Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away on Monday at the age of 101. He was a central figure in the cultural life of San Francisco for decades, as an acclaimed poet and as owner of the City Lights bookstore and publishing company of Beat Generation fame. Many fascinating obituaries have been written in the past couple of days, wonderful reading for fans – like myself – and for folks not that familiar with his place in American letters. I’ve especially enjoyed Emma Brown’s in today’s Washington Post (hope you can read it behind the paywall).
In 1958 Ferlinghetti published his best selling volume of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, now over a million copies in print. Seven of the poems in the volume were “conceived specifically for jazz accompaniment and as such should be considered as spontaneously spoken ‘oral messages’ rather that as poems written for the printed page.” And indeed, in 1957 he’d recorded two of the seven on “Poetry Readings in the Cellar”, joined by Kenneth Rexroth, a senior figure in San Francisco poetry.
The first 20 minutes of the record feature Rexroth reading “Thou Shalt Not Kill (In Memory of Dylan Thomas)”. Jump past that to hear Ferlinghetti recite “Autobiography” (at 21:00) and “Junkman’s Obbligato” (at 33:45), separated by a shorter poem about a statue of St. Francis (at 31:30). If you try to read along, you’ll find that “Junkman’s Obbligato” is not precisely the version in print.