"Poetry is the shortest distance between two humans." These words are printed above the bookshelves on the third floor of UNC's Student Stores, attributed to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, UNC class of 1941.
Before Ferlinghetti was an esteemed poet, publisher and owner of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in San Francisco, he attended UNC, worked for The Daily Tar Heel and pursued a journalism degree.
Ferlinghetti died on Feb. 22, at the age of 101, from interstitial lung disease. He is remembered across the country for his work nurturing the Beat poet movement. But he notably got his start writing at UNC.
Impact on literary world
Ferlinghetti was best known for publishing Beat poet Allen Ginsburg’s infamous poem “Howl,” which led to Ferlinghetti’s arrest on charges of willfully printing indecent writings.
Ferlinghetti was later acquitted of his charges, and the “Howl” case became an important decision for First Amendment rights and freedom of expression.
Author Will Blythe worked as the editor for UNC’s undergraduate literary magazine, Cellar Door, when he was a student. As editor, he spent some time researching Ferlinghetti. He said the “Howl” case had a huge impact on the literary and publishing world.
“He was prosecuted for obscenity, but he won the case, which opened up the United States for a much greater latitude for publishing, and not just poetry either,” Blythe said.
Although Ferlinghetti helped publish many authors of the Beat movement during the 20th century, he also gained traction for himself both as a publisher and as a poet.
He published one of his most well-known collections, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” in 1958, and he was named poet laureate of San Francisco 40 years later.
Early life, UNC career
Ferlinghetti was originally born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling in New York in 1919. He was the youngest of five children of an Italian immigrant.
During his teenage years, he was introduced to the works of author and UNC graduate Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe’s influence inspired Ferlinghetti to apply to the University himself.
Ferlinghetti worked as a sports writer for The Daily Tar Heel during his time at UNC and also wrote for Carolina Magazine. He graduated with a degree in journalism in 1941.
The short fiction stories that Ferlinghetti wrote for Carolina Magazine would serve as a template for his later poetry, Blythe said, and his literary and journalism experience at UNC would become a great influence in his life.
“Many tend to shy away from the journalistic influence in their writing, but he didn’t,” Blythe said. “He managed to incorporate politics and public life and policy into his personal poems.”
Tom Bowers, former associate dean of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, interviewed Ferlinghetti in 2008 for his book, “Making News: One Hundred Years of Journalism & Mass Communication at Carolina.”
Bowers said that Ferlinghetti was first inspired to write by a UNC professor, Phillips Russell.
“He was the one professor at UNC who made him love creative writing, especially because his course was often taught outdoors under the trees on campus,” Bowers said.
Ferlinghetti also remembered the influence of professor O.J. “Skipper” Coffin, who taught a course in the journalism school on reporting.
“When I interviewed him, he imitated Coffin’s classroom demeanor,” Bowers said. “His voice rose as he said, ‘Now, when I say write a lede, I mean how, where, when, who and why, in that order!’”
Ferlinghetti’s time in Chapel Hill, although short, was nonetheless impactful for himself and for the University. In 1996, Ferlinghetti was presented with a Distinguished Alumnus Award for his accomplishments as a Beat poet and publisher.
Doug Dibbert, president of the General Alumni Association, spoke to Ferlinghetti on his 100th birthday about his accolades and his time at UNC.
“His professional accomplishments brought great personal notoriety to him but also to his alma mater, and he was a proud alumnus and was delighted to be recognized by the University,” Dibbert said. “He was certainly someone who inspired others, and alumni actually expressed great pride in knowing he was an alumnus of Carolina.”
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