Home: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Little Boy by Alex Zafiris

Memories and literary references fuse and spark in this autobiography about the co-founder of City Lights Bookstore.

Little Boy

For the first ten pages of Little Boy (Doubleday)––a deceptively small book that begins as a narrative autobiography––the hundred-year-old poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti details an incoherent childhood. Born in Bronxville, he has already lost one parent before he loses the other, gets taken to France by an aunt for five years, comes back, and ends up in foster care. The story is drawn with firm lines of history (his Dutch and Sephardic heritage), and told in the third person. It is not until he is a young teenager at boarding school in Massachusetts that we meet Jim, who,

…became big brother to the boy, and one day something happened that awakened the boy to consciousness. In old age he still remembered it. Jim had Small Boy down on the floor, sitting on him astraddle. He was gentle but would not let Small Boy up until he would admit that he could not prove he was alive and that he was not dreaming, and Small Boy kept crying, “But I am alive, I am alive!” And Jim kept saying how can you prove it, and Small Boy was crying and Jim just kept sitting on him until he let him up.

The ensuing paragraph speeds through his undergraduate journalism degree at the University of North Carolina, his stint in the Navy during WWII, his MA at Columbia, University in Paris, and return to the States—the place he calls, with quotation marks, “home.” Then the text lifts and plunges, like a flock of birds, into poetry. The words create image, illusion, fantasy, and projection, circling back under, over, and around the facts he has already given us, imbuing them with lust, fear, courage, nihilism, and rage. Punctuation recedes almost entirely, the form shapeshifting with deep breaths and tides, broken only by new paragraphs. Recurrent dreams of abandonment and loneliness surface in quiet italics. Memories and literary references fuse and spark: he rails against the unwanted external voices that crowd our minds. Light emerges and dips continuously as the source of existence and meaning, while darkness rears and disappears alongside:

…what would he ever say to the world in what language and to whom would he say it if indeed he had anything to say or would he just sing it out to the great unknown or might Little Boy be like a match struck across a night sky lighting up the universe with his laughter and genius or he could just be an echo chamber an echo of everything that was ever writ or said or sung still hanging in the eternal air the eternal dialogue of philosophers fools and lovers and losers the very tongue of the soul sounding through time…

Ferlinghetti arrived in San Francisco in 1951, opening City Lights Bookstore two years later, forever marking his territory. The idea was to create a space for the freethinkers to hang out, and it is still open every day until midnight. The Pocket Poets Series was his publishing debut, and in 1957 he was standing in a courtroom for putting out Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, charged with distributing obscene materials ( … who copulated ecstatic and insatiate and fell off the bed … and continued along the floor and down the hall and ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt and come … ). With profound support from the ACLU and the literary scene, the case was won by evoking the First Amendment. The highly-publicized trial not only defined the Beat Generation—until that point, largely seen as a rambling troupe of word-slinging hell raisers—but positioned Ferlinghetti as their community leader. The lost boy had found home, and in doing so, opened up the nation’s consciousness.

Little Boy is a portal into an outsider movement that evolved, with a high-energy combination of arrogance and vulnerability, into a literary canon. Ferlinghetti first learned to speak in French. Paris was the place where he began to write, and his connection to the Surrealists and understanding of Rimbaud’s “I is another” is intuitive:

there did I meet myself as if I were some sort of stranger just come in off the still street lonesome traveler with no naiad at all to keep me company oh what a romantic illusion all that was but I loved it…

Despite Ferlinghetti’s devout callouts to James Joyce, TS Eliot, and Dylan Thomas, he also (in a buzzing acceptance of his most difficult feelings), decries them. While these masters may have wildly and brilliantly captured the riddle of consciousness at their point in their modern age, all of it is still up for discussion. The essence of Little Boy is an embracing of both the enduring cosmic mystery and daily stupidities of the mind’s multi-layered fractal structure, the madness of love, the futility of narrative, the obliqueness of language, and the potential of perception. This book burns bright in your hands. Read it to yourself, aloud.

Alex Zafiris is a writer based in New York.

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