By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  4/23/2006

Wizened men stroked their long beards. Gray-haired women in berets nodded along to the beat of his reedy voice. Bright-eyed students hung on his every word.

With more than a few turtlenecks and shaggy sweaters in the crowd, it was a quintessentially Cambridge moment, a kind of Memorial Drive of the mind.

One of the last legends of the Beat Generation, Lawrence Ferlinghetti left his enclave in North Beach, San Francisco, last week to accept the New England Poetry Club's Golden Rose, which club officials say is the nation's oldest literary prize.

As the balding, 87-year-old New York native gingerly made his way to a podium at Harvard's Yenching Library to receive the honor previously awarded to masters such as Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, and Czeslaw Milosz, he received a standing ovation.

He put on thick, red glasses and began reading from his oeuvre, decades-old poems from books such as "A Coney Island of the Mind" and "A Far Rockaway of the Heart."
Lines such as, "I feel there's an angel in me . . . whom I'm constantly shocking," got as many laughs and nods as his quips about the "monster corporate monoculture."

In an interview, Ferlinghetti spoke about the difference between San Francisco and Boston, similarly sized cities with liberal politics, distinct neighborhoods, and a history shaped by oceans.

"People here are more courteous and crotchety," he said. "It may be a liberal city, but it's much more traditional than San Francisco. Old forms, mannerisms, and conventions persist here in a way they don't on the West Coast."

But Boston has changed, to his chagrin. The buildings have grown. The accent is no longer uniformly "R"-challenged. And the Harvard Square Bickford's, where he wrote one of his poems long ago, is gone.

"Boston has grown so enormously," he said, "I hardly recognize it anymore."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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