“Contrary to popular belief, I won't live forever.” Those were the last words Lawrence Ferlinghetti said to me when we talked on his 100th birthday. I told him he would because he would always live in our hearts, and in the world of literature. He seemed OK knowing that.
All of Lawrence’s adult life was devoted to literature and the arts and social justice and making beautiful things happen. He was an ardent activist; he was a phenomenal publisher and bookseller and editor. He was the rarest of poets in that his books sold in the millions.
He once told me that he never expected to make a dime off his writing. “It just happened. I've never been quite sure why.”
He was unfailingly generous, not just to me but to thousands. He always had time to listen and advise. If I left a message on his phone it would not be long before he returned the call. Postcards and letters arrived regularly in the post: they are now deposited in my papers at the University of California.
I first met him in 1970. I was then a senior at UCSB and my teacher Kenneth Rexroth was being forced into retirement because of his age. Since at that time we protested everything, we decided to protest Kenneth’s termination. But we did it in a unique way: we invited poets to read in honor of Kenneth and to state that poetry mattered, that Kenneth mattered, that his students mattered and that he was a gift to the University.
I wrote Lawrence. Within a few days I heard back. “Yes,” he wrote. “I'll come and I'll bring a few pals.” A week later I heard from Allen Ginsberg who said he was coming, too. So was Gary Snyder and Diane DiPrima.
I think we were all a little surprised. Kenneth wasn't. They all owed him. And poets don’t often forget.
We invited the president and the dean to the reading and the dean came. There was an overflow crowd; the reading was stupendous and raucous. After the reading I got to talk a little with Lawrence and with Allen. They said they were both excited to be there, excited as Lawrence said, “to make sure poetry goes on.”
Amazingly, the university decided to keep Kenneth on as a special lecturer. We won. Kenneth won. But most of all poetry won.
in the early 1980s, Lawrence became my editor when City Lights took my book of Mayan poems. Lawrence sent my manuscript back with notes scrawled in the margins. That was when I realized that he had a nearly infallible ear. He seemed to catch each place the rhythm was off, where a word just didn't seem right. I took all of his suggestions.
I suppose that was truly the start of our friendship which lasted until he died. He edited two of my other books, introduced me at a couple of readings at City Lights. He helped me organize a reading on behalf of Shakespeare and Company in Paris after a fire had scorched part of the famous shop.
Even after I had moved on from City Lights, Lawrence remained a friend. We wrote to each other regularly, occasionally spoke on the phone. He tried very hard to get me to write another book for him, but at the time I just couldn't do it. I wish I had. I did write about him in my book The Continual Pilgrimage. The City Lights reprint is still in their catalogue.
Lawrence, may you rest in poetry. And we will do our best to make sure poetry goes on.
- Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno
We include a reading of Ferlinghetti's work, A Tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on what would have been his 103rd birthday (originally on Zoom). Links to the actual poems can be downloaded as a pdf: