A prominent voice of the wide-open poetry movement that began in the 1950s, Lawrence has written poetry, translation, fiction, theater, art criticism, film narration, and essays. Often concerned with politics and social issues, Ferlinghetti’s poetry countered the literary elite's definition of art and the artist's role in the world.
In 1953, with Peter D. Martin, he founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperback bookshop in the country, and by 1955 he had launched the City Lights publishing house.
The bookstore has served for half a century as a meeting place for writers, artists, and intellectuals. City Lights Publishers began with the Pocket Poets Series, through which Ferlinghetti aimed to create an international, dissident ferment. His publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems in 1956 led to his arrest on obscenity charges, and the trial that followed drew national attention to the San Francisco Renaissance and Beat movement writers. (He was overwhelmingly supported by prestigious literary and academic figures, and was acquitted.) This landmark First Amendment case established a legal precedent for the publication of controversial work with redeeming social importance. (taken from www.citylights.com)
In 2004, City Lights published The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, which I edited, and includes translations from such great poets as Robert Hass and Forrest Gander. Lawrence wrote the preface.
Lawrence has given us permission to quote from his long title poem from the book, which is lyrical literary activism, using the power of poetry towards social change:
From the groundbreaking (and bestselling) A Coney Island of the Mind in 1958 to the "personal epic" of Americus, Book I in 2003, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has, in more than thirty books, been the poetic conscience of America. Now in Poetry As Insurgent Art, he offers, in prose, his primer of what poetry is, could be, should be. The result is by turns tender and furious, personal and political. If you are a reader of poetry, find out what is missing from the usual fare you are served; if you are a poet, read at your own risk—you will never again look at your role in the same way.
I am signaling you through the flames.
The North Pole is not where it used to be.
Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.
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 means sounding 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.
If you would be a poet, write living newspapers. Be a reporter from outerspace, filing dispatches to some supreme managing editor who believes in full disclosure and has a low tolerance for bullshit.
If you would be a poet, experiment with all manner of poetics, erotic broken grammers, ecstatic religions, heathen outpourings speaking in tongues, bombast public speech, automatic scribblings, surrealist sensings, streams of consciousness, found sounds, rants and raves--to create your own underlying voice, your ur voice.
If you call yourself a poet, don't just sit there. Poetry is not a sedentary occupation, not a "take your seat" practice. Stand up and let them have it.
Have wide-angle vision, each look a world glance. Express the vast clarity of the outside world, the sun that sees us all, the moon that stews its shadows on us, quiet garden ponds, willows where the hidden thrush sings, dusk falling along the riverrun, and the great spaces that open out upon the sea . . .high tide and the heron's call. . . . And the people, the people, yes, all around the earth, speaking Babel tongues. Give voice to them all.
You must decide if bird cries are cries of ecstasy or cries of despair, by which you will know if you are a tragic or a lyric poet.
If you would be a poet, discover a new way for mortals to inhabit the earth.
If you would be a poet, invent a new language anyone can understand.
If you would be a poet, speak new truths the world can't deny.
If you would be a great poet, strive to transcribe the consciousness of the race.
Through art, create order out of the chaos of living.
Make it new news.
Write beyond time.
Reinvent the idea of truth.
Reinvent the idea of beauty.
In the first light, wax poetic. In the night, wax tragic.
Listen to the lisp of leaves and the ripple of rain.
(C) Lawrence Ferlinghetti
For the rest of the poem, and the whole book, buy it at Lawrence's City Lights Books. There's also a podcast there of Lawrence reading a series of his thoughts on the book.