COLUMN TWENTY-SEVEN, NOVEMBER 1, 1997
(Copyright (c) 1997 Al Aronowitz)
PART 7: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ
(Napkin Drawing by Kristen Wetterhahn)
CHAPTER SEVEN: CITY LIGHTS
[Although Lawrence Ferlinghetti told me nearly 40 years ago that he thought the term, "Beat Generation," ought to be abolished, the deaths of Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs now leaves the venerable poet-publisher as the honorary patriarch of those of us who feel we were liberated by the Beat movement.
As a poet, Lawrence was inducted into the poetic pantheon after the publication in 1958 of A Coney Island of the Mind, one of this century's best-selling books of poetry and a work which helped establish Lawrence as one of America's pre-eminent poets. A Coney Island of the Mind, in fact, soon began to rival Allen Ginsberg's Howl as one of the Beat anthems which helped set succeeding generations free. Free from what? Free from the Victorian mouth muffles, from the verbal chastity belts, from the figurative fig leafs, from the prehistoric attitudes and from the other mental tethers which still lingered to suppress thought, sexual and other expression in our literature and in our public discussions during America's Eisenhower era.
How does poet-publisher Ferlinghetti feel upon finding himself named grand old god-daddy of the literary movement which had so profound an impact on not only America but the world? At 78, he protests he is not a Beat himself but "of the generation before the Beats."
"The only reason I became associated with the Beats was by publishing them," he has told me almost 40 years later.
Now recognized as one of America's most popular poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has emerged as one of the visionary Beat revolutionaries who brought the written word out of its stone age prison and into the modern world. Written at the time when the Beat movement was just starting to make its presence known, the following chapter, City Lights, relates the story of how Poet Ferlinghetti achieved recognition as Publisher Ferlinghetti by daring to print Allen Ginsberg's Howl in a world ruled by dinosaurs. (It's true that the dinosaurs still rule us, but Lawrence has helped make a big dent in their rule!)
I consider Lawrence another one of the giants I am proud to have known. When I first interviewed him back then for my 1960 New York Post Beat Generation series, he described "Beat Generation" as a "useless term." Today, he recognizes that he was mistaken to have said that.
"It's definitely not a useless term because it's come into the common vocabulary," he now says. Before I interviewed him again by phone in November of 1997, an interview necessary for me to write this introduction to the following City Lights chapter, I had sent him a copy of the chapter and asked him to comment on it.
"Yes, I've read it," he said, "and it's fine with me."
As for having called Beat Generation "a useless term," Lawrence explained:
"Just by the force of circumstances, 'Beat' has become used with the same frequency of 'the Lost Generation.' 'The Lost Generation' was the generation of the First World War and of the people who came of age during the First World War, the Hemingway generation. The generation of the Second World War is completely forgotten and unlabeled, a truly 'lost' generation. That's the generation I was of. I grew up during the Second World War, which was sort of a second 'Lost Generation.' That generation was the last 'bohemian generation.' When I was in Paris, I was wearing a beret like all the other American expatriates. When I first arrived in San Francisco in 1950, I was still wearing it. There was no other generation. I belong to the Greenwich Village Generation, when The Villager was published and it was read in Washington Square by little old ladies in tennis shoes. That was the last 'bohemian generation.'"
Lawrence was a Navy lieutenant serving with the Atlantic Fleet during World War II. After the war, he completed his studies at Columbia University and went on to earn his Doctor of Letters degree at the Sorbonne in Paris. Since he arrived in San Francisco in 1950, he has published in excess of 25 titles of his own, prose and plays as well as poetry. His latest work is A Far Rockaway of the Heart, which New Directions, publishers of the book, describes as "a complement to A Coney Island of the Mind." Obviously, the use of Coney Island and Far Rockaway in his titles is indicative of Lawrence's New York roots.
"I was born in South Yonkers at 106 Saratoga Avenue, about 100 yards north of the northwest corner of Van Cortland Park," he told me. "I saw the house there a few months ago. . ."
"A few months ago" was when he came back to New York in April of 1997 for a book-signing party at the National Arts Club to promote the publication of his A Far Rockaway of the Heart. The National Arts Club was indeed a good site for Lawrence's New York appearance. He is, after all, one of the Beat Generation's best approximations of a "Renaissance Man." Not only did he co-found the City Lights Book Store in 1953 and not only is he one of America's pre-eminent poets and not only is he a successful publisher and not only has he also has written prose and plays but he is in addition an accomplished painter. He is, in fact, so preoccupied that I had a hard time nailing him down for this brief interview, which I needed to write this intro to my City Lights chapter. I hope he will forgive me for making the mistake of starting out my talk with him by addressing him as "Larry."
"I have a brother named Harry." he told me, "so when I was a kid it was always 'Harry and Larry.' But I haven't been called 'Larry' since I was 18."
I can understand. I used to be called "Alfie" when I was a kid. When someone calls me "Alfie" nowadays, I cringe.]
On the vaulted brick of the cellar, the words were highly colored, both in paint and in point.
I AM THE DOOR
I AND MY FATHER ARE ONE
REMEMBER LOT'S WIFE.
"This place used to be a mission," he said, walking through it with an enthusiasm that was as brisk as his pace. "I didn't even know these slogans were there until they started clearing all this crap out---everything was piled against the walls. I think I'll leave them up there."
He stepped out of the path of two husky Chinese lifting a large box with rolls of wire that trailed over the sides, and he stood for a moment watching them carry it toward the daylight at the top of the cellar stairs. En route, one of the Chinese stumbled over a copper chandelier lying with its mate next to another chandelier in a jumble of intertwined appendages and, as the foot struck the copper, an idea seemed to strike him.
