Lawrence Ferlinghetti at 100 – declined Hungarian PEN award

Almost 40 years ago I was a newcomer to San Francisco. On weekends we would hang out at North Beach with friends at the Caffe Trieste and always had a mandatory stop at City Lights the legendary (and cozy) bookstore on Columbus Ave. I often chatted with the tall, friendly older guy behind the cashier’s desk. He sat on a stool and handled business casually with a smile.

At that time, I didn’t know that he was Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Soon I moved out to the suburbs and rarely visited the store. Today it is almost impossible to park in the neighborhood, a couple of years ago I came in to hear Krasznahorkai at a crowded but memorable City Lights book reading.

On March 24,, 2019 Ferlinghetti celebrated his 100th birthday. He now lives in his painting studio in the Hunters Point district of San Francisco.

Ferlinghetti in his studio

Ferlinghetti is not just a celebrated American poet, painter, publisher and owner of City Lights Bookstore; he is my hero. In 2012 he declined a 50,000 Euro Hungarian award (about $60,000) citing concerns over free speech rights and civil liberties.

The Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize was awarded by the Hungarian division of PEN, an international organization that supports the freedom to write and often campaigns to help writers who have been imprisoned or silenced.

When Ferlinghetti learned that the prize was partially funded by the Orbán government he wrote a letter expressing his concerns.

Dear Géza Szőcs,

After careful research into the Pannonius Prize and its sponsors, including the present Hungarian government, I have come to the following conclusions: Since the Prize is partially funded by the present Hungarian government, and since the policies of this right-wing regime tend toward authoritarian rule and the consequent curtailing of freedom of expression and civil liberties, I find it impossible for me to accept the Prize in the United States. Thus I must refuse the Prize in its present terms.

However, assuming the total devotion of the Hungarian PEN Club and yourself to freedom of speech and social justice, I propose that the Prize money be used to set up a fund to be administered by the Hungarian PEN Club, said fund to be devoted solely to the publication of Hungarian authors whose writings support total freedom of speech, civil rights, and social justice. These are the only terms under which I can accept the Pannonius Prize.

In defense of individual freedom and democratic institutions, I am faithfully yours,

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Happy (belated) Birthday Lawrence Ferlinghetti!

Ginsberg, Yevtushenko and Ferlinghetti in the 1970s

György Lázár

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