City Lights Books At 60
by Steve Heilig, July 23, 2013
The fabled City Lights bookstore in San Francisco is sixty years old this year. They're having a lot of celebratory events to mark the birthday. Even without the past decade's steady and precipitous decline in the fortunes of independent bookstores, City Lights' survival and thriving is literally extraordinary. Started as a paperback bookshop by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and partners, it expanded to sell all manner of reading material and became a locus of the fledgling Beat literary movement and much more. Ferlinghetti, having earned a doctorate from the Sorbonne in post-WWII Paris before returning to the United States, was no literary lightweight, and from the start stocked his inventory with works of deep political, philosophical and cultural significance.
But the Beats brought City Lights into the international limelight after Ferlinghetti heard a young Allen Ginsberg read his new poem “Howl” in San Francisco in 1955, convinced Ginsberg to let him publish the poem in the then-new City Lights publishing imprint, and was soon the center of a landmark censorship case after United States customs agents seized copies of the little book and local police arrested Ferlinghetti and another City Lights staffer for selling the “obscene” work. The Howl trial made headline news and put one more nail into the coffin of censorship, after the ACLU and renowned San Francisco attorney Jake Ehrlich successfully defended the book (while Ginsberg was already confessing to Ferlinghetti “To tell you the truth I am already embarrassed by half of it"). Fifty years later, Ferlinghetti wrote of Ginsberg “his insurgent voice is needed more than ever, in this time of rampant materialism, militarism, nationalism, and omnivorous corporate monoculture eating up the world."
But what of Ferlinghetti's own “insurgent voice"? He has published many books of poetry himself, and much more, over the past six decades, has been official poet laureate of San Francisco, received numerous awards both literary and civic, had his paintings widely exhibited and printed and, over 90 years of age, is about as famous as a poet can be in these times. A few years ago, he published via City Lights press, of course — a little pocket hardcover work titled, in fact, Poetry as Insurgent Art. It's featured on the front counter at City Lights bookstore during this 60th birthday year as a sort of talisman of the shop's existence. The book is his relatively succent answer to the question, Can Poetry Matter?
More than 50 years ago, renowned American poet William Carlos Williams wrote famously that “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack of what is found there.” Williams was no slacking beatnik. A practical man who was not only a poet but also a practicing physician, Williams' lines are usually read to imply that poetry — good poetry, at least — is essential to one's inner life and spirit. In the cultural doldrums of the early 1950s, that rang true for many people.
"Poetry can save the world by transforming consciousness,” Ferlinghetti argues in “Poetry as Insurgent Art.” He wrote this book for anybody who might listen, it seems, but especially for those who might be poets. “I am signaling you through the flames. The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it.” Poetry, in this vision, must be a political statement, arrows slung for freedom of expression, thought and resistance. “Write living newspapers,” he counsels. “Your poems must be more than want ads for broken hearts” — in other words, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, to write mere “love poetry” in such times is “almost a crime.” So “challenge capitalism masquerading as democracy"; “Liberate have-nots and enrage despots"; “Don't cater to the Middle Mind of America nor to consumer society.” And so on, in variations of his admonition to “be committed to something outside yourself."
To be sure, this is a tall order for poetry — or any form of writing. But the six or seven (mostly) one-liners on each of the 30 pages of the section giving his book its name are testament to Ferlinghetti's enduring vision and commitment. Some of these lines read as if they could have been penned in the Beat heyday, over half a century ago: “Stand up for the stupid and crazy"; “Dig folksingers who are the true singing poets of yesterday and today.” Political economy, down-home mysticisms, and occasional cringe-worthy silliness ("Make permanent waves, and not just on the heads of stylish women") all blend into his own version of Rilke's “Letters to a Young Poet.” Thus, poets should “see eternity in the eyes of animals,” but not “be too arcane for the man in the street.” Ferlinghetti can be self-deprecating: “Don't lecture like this. Don't say don't.” But he is also dead serious: “Don't let them tell you poetry is bullshit” and, especially, “Don't ever believe poetry is irrelevant in dark times.” Indeed, as Williams would probably agree, in dark times and in this vision, poetry becomes even more essential.
The second major section of the book, “What Is Poetry?,” was started by Ferlinghetti in the late 1950s; here he provides backup for his argument for the importance of poetry, and that “life lived with poetry in mind is itself an art.” Here, the “political” reverts — somewhat — to the personal, as “poetry is the shortest distance between two humans,” is “the anarchy of the senses making sense"; and “it is a pulsing fragment of the inner life, an untethered music” which “restores wonder and innocence."
Again, a lofty charge, but many have believed it, and some, such as Ferlinghetti, have lived it — even though, as he acidly quips (echoing Ginsberg's famed opening lines to “Howl") in “The Populist Manifesto” appended here, “We have seen the best minds of our generation/destroyed by boredom at poetry readings.” Many would-be appreciators of poetry can probably relate. To paraphrase Mother Goose, When poetry is good, it can be very very good; when it's not, it can be horrid.
City Lights still hosts lots of author readings, not only of poetry but of every kind of new work, as long at it is not fluff. It remains an incredible resource, carrying works from around the world that are hard to find in other stores. The entire upstairs room is devoted to, yes, poetry; the two floors below are stuffed with a world of everything else in or out of print. There is still a little mail drop where people can write each other care of the shop or leave messages, a real anachronism in this digital age (but the store does have the following wonderful sign on display: “Stash your sell phone and be here now"). The store is a must-see stop on many San Francisco tourist itineraries and there are very good eateries nearby in North Beach and Chinatown — the little “Jack Kerouac alley” next to the store is a semi-official gateway between the two neighborhoods — and even better bars even closer. If you are lucky you might see Ferlinghetti himself ambling about.
Hopefully, many such tourists and other visitors will succumb to the impulse to buy Ferlinghetti's impassioned, compact and concise little book from the shop's counter, and actually read it. As for the man himself, long may he add to his poetic warning therein: “Wake up, the world's on fire!”