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Still jazzy after all these years

Still jazzy after all these years

I first discovered Lawrence Ferlinghetti in high school and his book Starting From San Francisco and have read everything he’s ever published. I wrote my junior thesis paper for my English major in college on the light and dark imagery in his poetry. 

In his new book, Litte Boy, practically the whole narrative is concerned with light and dark imagery — in all their guises. Apparently he is still working all that out. I also had the good fortune to be his neighbor in the North Beach community of San Francisco in the 1970s and to spend valuable time with him, first as a member of my generational entourage, then as a friend and collaborator on protest and benefit events and publishing projects during that decade. So, I know Lawrence Ferlinghetti and much of his life story. And his memoiristic “novel” Little Boy, which was just published on his 100th birthday in March, is a stream of consciousness portrayal of those 100 years. 

In what is a mirror into contemporary history and human evolution, Little Boy reads like an agnostic’s Book of Revelations all woven into a lyrically prophetic voice that is almost verse. In fact, it reads like an epiphany, a prophecy, a caleidoscopic rondo of words and ideas — all in “the 4th person singular” as Ferlinghetti describes the omniscient voice he writes in. 

The dark side of the narrative of Little Boy starts with the line “... the last thunderous gasp of our civilization passed down from the Greeks really all gone now down the drain. And shall we tally it up now and see what’s left after capitalism hits the fan.” Ferlinghetti has always been overtly and honestly political, and Little Boy doesn’t pull any literal or metaphorical punches. It’s all Ferlinghetti. From his student years in Paris to his World War II years in the U.S. Navy, and then to San Francisco and the creation of City Lights Bookstore & Publishing Company, all the way to his centennial year in 2019. We get intimate glimpses of where he’s been, the lives he’s lived and the ideologies he’s embraced as he downloads his remembrances onto the pages of this book. 

“And it’s the portrait of the artist as an old man and it’s still the same old story of the young buck who leaves his home and his mother and father and brothers and sisters to find his own solitary way in a world of his own imagining which is not necessarily the real world as it exists and so off into the wild blue yonder to find oneself with pants down to the Folies Bergere or through the archipelagos and uplands of thinking where I love to roam and stumble or swim with or against any current as wild winds blow arks made of thoughts,” he writes of his own life’s journey.

Reminiscent of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Ferlinghetti’s book is filled with cliches, aphorisms, favorite literary quotes and references, phrases of poetry, lines from famous tv ads, painters, paintings, book titles, song lyrics, an emptying of the mind to get back to Square One. Or as Ferlinghetti writes: “And this ain’t no novel but a kind of extended epiphany to pin down extempore thinking like a butterfly pinned on a board a hoard a treasure trove of words spread out like wings aflutter in the eternal breeze the sneeze of time the wind of consciousness filling the sail the spinnaker ballooning and there is no plot and there is none in life there is only the stutter of wording between waking and sleeping I am merely speaking my mind such as it is and that’s all there is to it.” In this free-form style, Ferlinghetti may have created a new genre of fiction. If so, what would we call it? A “memel”? A “novoir”? Whatever we might call it, Ferlinghetti’s genre is more accessible, enjoyable and with much fewer trips to the dictionary and the university reference library than Joyce’s Finnegan.

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Sometimes told from the perspective of his scattered childhood and sometimes from the reflective mind of an adult, we get all of Ferlinghetti, inside and out. We get to walk in his shoes. “I flung out into the grey light of Paris,” he writes of those early Paris years, “every day with a hunger in my step down along the quays thinking I was some sort of wild poet or artist, and I was Apollinaire and I was Rimbaud and I was Baudelaire and all the damned poets, the mad ones with the rage to live.” A similar journey that I would make some years later to haunt those same Parisian streets in search of my favorite French poets and, like Ferlinghetti, in search of myself. 

True to his Beat literary roots, in Little Boy Ferlinghetti references all the usual suspects of the Beat canon and writes about everything from love and sex to human evolution to overpopulation to God and the Christian religion to deep space and the universe. Yet always coming back to the chorus at the core of his “arks made of thoughts” is the idea of “changing the world” and the question of “what are we here for?” In what he refers to as his “divine arguments” and after ranting about the Industrial Age, he focuses on the light imagery as he imagines a more perfect world. “What would a world be like if life on earth reaches a condition in which there would be no further need for the left to continually dissent, when there would be no further need to dissent And one swallow does not make a spring but two swallows winging together with one consciousness make a full summer so that if enough people could wing together with one consciousness — and that consciousness being truly enlightened — would we not then bring peace and social justice to all the world?” 

At age 100, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has seen and experienced a lot as he reminisces about his “gone life” and the possibility of a “gone world.” A sage for our age, he concludes: “Life goes on, and us with it, and there is no end of it, eternal creation, birthing and dying, dust into dust, as my fantasy dies, as this present fantasy fades, in this eternal moment .....”

Thomas Crowe is a regular contributor to The Smoky Mountain News and the author of Starting From San Francisco — The Baby Beat Generation and the Second San Francisco Renaissance. He lives in the Tuckasegee community of Jackson County and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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