Lawrence Ferlinghetti died on Monday at the age of 101. He was a wonderful poet in his own right, but was probably better known as the long-time proprietor of City Lights, a bookstore located in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco that was the heart of the Beat Generation’s writers and thinkers in the fifties and sixties and has endured the rise of chain bookstores in the eighties and Amazon in the 21st century.
I was introduced to his work in college, when my girlfriend, who had read some of his poems in high school, lent me Endless Life: Selected Poems, a compendium of his work through 1981. I was taking one of the best courses I took at Central Michigan University, TAI 270 Oral Interpretation of Literature, with professor Jill Taft-Kaufman. It was an alternative to the standard speech class needed to complete a graduation requirement, and since I was also considering majoring in Theater and Interpretation, it would work for that as well.
After doing some unmemorable prose piece for my first performance assignment, I pulled Ferlinghetti’s book out to find a poem for the second reading. I considered several poems as possibilities. It was difficult, because I loved so many of them, then and now, and what I really wanted to do was read the entire collection aloud, but I was pretty sure that would exceed my classmates’ reservoir of patience.
After trying out “Dog” (“The dog trots freely in the street, past puddles and babies, cats and cigars, poolrooms and policemen He doesn’t hate cops He merely has no use for them”), “Underwear” (“Underwear with spots very suspicious Underwear with bulges very shocking Underwear on clothesline a great flag of freedom Someone has escaped his Underwear May be naked somewhere Help! But don’t worry Everybody’s still hung up in it”), and “Autobiography” (“I have read the Reader’s Digest from cover to cover and noted the close identification of the United States and the Promised Land where every coin is marked In God We Trust but the dollar bills do not have it being gods unto themselves.”), I chose “I Am Waiting.”
“I Am Waiting” was from his 1958 collection A Coney Island of the Mind, which was intended to be performed with a jazz background and became one of the best-selling books of poetry in American history. The poem was inspired by his impending trial on obscenity charges that had been leveled against him after City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s poem/manifesto “Howl.”
I have nothing against Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, or Edgar Allan Poe, but let’s say my presentation of Ferlinghetti surprised the class a bit. My girlfriend also chose to present some of Ferlinghetti’s work when she took the same class and got an even stronger reaction, perhaps because it was even stranger for a female student to be reading such unexpected words. (For this and many other reasons, I married her!)
Years later, when I was teaching theater arts at St. Clair County Community College, I had the chance to revive the dormant Oral Interpretation of Literature course there. I modeled the course after Dr. Taft-Kaufman’s, which I still had my notes and syllabus from. I began each semester with a performance of Ferlinghetti’s poetry, to set the bar a bit beyond the usual choices from the start.
Thanks, Lawrence, for the words and the courage and the inspiration. You not only moved me forward when I was younger but were the connection between now and then for me. I suspected you might live forever and am more than a bit disappointed to discover that you didn’t.
Here’s “I Am Waiting” read by author Abu B. Rafique: