Dead poets of 2021: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Two more poets to cover in this series. Today we honor Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the beloved founder of City Lights Books, who died last February at age 101.


poem is on cart-return pole on left


People Getting Divorced

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti


People getting divorced

riding around with their clothes in the car

and wondering what happened

to everyone and everything

including their other

pair of shoes

And if you spy one

then who knows what happened

to the other

with tongue alack

and years later not even knowing

if the other ever

found a mate

without splitting the seams

or remained intact


and the sole

ah the soul

a curious conception

hanging on somehow

to walk again

in the free air

once the heel

has been replaced



For a subject as painful and distressing as the end of a marriage, Ferlinghetti’s playful tone in “People Getting Divorced” seems insensitive to say the least. Beginning in the second stanza, every phrase brings up the question, “Are we talking about people or old shoes?” Add in a lot of shoe puns, a jazzy feel and loose syntax, and you begin to wonder where the heart of this poem is.


But Ferlinghetti’s light touch is his trademark. It’s how he approaches war, injustice, religion, and depression, so it’s no surprise he employs it here. Things are bad, real bad, he always seems to say, but I’ll keep on whistling and joking.  And while the poem begins sadly, with the divorced person reduced to living out of a car, it ends in freedom of the soul/sole. He’s offering hope. You’ll heal from the heel! he says.


I know Ferlinghetti wrote better poems than this one, but I don’t often come across a poem explicitly about divorce—broken hearts and grief, yes, but a poem using the word “divorce” not so much. So I like it for that. And no disrespect to the grueling experiences of people going through divorce, but every grief is well-served by an injection of humor, dark though it may be. So I like it for that too.




Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of those people I’ve heard about forever but never really known much about beyond his association with City Lights and Allen Ginsberg. Come to find out he had an absolutely amazing life.


Ferlinghetti was born in 1919 in Yonkers , the youngest of five brothers. His father died before he was born, and when he was one his mother went into a mental institution. His aunt took him to France where he learned French before English. When the two of them returned to the U.S., she needed to find stable work, so he was placed in an orphanage. As luck would have it, his aunt became a governess to a wealthy family in New York, and the couple became fond of Lawrence and encouraged him. After he was arrested for shoplifting they sent him to a boarding school. He went on to earn a degree at UNC Chapel Hill in journalism.


He was captain in the Navy in WWII, serving as a submarine chaser and seeing action in the Normandy invasion. After the war he was stationed at Nagasaki. The devastation he saw from the atomic bombing began his lifelong anti-war activism.


He got his masters from Columbia and his PhD from University of Paris. He married, had two children, and divorced two years later.


In 1951 he moved to San Francisco and founded the iconic City Lights bookstore and publishing house. His publication of Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” led to his arrest on obscenity charges. In a landmark First Amendment case, he was acquitted, and “Howl” became the famous poem it is.


Best known for publishing and encouraging the Beat poets, he’s been called the “spiritual godfather of the Beat movement,” but considered himself more a bohemian than beat poet. He was also an accomplished painter whose work has been exhibited internationally. Here’s a short film, well worth watching, that shows some of his paintings and has good shots of City Lights.



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