"I think I'll ask them to let me keep those," he said. "They'd look crazy hanging from the ceiling here, don't you think? This place'll decorate itself. We've got four times the room down here that we have upstairs. What a place to have an 'Underground Literature Department.'"
Perhaps it was Lawrence Ferlinghetti's command of irony that had put an electrician's shop in the cellar of the City Lights Book Store. Now it was with the same good humor that Ferlinghetti was putting the electrician out.
"We need the space," he said. "I've had my eye on this cellar a long time, but I had to wait until the guy found another place to take his junk. We're too cramped upstairs, we outgrew that store a long time ago. See, we already use this part of the cellar to keep our stock," and he walked toward a corner which had been partitioned off by turning the backs of several book stalls on the electrician's space.
The book store, in fact,, had already outgrown this part of the cellar. The stock lined the shelves, filled carton after carton piled on the floor and covered a rolltop desk which stood open beneath a bare electric bulb. From the top of the desks, he picked up a package which apparently had arrived that day and he unwrapped it hastily. It contained a set of three finely printed paper-back volumes of poetry translated from German.
"I suppose I'll end up taking these home with me," he said. "I keep reading up the profits. Oh, I make out OK. It's the only way to earn a living if you want to write. It's an ideal arrangement for an author---to own a bookstore."
He walked between a pair of squat brick columns that formed a dismal arch and he looked up at the ceiling where, with the surprise of sunlight, circular pieces of glass had been set into the concrete revealing footsteps on Columbus Avenue overhead.
"We're under the sidewalk," he said. "Isn't this a real catacomb?"
On the streets of North Beach, almost all the footsteps lead, at different times, to the City Lights Book Store. It has to be at different times. That's because all the people whose feet step on those circular pieces of glass set into the concrete sidewalk couldn't possibly fit into the store at once. Built by a carpenter who apparently lacked either depth or other perspective, the interior of the store has all the dimensions of Dr. Caligari's cabinet, and much of the fancy, too. In each corner, although the entire store itself seems to be just one corner, there are books and people in a ratio that seems to exceed both the literacy rate and the legal limit of occupancy. Sitting at a desk and presiding over all this browsing, or sometimes browsing himself, is Shigeyoshi Murao, Ferlinghetti's partner. Or sometimes Kirby, Ferlinghetti's wife. Or sometimes Ferlinghetti. The desk is near the entrance to the store and tacked to the wall above it are posters, broadsides, letters and a narrow-gauge staircase. The staircase goes to a second floor, where there are more books and more people. The letters go to poets, who usually are as much in evidence at City Lights as their books. For many of them, in fact, the only forwarding address available is C/O City Lights.
"There's more happening here now than there ever has been," Ferlinghetti said. "There are a lot of younger poets coming up---the original group isn't here any more. Jack Kerouac hasn't been here in a long time and Allen Ginsberg hasn't been here in a couple of years, although he'll be here soon. These are the writers that are usually written up in New York in connection with the Beats. But in San Francisco, the unknown writers keep showing up. They keep coming, keep showing up from all over the country. I get more and more manuscripts. It's the same scene in every generation. There were Beats in the 20s, they just used different vocabularies for them, it seems to me. They're all walking on the wild side. . ."
Ferlinghetti, too, has walked on the wild side. In his book, Pictures of the Gone World, he wrote:
Not too long
after the beginning of time
upon a nine o'clock
of a not too hot
standing in the door
of the NEW PISA
plaster head of DANTE
waiting for a table
was a man with a mirror for a head
which didn't look so abnormal at that
real ears stuck out
and he had a sign
A POEM IS A MIRROR WALKING DOWN A STRANGE STREET
He has read his poetry as part of a jazz combo in The Cellar in North Beach. He has faced jail for publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl. He has assaulted the academies, from within as well as without. He has filled his shop with Beat books and he has filled their authors with a deference for him. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a big name not only in North Beach, not only in the entire San Francisco community of poets, but he's also a rising star in poetry international.
"I'm not beat," he said. "I don't consider myself part of the Beat Generation. Just because I published Howl, everybody thinks I'm beat."
With a slimness that makes him seem taller than he is and with an ramrod erectness that belies the slouch which he claims characterized him during his career as a wartime lieutenant commander in the Navy, Ferlinghetti spoke with mellow self-assurance. On top, his hair was thinning and on his chin its swirls were tinged with gray.
When you're twelve years old, the thirteen-year-olds look like another generation," he said. "Ask Rexroth and see what be says. Kerouac and the people he knew when he was out here in 1950 or so, that's what he considered the Beat Generation back then, in the late Forties or 1950, around then. That was his Beat Generation, but the term's been taken over by a younger age group, the one's that're in their twenties now. Kerouac wasn't in San Francisco much, except for passing through. Since I arrived in '51, he's passed through town two or three times but he's never stayed here much. I met him about the time I published Howl in 1955. 1 met him at a party at Rexroth's. Although I can't say I really met him---he was lying in one room and I was sitting in the next. But then these times he was here, he was never around North Beach except as it's written up in his books, The people that lived here weren't conscious of him. He never came around the book store. That's no sign, but, what?---a writer who doesn't read books? Well, that's what I thought then. I didn't know him very well. Since then I've gotten to know him a lot better. He reads books. No kidding! Kerouac is great!
