By Valerie Malhotra Bentz, Ph.D, Professor, Fielding Graduate University
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ph.D., died Tuesday, February 23 at age 101. In 2014 Ferlinghetti received the Creative Longevity and Wisdom/Aging Concentration Outstanding Scholar-Practitioner Award from Fielding Graduate University. This award honors lifelong achievements of one who through creativity and wisdom has made significant contributions to society. The recipient of the award will have made an important impact on the community through his or her art, writing, speaking, institution building, political and social activity, social justice work, and/or financial contributions.
Dr. Ferlinghetti was a founding member of the Beat Generation Poets. Growing up in the 1950s, I was inspired by his spirited and open critique of the cold war and the false consciousness that permeated U.S. culture. In the 1980s I met him at a university poetry reading and we became correspondents and friends.
Ferlinghetti has written more than 35 books of poetry. He has been the recipient of numerous prizes, including the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Kirsch Award, the BABRA Award for Lifetime Achievement, the National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Award for Contribution to American Arts and Letters, and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Earl Warren Award. He was awarded the Key to the City of Florence, Italy, for his work as an artist. Some of his paintings are available at the George Krevsky gallery of American Art in San Francisco.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti established the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco which has been a beacon for peace and social justice. City Lights Books has demonstrated a commitment to preserving and promoting the diversity of voices and ideas that are represented in quality books. Lawrence said about City Lights: “As the increasingly concentrated mass media and new information technologies change the way people live, work, and think, we believe that nurturing the ability to think critically, to discern truth, and to communicate knowledge is essential to a democratic society.”
Ferlinghetti’s work challenges the definition of art and the artist’s role in the world. He urged poets to be engaged in the political and cultural life of the country. As he writes in Populist Manifesto: “Poets, come out of your closets, open your windows, open your doors. You have been holed up too long in your closed worlds… Poetry should transport the public to higher places than other wheels can carry it…”
At age 93, he published his 36th book of poetry, called Time of Useful Consciousness. Hailed by the New York Times as his best work, it is a call for action while there is still time. It depicts civilization on the abyss of destruction due to the effect of humanity on our ecosystems and the collapse of democratic institutions. Ferlinghetti calls us to action while there may still be time. The following are poems from this work:
“SONG OF THE THIRD WORLD BIRDS”
A cock cried out in my sleep somewhere in Middle America to awake the Middle Mind of America
And the cock cried out to awake me to see a sea of birds flying over me across America
And there were birds of every color black birds & brown birds & yellow birds & red birds from the
lands of every liberation movement
And all these birds circled the earth and flew over every great nation and over fortress America
with its great eagle and its thunderbolts
And all the birds cried out with one voice
the voice of those who have no voice
the voice of the invisibles of the world
the voice of the dispossessed of the world
the fellaheen peoples of earth
And which side are you on sang the birds
Oh which side are you on in the Third World War
the war against the Third World?
“ARE THERE NOT STILL FIREFLIES”
Are there not still fireflies
Are there not still four-leaf clovers
Is not our land still beautiful
Our fields not full of armed enemies
Our cities never bombed to oblivion
Never occupied by iron armies speaking iron tongues
Are not our warriors still valiant ready to defend us
Are not our senators still wearing fine togas
Are we not still a great people
Is this not still a free country
Are not our fields still ours,
our gardens still full of flowers our ships with full cargoes
Is not Rome still Rome
Is not Los Angeles still Los Angeles
Are these really the last days of the Roman Empire
Is not beauty still beauty
And truth still truth
Are there not still poets
Are there not still lovers
Are there not still mothers sisters and brothers?
Does not a dawn every day still light up our land?
Is there not still a full moon once a month
Are there not still fireflies
Are there not still stars at night
Can we not still see them in bowl of night
signaling to us some far-out beatific destiny?
May Ferlinghetti’s voice and courage continue to inspire others to follow in his footsteps.
See more at valeriebentz.com
Transforming Consciousness for a Livable World
Valerie Malhotra Bentz is doctoral faculty in the School of Leadership Studies at Fielding Graduate University