Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021), by Pat Williamsen

Lawrence Ferlinghetti died this week. He is no longer at his bookstore, will never again nurture a young writer, will never write again himself. The news of his death is strangely upsetting. After all, I never met the man and visited his bookstore only once. As a small tribute to Mr. Ferlinghetti, we’re reposting a little essay I wrote in late 2020. I’m glad he hung around long enough to witness a few more things come to fruition.

Rebirth after COVID Time

While doing research on W.H. Auden’s “The Age of Anxiety”–one of my autumn choices–I became reacquainted with a writer I haven’t read for years. A Google search on “age of anxiety” brought up a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in which the phrase appears. “I Am Waiting” was first published in 1958, written a year before while Ferlinghetti was waiting to be called to trial for publishing lewd poetry (Allen Ginsburg’s Howl). I needed a break from Auden’s dense allegory, and Ferlinghetti obligingly provided a respite.   

Being a good older sibling, my brother handed me a copy of Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind back in the early 1970s. We were both trying to find our own voices–two young people parsing through the tumult of an era filled with civil unrest and political disillusion. “Here’s someone you should read,” he said, handing me the booklet as though it was a sacred text.  

“I Am Waiting” was not the poem I remembered from that early reading. Back then it seemed too trite, a wish list of fantastic things that could never come about. Yet reading the poem again in late 2020, after an endless year of waiting–for a vaccine, for social justice, for a broken political system to correct course, for the cultural job market to open up again–it seems too prescient to dismiss so easily.   

Ferlinghetti shares a list of the many things he awaits–“for someone to discover America and wail,” “for the Age of Anxiety to drop dead,” “for the storms of life to be over….” Although clearly a rebel with a cause, Ferlinghetti’s voice is strangely passive in this poem–he is waiting for change, but does not pledge himself to make his wishes come true. Who will make these changes? Does the writer have no hope that the things for which he waits will come about?  

COVID time has provided opportunities to do many good things–from learning to bake bread to spending time helping our children learn and reading more books. And still, at the end of 2020, even for those whose jobs are not in jeopardy and who have managed to dodge disease, we seem to be shrouded in anxiety about things over which we have little control. Yet consider again what has been accomplished in 2020. This pandemic era has provided time to address injustice and inequity. Just as in the 70’s when my brother and I marched in protest over the Vietnam War, Americans by the thousands took to the streets to support Black Lives Matter.  

Speaking to NPR in 2002, Ferlinghetti noted, “This poem is 45 years old, but I’m still waiting for some of the things in this poem.” Ferlinghetti’s phrasing hints that some wishes have come about. I’ll leave it to you to read the poem (on the Poetry Foundation website) to consider which of Ferlinghetti’s fantastic ideas have achieved reality. For the moment, let me extend my wish to you for the coming year, that using our active voices, we all pursue “a rebirth of wonder.” And above all else, stay healthy.

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