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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 26, New Delhi, June 13, 2020

Centenarian Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Corona trauma | Sankar Ray

Saturday 13 June 2020

by Sankar Ray

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the US poet, painter and social activist, who crossed 101 years on 24 March 2020, who founded the iconic San Francisco bookshop City Lights that famously brought out Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1955 and faced the anger of American imperialism, is in a sanguinary agony. The publication of Ginsberg’s poems sparked an obscenity trial, although the court dismissed the charges. The poem became an anthem for the Beat Generation. Ferlinghetti used to say, " A bookstore is a natural place for poets to hang out. And they started showing up there."For the West Coast intellectuals, City Lights remained for all these decades magnetic. It was a tourist destination as well.

Now the historic bookshop faces closure threat by Covid 19 and lunatic strain of Trump-ed fascism. Admirers and readers has raised almost half a million dollars in four days in response to an appeal from the publishers to confront the menace of the coronavirus pandemic. Crowned as San Francisco poet laureate, he wrote: “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.” It reflects the agony of our planet, shaken by what Frédéric Lordon coined as Coronakratch in Le Monde Diplomatique on 11 March the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic.

One remembers Ferlinghetti’s poem ‘Trump’ Trojan Horse, written 4 July 18: “Homer didn’t live long enough/To tell of Trump’s White House/Which is his Trojan horse/From which all the President’s men/Burst out to destroy democracy/And install corporations/As absolute rulers of the world/Evermore powerful than nations/And it’s happening as we sleep/Bow down, oh Common Man”. He wrote the poem in 2017. He appealed the people to rise but to bow down. He appealed to the American people who uphold the tradition of American culture and understand the meaning of the ‘Statue of Liberty’ to rise against Trump’s totalitarianism. “ He went on keeping the elections in November in mind calling for action “against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change”.

Born as Lawrence Monsanto Ferling in a family of immigrants of Italian origin, Ferlinghetti has consistently been an advocate for the underdog. This was in sync with his own life story- ‘ a tale right out of Dickens. His father died shortly before he was he was born, and his mother has committed to a mental hospital shortly after. He was raised by an aunt, and then by foster parents’. Little wonder, his autobiographical novel, Little Boy, begins as follows "Little Boy was quite lost. He had no idea who he was or where he had come from."

Ferlinghetti’s poetry rejects an elitist conception of art and the artist’s role in the world. Amidst day-to-dayness, his poetry picks civic themes - never simply personal or polemical, while sticking to his commitment to tradition and universal reach. His politics is ‘philosophical anarchism’ . Remember his poem “Underwear,” where an aggrieved narrator tells “shocking problems” associated with undergarments that were a humorous analogy with totalitarianism:” Underwear controls everything in the end/ Take foundation garments for instance/ They are really fascist forms/of underground government/making people believe/something but the truth/telling you what you can or can’t do.

One seems compelled to remember Ginsberg’s Howl, Parts I & II,For Carl Solomon. “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,/angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient/ heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,/who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed /and high sat up smoking in the / darkness of cold-water flats floating across/ the tops of cities contemplating jazz,/who bared their brains to Heaven under the El/ and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated…,"

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