Don’t wait for the Revolution
or it’ll happen without you,
Stop mumbling and speak out
with a new wide-open poetry
“Populist Manifesto: To Poets, With Love”
Several weeks after Verso published The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism, I received a hand-written letter from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in which he generously reviewed the book over several pages and invited me to come and read at City Lights in San Francisco. I don’t for a second think this makes me unique, as Ferlinghetti, who died Monday at age 101, encouraged thousands of writers over a career as a poet and bookseller that extended across two centuries.
But, of course, I valued the letter and the politics.
Ferlinghetti was a resplendent radical who warmly embraced the revolutionary impulses of the many generations for which he was a spokesperson—and, as the cofounder of a remarkable bookstore and small press, the amplifier of spokespeople. The novelist Christopher Bollen has described Ferlinghetti as “a World War II Navy man, a Fidelista, a Sandinista, a Zapatista, an antiwar activist, an environmentalist.” Surely, he contained those multitudes—along with a robust understanding of the liberating promise of socialism. Yet, as Gioia Woods noted in her fine study of the man and his publishing house, Ferlinghetti was more than the sum of his own politics. He explored ideas and ideologies with an energy that, as Woods suggested, cultivated an international literature of dissent.
To my mind, what made Ferlinghetti so refreshing was his delight with each new generation’s readiness to challenge the status quo it had been handed. After the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011 gave way to the Occupy movement and all the upheavals of 2011 and 2012, I wrote a short book on the renewal of the politics of protest from Madison to Wall Street. When I arrived to discuss it in the upstairs room at City Lights, Lawrence had set aside a rare copy of issue No. 2 of On the Barricades, the “journal for the protection of all beings” that City Lights published infrequently to celebrate signs that the revolutionary spirit was alive and well. This particular edition was published after the spring of 1968, when the whole world seemed to be rising up. It included a wonderful rumination that began: “I persist in thinking that the place of the poet at the moment is in the street.” The snippet concluded:
When I allow myself
To snivel over my misery
If that misery is not also
There is no more
The introduction featured an exquisite explosion of wordplay that was entirely of that hopeful moment and yet did not seem dated when I read it in 2011, and does not seem dated when I reread it now. It expressed the enthusiasm for upheaval that was infused into the City Lights community by Lawrence and his comrades. “This documentary of the temporarily-aborted revolution of May 1968, in France is made exclusively of material gathered in the streets of Paris—a primer and a working model of continuing revolution plus repression around the world; the faces and the places in this version happen to be French; change the accents and uniforms, and the same photos will do for Berkeley, New York, Berlin, Prague, Buenos Aires, or Resurrection City, the same war all over, no factual captions needed: supply your own for whatever country you are in, for whatever campus you are on, add a local ingredient or two, and stir.”
Ferlinghetti was always stirring. Born in Yonkers, N.Y., raised by an aunt and foster parents, he commanded a Navy submarine chaser in the perilous waters along Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944, witnessed the “landscape in hell” that was Nagasaki, wrote a masters thesis on John Ruskin at Columbia, headed to Paris for studies at the Sorbonne, landed in San Francisco, started City Lights in 1953 with Peter Martin (the son of the great Italian anarchist Carlo Tresca), listened to KPFA and Kenneth Rexroth, nurtured the circle that shaped the Beat Generation, published the first edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 and then fought a landmark First Amendment case to keep it in print. American Civil Liberties Union lawyers Al Bendich and Lawrence Speiser, along with San Francisco courtroom legend Jake Ehrlich, successfully defended the publisher and City Lights Books in the case of The People of the State of California vs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But it was Ferlinghetti who made the most profound case against censorship, when he argued, “It is not the poet but what he observes which is revealed as obscene. The great obscene wasters of Howl are the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms.”
Robert Scheer said Ferlinghetti was “the ultimate uncompromising spirit.” He was also the ultimate pioneer when it came to radical politics. A decade before the hippies arrived for the Summer of Love, he was calling out materialism with A Coney Island of the Mind, in which the poet renounced “a concrete continent/ spaced with bland billboards/ illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness.” He anticipated and championed the liberation movements of the 1960s and ’70s. He anticipated Earth Day and the movement for climate justice. When I argued for impeaching George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and later Donald Trump, I was politely informed that Ferlinghetti had advocated for the impeachment of Dwight Eisenhower, and most of the succeeding presidents. His reason, invariably if not exclusively, had to do with their initiations of illegal and immoral wars. Ferlinghetti was a proud and powerful objector to wars and militarism. But he was, more generally, an objector to elitism—be it political, corporate, or academic. He gave us a people’s poetry that intersected with politics; Poetry as Insurgent Art, he called it. And he called us to join him in its celebration:
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 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…