Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who turned 100 on March 24, is still writing, and is an integral part of City Lights bookstore and press.
While I have never had the honor of meeting him, twenty years ago, one of his poems saved me. In 1999, I got a job with the Community-Word Project, teaching poetry in underserved schools. The minute I walked into the third-grade classroom at PS 279 in the Bronx, the teacher announced I was there to help them ‘make poetry,’ and then she sat at her desk and opened a newspaper. The students began cracking jokes about ‘making poetry.’
I pressed play on the small boombox I’d brought with me.
Ferlinghetti’s playful voice came out:
Underwear, yeah underwear, that’s a serious subject: underwear. I didn’t get much sleep last night thinking about underwear
I hit pause. One said, “We can write about underwear?”
The teacher’s newspaper was down and she was scowling at me. I hit pause again, and they all listened carefully.
When he got to
You’ve seen the underwear ads for men and women so alike but so different Women’s underwear holds things up Men’s underwear holds things down Underwear is one thing men and women have in common Underwear is all we have between us
they all were cracking up, even the teacher.
And when he’d finished, they all wanted to write poems about underwear. And odes to stinky gym socks. And ballads for sagging mattresses. And a surprising number of elegies for the first-floor girls’ bathroom, where a toilet had broken earlier that week.
How many hundreds and thousands and millions has Ferlinghetti inspired over the last century? What can we say—may he continue to struggle with his underwear for many more years.