"Ginsberg, I met him around North Beach somewhere, maybe. Or I met him at the book store. I had started publishing the Pocket Poets Series and he came in with a manuscript, very timid about offering it, seemingly. It was about '54, I think. He stayed in San Francisco for a couple of years, activated a group of poets who had been separately working on the wild side, who had no voice at all and had not been published. Allen really is a great catalyst. Wherever he goes he acts as a great poetic catalyst. He's really performing about the same function that Ezra Pound performed in the Twenties. He's great at discovering poets and getting things going. This is what Pound did and this is what Allen is doing. When he came to San Francisco there was already a lot going on but there also were these other poets that nobody paid much attention to. This is the first voice on a new side of the record. This was something new that, as soon as he started up, immediately fostered a lot of imitators as well as other people his own age or older who bad been along these lines. His reading of Howl at the Six Gallery sure caused a sensation. I was there but I was already raving about the poem. I was real happy to see him make it like this, to get it across because sometimes he's given readings that got hammed up pretty bad where it wasn't as effective as this reading was. It was just a revelation to a lot of people. No one had ever heard of him much. I had read the manuscript and it was already accepted, it was all decided beforehand. I even asked Allen to announce at the reading that we were going to publish Howl, but he forgot to announce it. I sent him a telegram---he was living in a cottage in Berkeley---I sent him a telegram the next morning asking him exactly when I would get the manuscript. A real histrionic, corny telegram saying, 'I GREET YOU AT THE BEGINNING OF A GREAT CAREER.'"
"A real, original greeting," he commented, still chuckling. "Emerson to Whitman.
"But it was not the only reading of its kind out here. There were a lot of readings at the Six Gallery which were just as wild. And just as well attended. Rexroth gave a reading here that had a big crowd. The one where Ginsberg read Howl was the most outstanding, but there were a lot of other good ones. San Francisco before that had had a nice, polite type of poetry society. For one thing, here as everywhere, people had been used to the usual low mumble at a poetry reading.
"Well, somebody comes along, and Ginsberg wasn't the only one that started shouting at the audience and that had something to say besides the shouting. As I always said to Gregory Corso, shouting is not poetry, we're still feuding over that. One reason Howl made such an impression, why it came to notice---besides the antics of the local customs and police officials in seizing it and then arresting us for selling obscene literature, and thereby causing all the public to rush in and buy the 'filthy' book---one reason was that among poetry readers, people who were acquainted with poetry, here was a poet who was saying something relevant about the world today. He was walking down the street and seeing the street. For years, poets, ones that had been published in the big journals, in the Partisan Review, in the university quarterlies, Poetry Chicago---for years it had been poetry about poetry, poetry for poets, or poetry for a little coterie, and the same thing in painting--painting about painting. You read the art magazines, Art News, Arts Digest---I used to report for Arts Digest and cover the San Francisco scene. The constant critic's song all during the years after the war and up well into the Fifties and probably still---I've ceased reading the art magazines---is on the point of the painterly qualities in the paintings, the technique in the paintings. The same in poetry. All the poetry criticism is about the marvelous technique and the discipline and what a marvelous technique the poet has and the marvelous technique the painter has, and nothing is said about the content. That of the content of the nonobjective painter? What's it all about, dad, I mean, it's all right, all this marvelous texture, the painterly quality, this marvelous discipline, such an accomplished rhymester. But what's he saying? What's it all about? Poets and painters have forgotten how to use their eyes. They were walking down the street. and they didn't even see the street.
"For years we read one of the accepted poets, one of the ones that sits in one of the official poetry chairs of this country, and he's in this important position, and you think, 'Well, he's going to give me a new great vision of the world.' But you receive nothing of the kind. If you look at a great painter's work, if you look at Goya's work or Shakespeare's work, you get a new great vision of the world. And you say, 'Gee, I never saw the world like that before, and all those people---I never saw those people like that before.' What modern poet do you get this new great vision out of? You don't get it out of Alan Tate, you don't get it out of Randall Jarrell. They're mumbling in their beards about poetry instead of about the world."
Lawrence Ferlinghetti started out by wanting to be a newspaperman, an ambition which, interestingly enough, at one time was shared by Kerouac and Ginsberg. The reason, of course, was the widespread concept that writing for newspapers was a prelude to and a part of writing, a concept of which all three have since been disabused. Victimized by a bad press that they consider not only to be bad but wicked, they have, instead of dedicating their lives to journalism, dedicated a part of it to anti-journalism, accusing all the mass media of lies, treachery and exaggerations, only incidentally about themselves. In any event, Ferlinghetti is certainly happy he never made the grade as a reporter.
"Complete waste of time!" he said, recalling his journalism courses at the University of North Carolina, where he received his baccalaureate degree. "I might have learned a little about writing, but not much. And they don't do any good when it comes to getting a job in journalism. The only thing that gets you the job is newspaper experience, that's the only way to get a job on a newspaper. Journalism school? I'd walk in and they'd say, "What's that?' They don't care about that. Unless you happen to go to Columbia Journalism School, that's the exception. I wanted to be writer and journalism seemed like the only way to get there at the time. But after the war there were three people for every job. There was the journalist that had a job before the war, and then there was the fellow or the girl who took his place on the. paper while he was in the war and then you, myself, coming along after the war and there's already these other two, so naturally, there was no job in New York. I ended up emptying waste baskets at Time for about four months.
