Mar. 24, 2008

The Changing Light

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The changing light

            at San Francisco

    is none of your East Coast light

           none of your

                   pearly light of Paris

The light of San Francisco

             is a sea light

                       an island light

And the light of fog

        blanketing the hills

    drifting in at night

           through the Golden Gate

                      to lie on the city at dawn

And then the halcyon late mornings

    after the fog burns off

      and the sun paints white houses

                     with the sea light of Greece

      with sharp clean shadows

       making the town look like

                             it had just been painted

But the wind comes up at four o'clock

                                    sweeping the hills

And then the veil of light of early evening

And then another scrim

           when the new night fog

                            floats in

And in that vale of light

                   the city drifts

                           anchorless upon the ocean

"The Changing Light" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, from How to Paint Sunlight. © New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2001. Reprinted with permission.(buy now)

It's the birthday of poet, publisher, and bookstore proprietor Lawrence Ferlinghetti, (books by this author) born in Yonkers, New York (1919). His Italian father died while his French-speaking mother was pregnant, and his mother had a nervous breakdown and went to a mental hospital the year after he was born. He was sent to live with an aunt, who divorced her husband and took Lawrence to France. Four years later, she returned to New York, placed him in an orphanage until she could find work, then brought him into the rich household where she had found a position as governess. She disappeared and later died in an asylum, and the family she worked for adopted and began to educate the boy with classic literature.

After college, he served in the Navy during World War II. He was sent to Nagasaki shortly after the blast and said, "Before I was at Nagasaki, I was a good American boy. I was an Eagle Scout; I was the commander of a sub-chaser in the Normandy Invasion. Anyone who saw Nagasaki would suddenly realize that they'd been kept in the dark by the United States government as to what atomic bombs can do." He became staunchly antiwar.

While in graduate school in New York and Paris, he began to write poetry and to draw and paint. He moved to San Francisco and wrote poems, book reviews, and columns for various Bay Area publications, including the City Lights magazine published by Peter Martin.

In 1955, Ferlinghetti started a publishing company, which that year published his first book of poetry, Pictures of the Gone World. He hoped to publish volumes slim enough that workers would be able to slip them into their pockets to read during their lunch breaks. Later that year, he went to a poetry reading called "Six Poets at the Six Gallery," organized by the poet Kenneth Rexroth. There he saw a poet named Allen Ginsberg read a new poem called "Howl." Ferlinghetti was deeply impressed, and after the reading, he sent Ginsberg a telegram that said, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?"

The next year City Lights published "Howl," which was seized on its way back from the London printer by customs officials for violating obscenity laws. Ferlinghetti was put on trial for printing and selling lewd and indecent material. The ACLU defended him and he was acquitted, and the publicity from the trial benefited his bookstore and helped "Howl" to become one of the most widely read poems of the century. Ferlinghetti said, "The San Francisco [customs office] deserves a word of thanks. It would have taken years for critics to accomplish what the good [customs office] did in a day." From then on, he could publish what he wanted.

In 1994, he was named San Francisco's Poet Laureate. His plans in that capacity included campaigning to paint the Golden Gate Bridge gold and also to tilt Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill so that it would be like the leaning tower of Pisa.

It's the birthday of playwright Dario Fo, (books by this author) born in San Giano, Italy (1926). He has based his plays on current political events. He is best-known for his play, The Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1970). He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1997. He said, "With comedy I can search for the profound."

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