.” Other Italian images in his poems include the woman singing as she hangs out laundry; Saint Francis in a contemporary setting; the North Beach and Greenwich Village “little Italies”; “Ezra Pound at Spoleto” (a moving prose-poem portrait, in which the aged poet’s spirit of revolt and commitment is gratefully internalized by Ferlinghetti); and even the heavy Italian “Mafia godfather” (as Smith notes, 133).

Ferlinghetti’s life and work continue to support reciprocal recognitions. When City Lights published Names of Twelve San Francisco Streets Changed to Honor Authors and Artists, importance of names was demonstrated again,[20] one of the artists being Italian-born sculptor Beniamino Bufano. The Board of Supervisors approved Ferlinghetti’s proposal and new signs were unveiled in a ceremony coinciding with the book store’s 35th anniversary. Nostalgia? Collusion with an Establishment? Rather, this renaming suggests that Ferlinghetti has been making history instead of just letting it happen. More violent activism propels the plot of his novella Love in the Days of Rage, set during the May 1968 uprising in Paris—but Ferlinghetti respects the boundaries of art and politics. As O’Kane puts it, “Ferlinghetti’s mission as a populist poet is to keep railing against the blights that prevent a rebirth of wonder, . . . He will keep alive the possibility of finding that delicate equipoise between art and politics” (O’Kane 58).

Most enduring, though, and equally Italian and American, with a counterculture aura, is the Chaplinesque image to which Ferlinghetti referred again in the October 16th radio broadcast. Why is Charlie Chaplin, little man with a cane, newcomer to an occupied country, still so potent an image? He is, says Ferlinghetti, “the bearer of eros, the defender of the subjective, the enemy of the state.” He has been saying so explicitly since 1984; and his reference is not just to the capitalist or the communist state but to any great state. This image coalesces and concludes Ferlinghetti’s “Adieu to Charlot: Second Populist Manifesto” which is “Goodbye to Charlie,” Chaplin having died in December 1977:


Chaplin is dead but I’d wear his bowler

having outlived all our myths but his

the myth of the pure subjective

the collective subjective

the Little Man in each of us

waiting with Charlot or Pozzo

On every corner I see them

hidden inside their tight clean clothes

Their hats are not derbys they have no canes

but we know them

we have always

waited with them

They turn and hitch their pants

and walk away from us

down the darkening road

in the great American night

(Tepotzlan ’75—San Francisco ’78)[21]


Here is the Italian immigrant, still going strong, still giving a name to book store and press, and with whom Ferlinghetti continues to identify. The commemorative postage stamp issued by the Italian government on the hundredth anniversary of Charles Chaplin’s birth is a tribute both to Chaplin’s representation of the Italian immigrant and to the impact that American-made words and images have for Italy.


Blossom Steinberg Kirschenbaum

Brown University






[1]Biographies consulted for this paper are Barry Silesky, Ferlinghetti: The Artist In His Time (New York: Warner Books, 1990), the most recent; Larry Smith, Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poet-at-Large (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1983); and Neeli Cherkovski, Ferlinghetti: A Biography (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1979). More critical essay than biography is Michael Skau’s Constantly Risking Absurdity (Troy, NY: Whitson Publishing Co., 1989). Also useful is Bill Morgan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Comprehensive Bibliography to 1980 (New York: Garland Publishing Co., 1982).

[2]According to Silesky’s biography, at the time of his mother’s hospitalization Lawrence was two years old; his brothers were eight, twelve, sixteen, and nineteen.

[3]The ACLU, consulted in advance, was ready to fight the U.S. Customs seizure of part of the second printing (520 copies). Ferlinghetti printed and put out for sale a photo-offset edition. After his article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the U.S. attorney in San Francisco refused to move against the book and confiscated copies were released. Then the San Francisco police arrested Ferlinghetti. Judge Horn ruled for the defense; Howl sold very well. These particulars can be found in all three full-length biographies.

[4]John O’Kane, “Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Anarchism and the Poetry Revolution,” enclitic, spring 1989, 47-58 (52). As O’Kane points out, “Erotics has to play a big part in truly libertarian revolts since control of sexual and fantasy life can be used to sustain the tyrannical collective” (53).

[5]Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Her (New York: New Directions, 1960). Page numbers in parentheses refer to this text.

[6]In French the title of this book is La Quatrième Personne du Singulier. Author/ narrator and character/persona struggle for impossible ascendancy, impossible autonomy. See Smith, 183.

[7]Koos van der Wilt, “The Author’s Recreation of Himself as Narrator and Protagonist in Fragmented Prose: A New Look at Some Beat Novels,” Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters,  XII:2 [1982], 113-24.

[8]Gregory Stephenson, The Daybreak Boys; Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1990), 140; see especially Chapter 9.

[9]Fernanda Pivano, Beat Hippie Yippie; Il romanzo del pre-sessantotto americano (Milano: Bompiani, 1977), 57; page numbers refer to “Tascabili Bompiani” edition of 1990. Just as Americans went questing abroad for alternatives to the consumerism and environmental havoc of the “American Way,” and to corporate capitalism (which often seemed on a collision course with democratic ideals), so too disaffected or apprehensive readers in other countries were eager to hear messages from the American—and international—counterculture. The very titles of Pivano’s essays, their familiar proper nouns preceded by Italian articles, keynote dissident cultural politics: “Il Living Theatre,” “Il Bread and Puppet Theatre e Il Teatro di Strada,” “Norman Mailer e Le Armate della Notte,” “Norman Mailer e L’Assedio di Chicago,” “I Motherfuckers e l’occupazione del Fillmore East,” “I Crazies e la contestazione alla War Resisters’ League,” and so forth.

[10]Beat Hippie Yippie 58.

[11]Fernanda Pivano, Poesia degli ultimi Americani (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1964; 1973; 4th edition giugno 1980), 82-83.

[12]This subject is discussed more fully in my book on the Rome Prize forthcoming from Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

[13]Poetry, 100, August 1962, 314-16.

[14]“Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poetry in Action,” with John Hackenbury live from New York City.

[15]San Francisco: City Lights Books, Pocket Poets Series No. 41.

[16]The forthcoming  study The Poetics and Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini by  scholar-translator Thomas E. Peterson  illuminates the import of Pasolini’s work as both poet and filmmaker.

[17]Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Francesca Valente, Roman Poems of Pier Paolo Pasolini, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986, 36-37.

[18]San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1987; Pocket Poets Series #44. These poems were first published in Italy as L’aria della fine; brevi lettere, 1976-1981, Lunarionuovo, Catania, 1982.

[19]New York: New Directions, 1979, 1-4.

[20]San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1989. The Bibliography lists thirty-six books about San Francisco, including Literary San Francisco by Ferlinghetti and co-editor Nancy Joyce Peters.

[21]Landscapes of Living and Dying, New York: New Directions, 1979 (NDP 491), 45.