Reviewed by Karen Langley
American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti is perhaps more regularly acknowledged nowadays for his pivotal role in pioneering the Beat Generation; from founding the famous City Lights bookshop in San Francisco, to championing writers like Kerouac and Ginsberg, he was a crucial element in the success of the Beat authors. Yet he’s also painter, playwright, translator and activist as well as being a prolific writer of verse; one book of his in particular (A Coney Island of the Mind) is credited as being amongst the bestselling poetry books ever. Ferlinghetti reached his 100th birthday in March 2019, and marked the event by producing a book of memoir, looking back on his life and work and thoughts. Fittingly, the book was released in the UK by Faber and Faber (who are themselves celebrating 90 years of ground-breaking publishing); and it’s a bracing and unconventional autobiography!
Ferlinghetti had an unsettled start to life; of French/Italian heritage, his father died shortly before he was born, and he was separated from his mother to spend his early years moving between relatives and countries. A spell with a rich foster family gave him an awareness of class divide; and following a period with the Navy in WW2 he studied English literature, going on to continue his studies in Paris. A believer in the credo that work, actions and belief should all be connected, it could be argued that his founding of City Lights in 1953 would help change American society.
“…I flung out into the grey light of Paris 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…”
“Little Boy” is the title Ferlinghetti gives himself at the start of the book, and he begins by recalling his early life; from the separation from his mother, to time in France with Tante Emilie, to a more affluent life with the Bisland family. He recalls visiting Nagasaki not long after the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the effect that had in turning him instantly into a pacifist. It’s not long, however, before the confines of a relatively conventional narrative structure are too much for Ferlinghetti, and he launches off into a stream of consciousness riff, mixing memoir, political comment and sheer poetics; and although this incorporates elements of the poet’s life, it certainly isn’t any kind of linear narrative. Instead, it’s an invigorating and exciting read in which Ferlinghetti pretty much nails his colours to the mast.
“… and don’t tell me all I read isn’t true I saw it on Facebook and the World Wide Web I saw it in the paper I saw it on TV it must be true….”
Dropped in throughout the poetic stream are all manner of references to fellow Beats like Kerouac and Ginsberg, the poem and Beat film “Pull My Daisy”, earlier poets like Cummings, Beckett, Thomas Wolfe – well, I could go on, but you get the picture. Ferlinghetti’s politics are a regular thread running through the book and he has little sympathy for the modern capitalist world and consumer society. However, alongside the poet’s anger there is tenderness, including a particularly moving section where he revisits a significant location from his youth.
“…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…”
Much of your response to this book will, of course, depend on how you feel about Ferlinghetti’s style; for me, that stream of consciousness, continuous sentence format isn’t an issue. I’ve been reading it since I stumbled on Jack Kerouac’s The Subterraneans in my teens, and the flow of the words and the sheer beauty of the language carries you along. This kind of writing exists in the interstices where prose and poetry meet and mate and the effect can be hypnotic. It’s a heady and intoxicating mix, studded with some beautiful imagery and a bop rhythm which has you hooked as soon as it starts. Kerouac would be proud.
“BUT there are crystal moments in time, crystal moments in all our lives, fleeting past, whether it’s sunlight on a face or fog in a fir tree, a flash, a moment in time…”
Lawrence Ferlinghetti has lived through turbulent times in a century which has seen immeasurable change happening in America (and indeed the rest of the world). Yet he remains loyal to his vision of a world built on fairness, his belief in poetry and free speech, and the need for artists to remain true to their vision and participate in politics and the wider world. Little Boy is Ferlinghetti’s reckoning with his life and past, a lyrical reverie about all he’s seen, and it’s a unique and exhilarating read.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and still believes in the power of art to change the world.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Little Boy (Faber and Faber, 2019). 978-0571351022, 179pp, hardback.BUY from Blackwell’s via affiliate link.