How to be a subversive: a poetic lesson

Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti stands for all that is anti-establishment. So why did he become San Francisco's official Poet Laureate?
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The Independent Culture
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI is intrigued by Britain's search for a new Poet Laureate. Not that the grandaddy of the Beat Generation, who published Ginsberg and Kerouac as well as his own counter-blasting poetry in the Fifties and Sixties, has suddenly developed a swooning admiration for the establishment. On the contrary: even at the age of 79, he still holds court at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco's North Beach and hurls invective at the rich and powerful.

But there is one thing Ferlinghetti is burning to know: "Does the Laureate get to be buried in Westminster Abbey?" The question is more than a joke, for Ferlinghetti is a Poet Laureate himself these days - Poet Laureate of San Francisco. The post was created just a few months ago by Mayor Willie Brown, who fancied having an official muse around this most literate of American cities and zeroed in on Ferlinghetti as the obvious man for the job.

There were no royal proclamations or city committees to vet the appointment, which lasts 12 months in the first instance. Instead, Mayor Brown simply ordered his limousine to slow down one day when he saw Ferlinghetti walking along the street, and popped the question.

If Mayor Brown was expecting courtly flattery, he should have known better. More than six months into the job, Ferlinghetti hasn't produced a single poem; rather, he has gone out of his way to be as unflattering as possible in a stream of public lectures and newspaper columns. "I told him from the beginning I couldn't write occasional poems for official occasions," Ferlinghetti says. "And I don't attend dog and pony shows."

Ferlinghetti has railed against the traffic, the treatment of the homeless, the arrival of big national chain stores and the creeping gentrification of his beloved, once-so-bohemian North Beach. He has called for the main freeway running through the city to be blown up.

Ferlinghetti has a few constructive suggestions, too, such as painting the Golden Gate Bridge golden, establishing a poets' sanctuary on the city's Treasure Island, and tilting Coit Tower, the city's straight-arrow memorial to the 1906 earthquake, a few degrees ("think what it did for Pisa!").

Such public posturing probably wouldn't win a British Poet Laureate too many points. Then again, flattery probably wasn't what Mayor Brown had in mind when he appointed Ferlinghetti. This, after all, is the man who defended Allen Ginsberg's Howl against obscenity charges in 1957 and who, in his own poem, "Junkman's Obbligato", the following year, wrote:

Let us go then you and I

Leaving our neckties

behind on lampposts

Take up the full beard

Of walking anarchy

Looking like Walt


A homemade bomb in the


"This is not a sycophantic position," Ferlinghetti asserted. "In line with Plato's concept of the poet as the gadfly of the state, I use it as a bully-pulpit, to be the seldom-heard voice of the people."

But some people aren't happy with his position, particularly since Mayor Brown has disappointed the radical left with his recent programmes to sweep the homeless off the streets. "The same power that makes him The City's poet is used against the homeless and in the creation of suffering," said fellow radical Peter Marin in a local paper.

This is an argument that Ferlinghetti rejects forcefully, but it appears to touch a nerve none the less. For years, he refused federal grants for himself or his bookshop on the grounds that the US government was a corrupt, war-mongering institution. "San Francisco hasn't bombed any Third World countries back to the Middle Ages. It hasn't killed thousands of people overseas in illegal wars," he counters. But perhaps the deeper truth is that he is tired of gesture politics and would prefer to relish his moment in the sun.

In other respects, Ferlinghetti hasn't changed since the glory days of the Beat Generation. He still walks around North Beach in tatty sweaters and painter's overalls, and he is still determined to remain relevant. "How to get out of the poetry ghetto?" he wrote recently. "Write poems that say something supremely original and supremely important, which everyone aches to hear, poetry that cries out to be heard, poetry that's news."

So his advice to the next British Poet Laureate is simple. "Do the same as me and turn the position into a pulpit," he says. "What are they going to do, fire you? Just act real nice until inauguration, and then blast them with a great poem about the British in Northern Ireland."

And if that disqualifies you from a burial spot in Westminster Abbey, well, for the great San Francisco rebel, it's a price worth paying.