Lawrence Ferlinghetti died this week at 101. I can’t remember when I picked up my copy of Poetry as Insurgent Art. The latest copyright in the back is 2007, so that rules out college.
I was ready to claim the title page as an inspiration for the look of Steal Like An Artist, but if I didn’t get the book until my first trip to City Lights in San Francisco, that was in 2012 on the Steal book tour.
(I do think sometimes that artists tend to claim influence apocryphally — you put your work in the world and then you find all the stuff you should’ve looked at before you made the work.)
The thing I remember most about my first visit to City Lights in North Beach — other than the wonderful poetry room with the big dictionary in the corner — was all the hand-painted Ferlinghetti signs everywhere. I think I liked looking at those as much as I liked browsing the books.
One thing to know about Ferlinghetti is that while best known as a poet and a publisher, what he really wanted to be was a painter. He wrote about it in “More Light”:
I never wanted to be a poet. It chose me, I didn’t choose it. One becomes a poet almost against one’s will, certainly against one’s better judgment. I wanted to be a painter but from the age of ten onward these damn poems kept coming. Perhaps one of these days they will leave me alone and I can get back to painting.
There’s a great story on the City Lights website about how he discovered the basement and the signs you see behind him in the photos above:
Ferlinghetti also discovered signs painted on the walls by a Christian sect that had used the basement for prayer meetings, and on the walls today you can still fragments of them: “Remember Lot’s Wife,” “Born in Sin and Shapen in Niquity,” “I and My Father Are One,” and “I Am the Door.” Ferlinghetti made a deal with the landlord, put in a staircase, persuaded the Chinese Dragon to leave, and expanded the store into the basement.
Surely, those signs must’ve inspired him to make his own.
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Every Friday I pull one of my favorite books off the Bookshelf. To see more of my favorite books, check out my reading years.