"I was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919. And then large silence from then to the
he did a lot of bumming around
went to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, before the war. Then I went in the Navy, and then I went to Columbia and got an M.A. In English, Nineteenth Century literature. I did an M. A. on Ruskin and Turner. And then I went to Paris in '47 on the GI Bill. I was there 'til '51. I was painting there, too. Used to go to the Academie Julien. Well, I still paint. There's not enough time, though. You can't just paint once a week and get anywhere, I mean it's just a pastime that way. You can't develop, just doing it in between writing or pick up a brush once in every couple of weeks, that's no good. In Paris, I got a doctorate at the Sorbonne. My major thesis in French was The City as a Symbol in Modern Poetry. It was a survey of English, American and French poetry from 1950 on. Had a big public defense of the thesis in French, big scene. A lot of fun. And I did a lot of bumming around the continent.
"But it was in Paris that I first got the idea for a book store. What better way could you think of to get the books to read and the time to write? Had a friend in Paris, he gave me the idea. So I came to San Francisco in '51, met another friend, Pete Martin. But, well, I still didn't know about the book store for sure. I thought I might make it teaching but after I taught for a while, I soon realized that it was no place for a writer, 'cause one's writing or one's painting or whatever it is comes out the way you live. The way you live tells in the writing, or else if it doesn't it's phony writing, actually. 'Cause it should reflect it. So if you live in the university, after a while you have no experience with the outside, world and your writing gets that way, too. Places like writing workshops and poetry workshops, they're the graveyard of the poet. That's one place where a poet should never go. He's just digging his grave, going to poetry workshops, that's no place for him. This proliferation of writing workshops and such just testifies to the poverty of genius in this country. So Pete Martin and I started the book store. It was the ideal solution. I don't see why everybody doesn't start a book store. The United States is highly underpopulated with book stores. There could he ten times as many. Pete had a magazine called City Lights, which he edited and he wanted a way to pay the rent for the magazine office and conceived of the idea of having a little pocket book shop. And so I went in with him as a partner. As soon as we got the door open, we couldn't get it closed. There was this enormous vacuum that existed for this kind of book, or for places to get it, and it was just a natural. It happened that the book trade was just about to be revolutionized by the paperbound book, and this was in 1953 and it was just the time to do it. I think ours was the first paperback book shop in the country."
Next door, across the alley, is Vesuvio's. In the back yard you find the upper reaches of Chinatown. Catty-corner, across the expanse of the intersection where Columbus Avenue, Grant Avenue and Broadway cut one another, is the one-way center of North Beach. And around the corner is Mike's Pool Hall.
"You can get the best bowl of minestrone in San Francisco in Mike's Pool Hall," he said, and he led the way.
Outside, on Columbus Avenue, Ferlinghetti walked with quick uphill steps in the coatless San Francisco February.
"You want to know about my teaching?" he said. It was at the University of San Francisco. A Catholic college. Jesuit. I didn't last very long there. For one thing, they never asked me any questions about what religion I was when they hired me, and I suppose that with a name like Ferlinghetti they said, 'Oh, he's a good old fish eater,' and let it go at that. But I soon found that it wasn't the Fordham of the West. This university was so far out of it that you might as well be back in the Sixteenth Century, if not earlier. I soon ran into trouble with a priest who didn't want any mention of James Joyce on the Hamlet bibliography---l was teaching an upper division course in Shakespeare. He didn't want the chapter of Joyce's Ulysses mentioned in the bibliography even though it's the most brilliant modern criticism written on Hamlet. Then, on Shakespeare's sonnets, he didn't want the homosexual interpretation even mentioned. I left at the end of the year. It was mutual."
He pushed through the swinging doors into Mike's Pool Hall and took a seat at the counter, where men in white aprons were preparing for the luncheon rush. At a wooden chopping block, one of them shaped meat balls with the palms of his hands and tossed them into a vast tureen with raw regularity. At another chopping block a second one of them sliced away at cabbage heads. Pool balls clicked in an undertone.
"It's true I had a Catholic background," Ferlinghetti said, "but I could hardly be called a Catholic, however. But I never considered myself a Protestant. In this country, if you're not Catholic, you're a Protestant. In Europe, it's not this way. The French writer or poet, he may write all kinds of blasphemous, outrageous attacks on the Church, the Catholic Church. He may be as far away from the Church as you can imagine---condemning it on every ground and throwing everything out the window, having nothing to do with the doctrine and blaspheming it all over the place, and yet he will not consider himself a Protestant. He will consider himself a non-conforming Catholic, or a non-conforming one. I would say I'm in the French tradition. People mistake me for Italian, but I'm French."
The bowls of minestrone soup were delivered to the counter with a splash.
"See, I'm called a Beat writer," he said, "but this is what is so phony about the label. Like they identify the Beat writers with Existentialism. There have been quite a few articles that usually throw in some remark on Existentialism as a background for Beat, the way the chicks dress sitting in the cafes, they look like the young chicks around Saint Germain. But one of the first things that Sartre---Jean-Paul Sartre---one of the first things that Sartre always insisted on was literature of engagement. The writer had to be engage. This is one of his first assumptions, whereas the Beat, the way it's become defined, is the cool citizen, the cool cat who will not stick his neck out far enough to be engaged. This is strictly against the rules. As soon as you engage yourself, you're indirectly being victimized by the state that you're trying to escape and you're falling into your own trap. Sartre says the writer should be engaged. Committed is the word in English, really. He should he committed to a definite stand and he should be engaged in promoting that stand. Promoting is the wrong word, but he should be committed to it the way a resistance writer was committed to the resistance movement. See, this is where it came from, naturally. These were the tenets that were developed under the Occupation in France and that were carried into the late Forties, that a writer should still be engaged, committed. Like, 'Man, don't hang me up! I don't want to be committed!' is the average attitude along Grant Avenue.
