By BUD HERRON

Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrated his 100th birthday at the end of March.

Well, to be exact, other people celebrated the March 24 event during a party at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco — the iconic gathering place for poets, intellectuals and “beatnik wannabes” he co-founded in 1953. Ferlinghetti decided not to attend. Nearly blind now, he told a reporter for National Public Radio he was concerned about what he might say and decided to skip it.

I can understand Ferlinghetti’s hesitation. I am a mere 74, but have moments when my filters fail, leaving anyone within earshot sorting through more of my pronouncements than they care to hear. Still, I never thought Ferlinghetti would get to that point.

At 39, he published a little book entitled “A Coney Island of the Mind” — a collection of what became known as “beat poems.” The book sold more than a million copies.

Like many in my generation, I discovered that book when I was in college — not in the classroom but in the fertile educational fields of late-night dormitory socio-political “bull sessions.” I was not what anyone would call a fan of poetry. In fact, I felt most poetry was drivel created by would-be writers trying to hide shallow thoughts inside flowery, deep-sounding verbal camouflage.

Ferlinghetti’s poetry was different. His poems hit me in the face. His verbal pictures stirred me to thoughts beyond which team would win the homecoming football game. He wrote in the language of the streets. The images he created spoke of an America not depicted in my sanitized public school history books, nor in the mainstream social mythology of the day.

I know, I know. I was a rebellious teenager who had turned against the vanilla conformity of the 1950s and was looking for someone to offer rainbow sherbet. The leap from rhymes of the Hallmark Card poets of my parents’ generation to the naked verse coming out of San Francisco was like moving the radio dial from Guy Lombardo to the Rolling Stones.

Ferlinghetti was rooted on the political left, while I had grown up on the moderate right, somewhere between President Harry Truman and the Rev. Billy Graham. Yet, his poems were in no way anti-American or unpatriotic. A U.S. Naval officer during World War II, he had been a part of the D-Day invasion at Normandy. He also served in Japan and walked through the debris of Nagasaki shortly after the United States dropped the second atomic bomb.

When he criticized America, the criticism came from his belief that we can do better in living up to our ideals only if we own up to our misdeeds. He has been a “myth exploder” who would rather see George Washington as a good man who made mistakes than a demigod who never told a lie. Wartime experiences led him to pacifism rather than military parades, but his belief in the goodness of America’s highest values has never wavered.

In celebration of Ferlinghetti’s centennial birthday, I recently re-read the poems that so impressed me more than 50 years ago. They inspired me again to think. Some of the images and references are now a bit muted by time, but the thoughts behind them are as sharp as ever.

The poems speak in unvarnished ways to the hypocrisies always embedded in politics, religion and social interaction. No matter which tribe or tribes each of us belongs to in this time of national division and animosity, honest examination of our hypocrisies must take place if we are ever to rediscover common purpose as a nation.

I am sorry Lawrence Ferlinghetti did not attend his birthday party and leave us with one more sharply honed thought. His ability to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” is needed as much today as it was in his heyday.



Herron is a retired editor and newspaper publisher who lives in Columbus. He served as publisher of The Republic from 1998 to 2007.