The Artist in His Time

By Barry Silesky

Warner Books. 294 pp. $24.95

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI has a place in American literary history both as a poet and as the founder of City Lights Press which brought Allen Ginsberg's Howl into the world. The place he has made for himself in literary history is something like his City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco's North Beach -- funky, eclectic, comfortably eccentric, a mix of the bohemian and the Beat, literary to the marrow. However, in his later years -- he is now 71 -- Ferlinghetti has been more drawn to the canvas than the page but remains the public-spirited poet-citizen he always was.

One interesting paradox of Ferlinghetti's career is that he, a man of considerable privacy, became a public figure and the best-selling American poet. In the 32 years since A Coney Island of the Mind was published it has sold, according to his biographer, "almost 700,000 copies in America and over a million worldwide in various translations -- all together, more than any single book by any living American poet."

Some of this was simply the luck of good timing. Ferlinghetti was a poet at an unusual moment when tens of thousand of Americans read poetry avidly both for the artistic pleasure and as a means of inward liberation. This will probably be the last such deeply literary generation for quite some time, if not forever. Ferlinghetti sold so many copies because he made one essential discovery or commitment -- that poetry could be simple and easy, accessible, user-friendly. A fellow poet, Robert Creeley, is quoted as saying that Ferlinghetti "is like a terrific public park." An apt description. His verse is much like his city -- either brightly clear or favoring a Gallic lightness of touch, thinly lovely.

Time does strange things to art. What at one moment seemed the words that needed to be spoken can later appear to fossilize into mannerism. Much of Ferlinghetti now feels quite dated -- in its tone, its assumptions. But when his verse is as free of them as it is of ornament, he writes clean direct lines that are farther from the reach of time:

the blown light batters thru

lids and lashes

I burn and leave

Yet will arise

But the typical Ferlinghetti line looks and reads like this one from "The Canticle of Jack Kerouac":

As the world cracks by thundering

like a lost lumber truck on a steep grade

in Kerouac America . . .

The scoring of the lines was designed to help the reader catch the beat, for the oral tradition was paramount among the Beats, a rebellion against the academy and the page. And listening closely to these lines you can hear the sort of crazy exhilaration at just being an American that was integral to the Beat sense of life. As a generation, they were more of social than of literary significance. They broke the taboos that helped create a new America, but they produced no works that will incite the admiration of future generations. In part, this is due to nothing more than mere sloppiness. The Beats were sloppy as a matter of principle, in dress, demeanor and in art. Society coopted much of what the Beats stood for, but art is ultimately stricter and accepts only the achievement.

Perhaps people get the biographer they deserve but I think that in this case Ferlin- ghetti deserves better. Barry Silesky tells his story in a prose that is oddly plodding for a man identified as a poet on the jacket. He is capable of writing lines like "Such inadvertent mishaps happen to anyone, of course." He does not understand that first and foremost prose means organization. Great lumps of undigested matter -- sometimes quite interesting in themselves -- protrude everywhere. Nor does he fathom that history is more than a list of events happening at the same time in different places. He gives the reader all Ferlinghetti's various addresses, complete with floor, number of rooms, furnishings and wall colors, but fails to deliver much of Ferlinghetti's own interior.

Though the book does provide an overall look at Ferlinghetti's life and work, thereby earning itself a place among reference books on that era, it never becomes real biography. Capable of quoting atrocious verse by Ferlinghetti without remarking on it more than he remarks on the quality of his good poems, Silesky's attitude is value-free and also seems devoid of any real interest in his subject. Someday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the gadabout gadfly of North Beach, will inspire a finer book.

Richard Lourie has just completed "Russia Speaks: An Oral History From the Revolution to the Present."