"Well, in San Francisco there's a particular climate which all of this fell upon. There was an anarchist libertarian background here. It was traditionally a center for anarchist and libertarian thought. This is where Rexroth's original strength came from, and part of this movement is his long, sustained presence as a force committed to the anarchist, libertarian point of view. And so there was a natural liaison between the feeling of the Beat not to be committed to anything with the anarchist, who is against government per se, who thinks all government is bad and who is usually accused of being negative. Rexroth has this affinity to the younger Beats, but he's as committed as a writer can be, from the anarchist point of view. He's committed to that. His articles are very committed articles, and this is not the kind of thing that, well, these younger guys, they just laugh at this. And Rexroth takes a beating at the hands of Kerouac in The Dharma Bums. Kerouac calls him Cacoethes. I took this for the French word for peanut. . ."
It is, in fact, his own political awareness and his own social conscience that exempt Ferlinghetti from the Beat Generation---if he is to be exempted---with much more effectiveness than his strongest renunciations. The Beats, as Ferlinghetti points out, shun such an awareness and such a conscience just as those who don't shun them. This does not mean, however, that the Beats have abandoned caring for humanity. They have, rather, abandoned the belief that humanity can be cared for through political or sociological means. And so their commitment, because they appear to be as much committed, actually, as the generation of their predecessors, is not to the political action of yesterday but to the spiritual revelation of what at least one of them has called the eternal now. Once, following a particularly futile debate between Jack Kerouac and James A. Wechsler, someone suggested that there could never be any coherent argument between them because the mystic Kerouac would talk only about an abstract world while Wechsler, self-described as an "unreconstructed radical," insisted on talking about a material one.
"There is no material world!" Kerouac stormed in reply. Similarly, when LeRoi Jones published a broadside of poems in honor of Fidel Castro., an acquaintance asked if he had considered all of the Cuban's dictatorial policies before paying such a compliment. "I don't care about his politics," Jones answered. "I'm only interested in him as a romantic figure." And again, when Gregory Corso, invited to a political discussion group, found himself besieged by opinions from men who hadn't changed them in years, he shouted back:
"You want me to pick a side. You want me to be against something. If you pick a side you have to hate the other side. I say love everybody."
Of the major Beat writers, only Allen Ginsberg evinces or admits to evincing a political awareness and even a social conscience which approaches that of Ferlinghetti. On the subject of Castro, for example, Ginsberg, although certainly not blind to the romantic aspects of the Cuban Revolution, has not closed his eyes to the brutality of it.. "Look at this!" he said one day, pointing to a New York Herald Tribune article describing the mass executions in Havana. "Castro says, 'Although we have deep humanitarian sympathies, we cannot yield to them.' That's the point. We must always yield to them."
"Allen," comments Ray Bremser, "is political. The rest of us don't give a shit about politics, but Allen is very political." Even so, Ginsberg found it necessary to write, on Independence Day, 1959: "A word on the politicians: my poetry is Angelical Ravings, and has nothing to do with dull materialistic vagaries about who should shoot who. The secrets of individual imagination---which are transconceptual and non-verbal---I mean Unconditional Spirit--- are not for sale to this consciousness, are of no use to this world, except perhaps to make it shut its trap and listen to the music of the spheres. Who denies the music of the spheres denies poetry, denies man, and spits on Blake, Shelley, Christ and Buddha. Meanwhile, have a ball. The universe is a new flower. America will be discovered. Who wants a war against roses will have it. Fate tells big lies, and the gay Creator dances on his own body in eternity."
Any concern for the Beats' political orientation, or lack of it, is not their own. Motivated by politics through their youth, and, in fact, far beyond it, the intellectuals of the preceding generation quite naturally have looked for the political motivations of their successors. Finding none, they have in some cases applied their own. Some of them, for example, have concluded that the Beat Generation is primarily a reaction to or rejection of the Marxism, Stalinism and other radical intensities and dogmatic nomenclatures of the Thirties and Forties. Actually, the reaction and rejection has been much more total. The Beat Revolt is a cultural revolt, with barricades that extend far beyond any ideological ballot boxes and with skirmishes that are most violent in the areas of art. An outpost in this revolt is, City Lights Book Store, and a victim of its crossfire is Ferlinghetti. Because while he may continue to put his faith in ballot boxes, his faith is art. On the subject of ultimate destruction, for example, Gregory Corso can write, "O Bomb I love you I want to kiss your clank eat your boom . . ." But Ferlinghetti has felt compelled to write:
And after it became obvious that the President's general staff
was still in contact with the President deep in the heart
of Georgia while deep in the heart of South America
the President's left-hand man was proving all the world loves
And after it became obvious that the strange rain would never stop
and that Old Soldiers never drown and that roses in the rain
had forgotten the word for bloom and that perverted pollen
blown on sunless seas was eaten by irradiated fish who spawned
up cloudleaf streams and fell onto our dinnerplates
And after it became obvious that the President was doing everything
in his power to make the world safe for nationalism
his brilliant Military mind never having realized
that rationalism itself was the idiotic superstition
which would blow up the world
And after it became obvious that the word Truth had only a comic
significance to the Atomic Energy Commission while the
President danced madly to mad Admiral Straus waltzes wearing
special atomic earplugs which prevented him from hearing
Albert Schweitzer and nine thousand two hundred and thirtyfive
other scientists telling him about spastic generations and
blind boneless babies in the rain from which there was no
escape except Peace
And after it became obvious that the President was doing everything
in his power get thru the next four years without eating
any of the crates of irradiated vegetables wellwishers had
sent him from all over and which were filling the corridors
and antechambers and bedchambers and chamberpots in the
not-so-White House not to mention all the other various
Golf Houses scattered thruout the land of prosperity. . .
