Books

Poetry’s Rock Star

Lawrence Ferlinghetti changed American culture forever.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in a fedora and a sweater, stands outside City Lights Bookstore with his hands in his pockets, smiling
Lawrence Ferlinghetti outside his bookstore in San Francisco on Aug. 18, 1998. Stringer/File Photo

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died on Monday at the age of 101, was one of the key figures in 20th century American culture. He was as responsible as any single other person for the rise of the Beats, the end of obscenity laws, and, not least, the transformation of San Francisco from a backwater province to a vibrant artistic center.

He did all this through the creation and flourishing of a bookstore, City Lights—which, seven decades after its founding, in 1953, remains one of the country’s great literary bookstores—and a publishing house as well.

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The bookstore from its outset was an intellectual hangout for the budding generation of writers, painters, and poets who lived and gathered in San Francisco’s North Beach district. When one of the poets, Allen Ginsberg, read portions of a new work called “Howl” at a nearby gallery the night of Oct. 7, 1955, causing an instant sensation among the cognoscenti, Ferlinghetti—who had just started his publishing house with an idea of stirring an “international dissident ferment”—offered to publish it.

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Two years later, when the first 520 copies of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems arrived on the docks in shipping crates from City Lights Publishers’ London-based printer, U.S. customs officials seized them, on the grounds that the book was obscene. (One of the inspectors told reporters, “You wouldn’t want your children to come across it.”) After two months, the U.S. attorney’s office declined to prosecute, the copies were released, and Ferlinghetti displayed them prominently in his store.

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Five days into the marketing, on June 3, 1957, two undercover cops with the San Francisco Police Department’s Juvenile Bureau walked into the store, bought a copy, then arrested Ferlinghetti for publishing the book and the shop’s cashier for selling it.

Ferlinghetti decided to challenge not only the arrest but also the legal basis for the law against obscenity. He hired San Francisco’s most flamboyant criminal attorney: J.W. Ehrlich, nicknamed “Jake the Master,” who’d represented such controversial clients as the stripper Sally Rand, the death row kidnapper Caryl Chessman, and, as one obituary put it when he died in 1971, “a seemingly endless stream of women accused of killing their husbands.” Ehrlich took the case pro bono.

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It was a far from easy case. The presiding municipal judge, Clayton W. Horn, was also a police magistrate and a Sunday school teacher, who’d recently found five women guilty of shoplifting and sentenced them to go see the movie The Ten Commandments, then write a paper about its moral lessons. The prosecutor, Ralph McIntosh, had made a crusade in recent years of going after porn merchants.

More than that, Ginsberg’s poem—which famously began “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”—contained language beyond shocking in its day. Newspaper accounts of the trial suggest a rollicking scene, the full-house crowd tittering when one of the lawyers recited the poem’s contentious passages. (The word fuck had probably never been uttered so many times in a courtroom.) Even Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti had thought it prudent to bowdlerize the poem’s most explicitly homoerotic passage, altering it in the first printing to read “who let themselves be f….. in the a… by saintly motorcyclists and screamed with joy.”

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But Ehrlich argued that the poem had “redeeming social importance.” Horn did his homework, taking two weeks to peruse the casework, and ultimately ruled that the poem was not obscene. (In subsequent printings, Ferlinghetti restored the “saintly motorcyclists” passage sans ellipses.)

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If Ferlinghetti had been found guilty, Capt. William Hanrahan, the cop who’d arrested him, was planning to send his squad to sweep the filth from every bookstore in the city—he’d drawn up a long list of titles—and San Francisco probably wouldn’t have taken off as a center of daring art for years or decades, if ever.

Meanwhile, Howl and Other Poems flew off shelves across the country faster than Ferlinghetti could print them. According to Stacey Lewis, the publicist at City Lights, more than 1 million copies have been sold in the 64 years since. It also made Ferlinghetti’s publishing arm a serious force. More than 300 titles are still in print, and it continues to publish 12 to 15 new books each year.

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Several of those books are volumes of Ferlinghetti’s own poems, including, in 1958, A Coney Island of the Mind, which has also sold more than 1 million copies over the years, ranking perhaps second to Howl as the most popular book of modern American poetry.

In 2003, Ferlinghetti was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2005, the National Book Foundation gave him its first Literarian Award. In 2007, the French minister of culture named him Commandeur, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He has won several literary prizes in Italy.

Throughout his life, Ferlinghetti was an activist in political as well as in literary causes. The roots of both may have been his time as a naval commander in World War II. Toward the end of the war, he saw the horrific ruins of Nagasaki after the dropping of the second atom bomb. He often said that the experience ingrained in him a deep hatred of war, but it may also have instilled a simpatico with the early Beat poets.

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Norman Mailer, in a famous 1957 essay on beatniks and hipsters, wrote, “Probably, we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years. … If the fate of 20th-century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence,” then the “only life-giving answer is … to live with death as immediate danger … to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.”

That describes Ferlinghetti perhaps even more deeply than it does the other Beat artists.

Still, Ferlinghetti was far from a morose character. I saw him give a poetry reading at the 92nd Street Y in 2009. He was 90, but he walked onstage with a buoyant verve and never let it go, belting out his poems with passion and intensity, drawing wild applause from the sold-out house when he began his better-known verses, in the same way that stadium crowds cheer when a rock star strums the opening chords of a chart-topper.

I was sitting near a rock singer that night. He looked around at the crowd, men and women, old and young, all ecstatic to be there, and mumbled, “Jeez, maybe I should write poems.”

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