- - Wednesday, December 16, 2015



By Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Liveright, $35, 464 pages

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, painter, publisher, world-wanderer, and passionate advocate of artists, writers and fellow poets, has been a force in American letters for three-quarters of a century. At 96, he rarely shows up at City Lights Booksellers and Publishers, the world-famous 60-year-old San Francisco literary landmark he co-founded, but that doesn’t mean he’s retired, or retiring.

In 2015, he published: this book, a collection of his travel journals from the 1960s to 2010, unearthed in the UC Berkeley Library by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson; an anthology of City Lights poetry; and a book of his correspondences with Allen Ginsberg, Mr. Ferlinghetti’s friend, author and fellow poet for well over half a century.

In 1956, when City Lights published “Howl,” Ginsberg’s modern-day epic poem Mr. Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing obscenity, but the judge ruled that the work possessed “redeeming social value” and Mr. Ferlinghetti was off the hook.

Ginsberg’s fame and celebrity rose from that point, as did that of other Beat-era poets and writers, such as Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, whose work Mr. Ferlinghetti had championed, even though he did not consider himself a Beat writer. He was older than most of them, and his path through adult life far more conventional and less iconoclastic.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1919. His mother had French-Portuguese Sephardic roots, and his father, who died before Lawrence was born, was from Italy. When his mother was admitted to an asylum, the boy was sent to France to live with an aunt until the age of five. Back in the States, he had a normal youth, even becoming an Eagle Scout (imagine Kerouac as one). He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — he was a fan of Thomas Wolfe — and after World War II used his G.I. Bill to earn a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne in Paris. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mr. Ferlinghetti enlisted in the Navy, where he became a lieutenant commander, and saw action in the Battle of Normandy.

Like the Beats, Mr. Ferlinghetti was always fond of travel: “I see this book,” he tells us, “as if much of my life were a continuation of my youthful ‘wanderjahr,’ my walkabout in the world.”

On March 22, 1965 in Nerja, Spain, he describes a house on a street called Calle Carabeo, “without any sun the rooms quickly become damp caves. In the spring and summer it is a whole different matter, for as soon as the doors, windows & shutters are open to the sun (which is very bright and strong) the houses are immediately flooded with warmth & light. The sun shines, sunflowers turn, and the world is changed, life smiles the hot smiles of a ‘senorita’ in sunlight. In another season she will take on the Black & so again the world goes into shadow.” On the facing page there are no words, just a Ferlinghetti drawing of a woman, one half in light, the other in shadow.

In the winter of 1967: “Got the romantic idea of crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway after picking up Blaise Cendrars’s book ‘Sur le Transsiberien’ (1913). I’d take a Soviet Ship from Nakhodka to Yokohama, and after trip to Kyoto to stay in Gary Snyder’s house and visit Zen Institute and temples I’d take off for San Francisco.”

And on the train, “In the dining car, [the Russians] sit very strait-faced and serious. Plain square faces, straight hair, brown or black eyes, seldom a very good-looking young woman, though the old ones are often beautiful . ‘Figaro’ in Russian blasts out of 1910 loudspeaker in the car corridor. It’s like listening to a stuck bull roaring .”

In Marrakesh in 1982 he opines that “Sometimes it is better not to know anything about a country when you visit it. Especially it is important not to know its language or languages. Thus every sound, striking the ear like a small bell or animal cry, without any associative meaning, takes on the immediate quality of poetry, the quality of pure color in painting, with the percussive effect of pure sound in a void .”

This fine book is filled with similarly poetic, evocative passages which, like his drawings that appear every 10 pages or so, make the reader pause for stop-time moments of appreciation and admiration.

“Writing Across the Landscape” is a book you can wallow in, put down for an hour, a day, a week, even longer, and when you pick it up again you’re right back in pleasure mode. Because this is a collection of short journal entries, it can be opened anywhere to find something of value. But woe unto those inclined to skip. This is a poet talking here.

John Greenya is a Washington writer and critic.

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