The name of this poem is Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower, which Ferlinghetti first read publicly at a celebration called, adequately enough, the Poets' Follies of 1958. Its style is patently Ferlinghetti's, a style described by Rexroth as "the kind of intellectually acidulous profound clowning developed in France by Raymond Queneau and the more journalistic Prevert." But if Rexroth takes delight in such clowning, Ginsberg, for one, takes exception to it. Ginsberg, of course, doesn't like journalism. But then the fact of the matter is that although most of the Beats admire Ferlinghetti as a man and respect him as a publisher, not all of them share either feeling for his work. In the case of Ginsberg, who is also a temperer of irony,, an alphabetizer of puns and a gagwriter of comic proportions, Ferlinghetti has been effusive to the point of no return. While Ferlinghetti heaps telegraphic praise on Ginsberg's verbal conquests, Ginsberg does Ferlinghetti the kindness of remaining silent about his. One reason, obviously, is that Ginsberg remains uninspired by Ferlinghetti's sources of inspiration. In heaven, for example, where Ginsberg finds his poetic angel, Ferlinghetti finds fallout. Then, too, Ginsberg is critical of Ferlinghetti's imagery. The picture of the President dancing madly to Admiral Straus waltzes is fine for a contemporary laugh, but will it have meaning to the posterity and the God that Ginsberg says he writes for? "But it isn't poetry!" Ginsberg exclaims. Ferlinghetti answers: "Nowhere in that publication is there any claim that it is a poem. It is a political diatribe mostly in prose paragraphs."
Ferlinghetti's disagreements with Corso have been similar. "He called me a fascist," says Corso, whose poem, Bomb, also contains these lines:
Yes Yes into our midst a bomb will fall
Flowers will leap in joy their roots aching
Fields will kneel proud beneath the halleluyahs of the wind
Pinkbombs will blossom Elkbombs will perk their ears
Ah many a bomb that day will awe the bird a gentle look
and whose poem, Power, contains these lines:
We are the imitation of Power
Every man is to be doubted
There is no mouth, no eye, no nose, no ear, no hand enough
The senses are insufficient
You need Power to dispel light
Not the closing. of an eye
The difficulty between Ferlinghetti and Corso is Corso's lyric approach to topics, which can only trouble Ferlinghetti's social conscience.
"I wrote him a letter and told him I'm not going to explain any explanations," Corso says.
"The 'fascist' term," answers Ferlinghetti, "comes in on my understanding of his Power poem, which he claims is a misunderstanding I claim any outside reader that didn't know Gregory might come to. The same thing is in the Bomb
, except that it isn't as pronounced. There's a slight ambiguity which his friends claim to show my stupidity because I don't see that it's not ambiguous at all. But I published Bomb because I liked the whole thing. I can't publish a work just because one or two lines are great, but I did say there were several lines that are worth the whole thing, like, 'The top of the Empire State arrowed in a broccoli field In Sicily.'
"How did I meet Gregory? It was funny. I read his first book which was published privately at Cambridge called The Vestal Lady on Battle. Well, it was the same thing again. There was a vision there that, well, it was a new eye on the world. I read it and I got real excited about it and I wrote two or three letters to Cambridge trying to get hold of the publisher and letters to Corso in care of the publisher. And the letters came back unopened, Then I wrote to someone up there so that Corso heard that I was trying to get in touch with him and wanted to get a manuscript from him. But I didn't hear from him. Finally, one day, he showed up. He said, 'I thought I'd come instead.'"
Outside Mike's Pool Hall, Ferlinghetti walked down Broadway past the landmarks of tourism and turned into Columbus Avenue, braking himself against the slope. We headed back toward the bookshop.
"There was a need for a publisher to publish new poems and not just a little press," he said. "Not just another little press whose publications were usually so hard to get and they were out of print almost immediately after the first printing and they had no distribution. And the New York publishers were not publishing any new poets. All during the late Forties and early Fifties there was no New York book publisher publishing any new avant-garde poetry.
"How long was it that New Directions went without publishing any new young poets? They were still publishing the generation of Patchen and Rexroth. Grove Press was doing nothing, They published one or two books---Frank O'Hara and James Broughton. A couple of others. And there was no one. My idea was to publish the poetry as a trade press, as a trade publisher, and get trade distribution and put the books out cheaply. Another thing. The idea was to publish the poem or the book of poems for, above all, less than a dollar and not in hard covers. The hard cover on the book, it's just like the cover of a coffin for most poetry. The only people that can afford to buy it are not the poetry lovers. People that want the poetry cannot afford a three-dollar, four-dollar or five-dollar book. If they can get it for 65 cents, 75 cents, they'll buy it. So, I began publishing the Pocket Poets Series. Number one was my own book, Pictures of the Gone World. Vanity first. The Pocket Poets Series has nine titles in print and each one has at least three thousand copies in print. Howl is the biggest seller but it's all gone into publishing the other unknown poets that don't sell. Ginsberg gets a standard royalty but I don't know how much he's gotten out of it so far. The first printing was small. The second printing,, he was paid in copies, which is the usual small press way of paying. See, to get a national distributor, we have to give 50 per cent of the whole price to the distributor. So, out of 75 cents, you give the distributor 37 and-a-half. And the printer takes another 25 cents and the poet's royalty comes out of the last 12-and-a-half cents. So you can see, there's not much left. Then, on reprintings, the printing bill is cut down somewhat, but that gets to an irreducible minimum. But when they tried to ban Howl, that gave it quite a bit of publicity with the trial and everything. The Howl trial? That's a long story.
