“The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.”

Thoughts on the death of Lawrence Ferlinghetti by a reader

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Editors' Note: We received these reflections from a reader and thought it important to share with the wider readership.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I spent time in the North Beach area of San Francisco, known as the area where the Beat Generation hung out. In the 1950s, North Beach was the intellectual center of the city. That intellectualism was to be found in City Lights Bookstore, which was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti as the only all-paperback bookstore in the country, which I frequented several times.

For me, in thinking about Ferlinghetti, after his recent death at the age of 101, it is not about his obituary or the story of his life. You should read about that in his obituary in the New York Times. It is how he and his close friends (author Jack Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg) challenged the norms of the times. They hated the world as it was and dreamed for a different world, a world without the horrors that were being brought down on the people of the world by the capitalist-imperialist system.

Their poetry screamed of these horrors. Take the opening line in Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, “Howl”: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix...” Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing Ginsberg’s book, Howl and Other Poems, which was considered “obscene material.” He was tried, and found not guilty.

When Ferlinghetti turned 100, the Guardian did a profile on him that said he’s hoping for a political revolution. But “the United States isn’t ready for a revolution ... It would take a whole new generation not devoted to the glorification of the capitalist system … A generation not trapped in the me, me, me.”

In 2017, Ferlinghetti wrote a poem, “Trump’s Trojan Horse,” published in the Nation magazine, in which he wrote that the White House would be Trump’s Trojan horse from which “all the President’s men/Burst out to destroy democracy...”

I think about how these poems of Ferlinghetti are part of the broader revolutionary movement. He understood the horrors of capitalism and his poetry was poetry of dissent. But he did not come to grips with the real solution that I’m working for—a revolution to sweep aside all oppression; a revolution to emancipate humanity.

In thinking about Ferlinghetti, and the movement for actual revolution that is being led by Bob Avakian (BA), I reflect on what BA said: “If you don't have a poetic spirit—or at least a poetic side—it is very dangerous for you to lead a Marxist movement or be the leader of a socialist state.” BA has that poetic spirit and poetic side.

Unlike some of the other poets who became somewhat conservative, it appears that Ferlinghetti did not go the way of his friends and stayed true to his basic principles. Ferlinghetti told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1977, “You’re supposed to get more conservative the older you get. I seem to be getting just the opposite.” His poem “Poetry as Insurgent Art” was published when he was 85 years old:

I am signaling you through the flames.

The North Pole is not where it used to be.

Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.

Civilization self-destructs.

Nemesis is knocking at the door.

What are poets for, in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?

The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.

If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic.

You are Whitman, you are Poe, you are Mark Twain, you are Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay, you are Neruda and Mayakovsky and Pasolini, you are an American or a non-American, you can conquer the conquerors with words....


Lawrence Ferlinghetti in front of City Lights Bookstore, c1955

BAsics, from the talks and writings of Bob Avakian is a book of quotations and short essays that speaks powerfully to questions of revolution and human emancipation.

“You can't change the world if you don't know the BAsics.”

Order the book HERE
Download the book in ePub format HERE



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