The story began on March 25, 1957, when Chester MacPhee, then United States Collector
The attempt to ban
HOWL immediately created
a demand for it
of Customs for the Port of San Francisco, impounded a shipment of 125 copies of Howl and Other Poems on the San Francisco docks. "The words and the sense of the writing is obscene," MacPhee declared, adding, in what seemed to be a remarkably frank revelation of the standards by which he selected his own reading, "You wouldn't want your children to come across it." At the time that MacPhee came across it, the shipment, part of a second printing, was on its way to Ferlinghetti's book shop from Villier Publishers in England. A first printing had already passed over the San Francisco docks unnoticed by MacPhee, by his children, or, for that matter, by much of the reading public. MacPhee's attempt to ban the book immediately created a demand for it, and Ferlinghetti responded by offering, in the columns of San Francisco Chronicle book editor William Hogan, to strike a medal for the customs collector. To accommodate the sudden interest in Howl, he also arranged to have a third printing run off domestically, thereby removing the book from both MacPhee's conscience and jurisdiction. And he also contacted the American Civil Liberties Union.
"I had submitted the original manuscript to the ACLU before I ever sent it to the printer," Ferlinghetti said. "and they had gone over it very thoroughly and had advised me that as far as they were concerned this was not an obscene document and also that they would probably defend me should I be arrested for it. Well, I wasn't looking to make a publicity scene out of it as some people have thought. I had just taken the precaution, being aware of the facilities that existed, such as the ACLU, that it would be a wise, good thing for them to do, to let them read the manuscript ahead of time just to see what they thought of it. Whereas, if it was the Tropic of Cancer and I went to them with that, they'd say, 'You're out of your head. We just lost a case on that in '53. We can't guarantee anything.' But in this case, they didn't consider it obscene, so I said, "I'm OK, I'm on firm grounds, come what may. Who gives a shit?"
The ACLU informed MacPhee that it disagreed with him. So did the United States attorney at San Francisco. The United States attorney refused to take condemnation proceedings against Howl. MacPhee was left holding the books without any legal support from his superiors.
"We protested simply by letter," Ferlinghetti said, "and it was referred to Washington and the Attorney General told MacPhee, advised him, to release the books. So, the week they were released, by strange coincidence, the police seized them."
The entrance of the police into the case was greeted by one San Francisco newspaper with the headline, "The Cops Don't Allow No Renaissance Here." The cops, in this instance, were from the city's Juvenile Bureau, aptly named according to Ferlinghetti, whom they arrested after confiscating eight copies of Howl. Whether the commander of the Juvenile Bureau, Captain William A. Hanrahan, read all eight copies remains unrecorded, but his review of the book was similar to MacPhee's.
"We found them lewd," the captain said. "They are not fit for children to read."
Dutifully, in the name of the people of the State of California, or, perhaps, in the name of their children, Hanrahan signed complaints against Ferlinghetti and Ferlinghetti's partner, Shigeyoshi Murao, charging them with publishing or selling obscene literature in violation of the California Penal Code.
"I was camping out down at Big Sur at the time," Ferlinghetti said. "My wife was at the desk in the book store, so she called up Shig at the hotel that he lives in around the corner and Shig called the ACLU before turning up at the store, where the police were waiting. By the time he got there, the ACLU lawyer, Lawrence Speiser, also got there, and they all went down to the Hall of Justice to book Shig. Then I came back from Big Sur a couple days later and went down to the Hall and got booked, too. But as soon as we were arrested, I realized that, we were in a stronger position. All we had to do was to maintain our position and refuse to back down on it in any way or to censor the publication in any way. The dots that exist in place of words in the text of Howl were there in the original printing and were put in the manuscript by Ginsberg. Like, he didn't want to have the F-U-C-K-E-D in there, so he took it out and put dots in. That was his own censorship."
The trial, before Municipal Court Judge Clayton Horn, dragged on throughout the summer, with several days a week devoted to testimony. For the defense, the testimony came from nine expert witnesses, including Kenneth Rexroth, University of California faculty members Mark Schorer and Leo Lowenthal, San Francisco State College professors Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Herbert Blau and San Francisco Examiner book editor Luther Nichols, all of whom reiterated that as far as the non-juvenile reading public was concerned, Howl was a serious attempt at art. In addition to the expert witnesses, Ferlinghetti had expert legal help. As the case got under way, ACLU attorney Albert Pendich found a volunteer aide in the person of J. W. (Jake) Ehrlich, a trial lawyer with an illustriousness that came in full color, a short and appropriately pugnacious one-time boxer who boasted of having taught the manly art to a judge or two, and not necessarily in cases of self-defense. He embellished his demeanor by always wearing a starched collar, starched cuffs and a starched pocket handkerchief. At that time the subject of a bestselling biography entitled Never Plead Guilty, which was the advice he always gave his clients, he told me:
"I tried that case because I have some strong feelings about a policeman acting as a literary giant. I volunteered because here is a man, a policeman, he earns $400 a month, he walks into a book store, he reads a book and he suddenly decides the book is going to ruin all of mankind, including children, and he makes that judgment never having read two other books in his life. I don't want anyone telling me what to read. I want to read what I want. If it's going to ruin me, let me be ruined. As far as Ginsberg is concerned, I think he has a lot to learn about construction, but I think his poem was just a man setting down what he thought. Sure, it isn't Longfellow and it isn't Walt Whitman and it isn't Lord Byron, either, but it is Ginsberg. He didn't have and he doesn't have the class of, for example, Whitman, but the fellow distinctly finds fault with this world. That's the part of the poem that primarily caused the police to make the arrest, the proposition that he is now angry with the world and says, 'Fuck the atom bomb.' That was the prosecution's big argument. That was the word which tended to destroy youth. In my argument before the Court, I asked the Court if it had read Christopher Marlowe. The Court, being an educated wan, said yes. Then I propounded the academic question if the Court thought Christopher Marlowe was a great poet. And then I read his poem that says, 'I love you because I'm fucking you,' and then I went into the proposition of what the word 'fuck' means, plotting its common usage until 200 years ago. Actually, the word 'fuck' is an abbreviation. In old England, anyone caught in illegal cohabitation was charged with 'unlawful carnal knowledge'---that was the technical term. It was a very common offense and, on the blotter, instead of writing out that so-and-so was being held 'for unlawful carnal knowledge' they would just write, 'F.U.C.K.' As for my cross-examination, it was quite simple. The prosecution put their experts on and they started telling me what they considered classics and then they were in trouble. . ."
There were two expert witnesses for the prosecution. One was a private elocution teacher, a woman, who said, "You feel like you are going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff. I didn't linger on it too long, I assure you." The other prosecution witness, a faculty member of the same Catholic University of San Francisco Ferlinghetti had once abandoned to the Sixteenth Century, apparently lingered on Howl somewhat longer. "The literary value of this poem is negligible," he said. "This poem is apparently dedicated to a long-dead movement, Dadaism, and some late followers of Dadaism. And, therefore, the opportunity is long past for any significant literary contribution of this poem."
"Well," said Ferlinghetti, "it was a great trial. Ginsberg was traveling in Europe and I never took the stand. There was no reason for me to, and as long as our attorney didn't put me on the stand, the other side couldn't. So I never spoke. But the Hall of Justice is right down a couple of blocks from here and every session was jammed with North Beach inhabitants. Beat Boulevard! Quite a collection! We had enormous public support. It was just phenomenal. The judge was always threatening to clear the Court. It was pretty boisterous sometimes, but the judge immediately silenced them. I think one day he almost did clear the Court. The biggest laughs came from some of the remarks from the prosecutor, who was in a complete fog all the way through. He didn't seem to know what was going on."
The prosecutor was Deputy District Attorney Ralph McIntosh, and some of his remarks are included in the following portion of the Howl trial transcript:
MR MCINTOSH: Did you read the one in the back called America" . . . What's the essence of that piece of poetry?
MARK SCHORER: I think that what the poem says is that the "I," the speaker, feels that he has given a piece of himself to America and has been given nothing in return, and the poem laments certain people who have suffered at the hands of---well, specifically, the United States government, men like Tom Mooney, the Spanish Loyalists, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro boys and so on.
MR. McINTOSH: Is that in there?
MARK SCHORER: That's on Page 33. In other words, that is the speaker associating himself with those figures in American history whom he regards as having been martyred. He feels that way about himself.
MR. McINTOSH: Well, America is a little bit easier to understand than Howl, isn't it". . . Now [referring, to shorter poems in the back of the book] you read those two? You think they are similar, in a similar vein?
MARK SCHORER: They are very different. Those are what one would call lyric poems and the earlier ones are hortatory poems.
MR. McINTOSH: What?
MARK SCHORER: Poems of diatribe and indictment, the mood is very different, hortatory.
MR. McINTOSH: That's all.
Judge Horn's opinion, 39 pages strong,, cleared Ferlinghetti, Murao, Howl and the courtroom and, in fact, applied whatever guilt there was to the police. "Honi soit qui mal y pense," the judge wrote, making use of the motto on the British crest, which means "Evil to him who thinks evil."
"I do not believe that Howl is without even 'the slightest redeeming social importance,'" the judge continued. And as for the words which Ginsberg neglected to replace with dots, Horn said, "The author has used these words because he believed that his portrayal required them. The people states that it is not necessary to use such words and that others would be more palatable to good taste. The answer is that life is not encased in one formula whereby everyone acts the same or conforms to a particular pattern. Would there be any freedom of speech or press if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism? An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words."
Ferlinghetti celebrated his court victory by decorating the window of the City Lights Book Store with stacks of Howl, which he quickly sold to customers stacking up at the store door. It seems the customers are still stacking up at his door to this day.
"As I said before, there's more happening here in San Francisco now than there ever has been," Ferlinghetti said. "There's a place here for a big---well, not a big publisher---but there's a place for a real trade publisher of belles lettres, and as the Giants came to San Francisco there's also room for a publisher who's not on a little magazine scale. The way things are now, there's nowhere for someone to send a manuscript of a novel except to New York, so I hope to publish novels, new unpublished works, but I have yet to find anything. I've been reading manuscripts for the last couple of years, novel manuscripts. This idea that poets or way-out novelists can't get published is a bunch of baloney. If the poet has really got something on the ball, he's going to get published. There are plenty of New York publishers that are wide open for the wildest and the furthest out if they can find anything that's any good. New Directions and Grove Press particularly are wide open for anything that's any good, and I'm doing the same on a much smaller scale.
"As a matter of fact, I have a very interesting City Lights Publications editorial file of letters from correspondence with poets and other writers that wrote me for various reasons. Like with Kerouac, for instance. I wrote him about his book of poetry called The Book of Blues or The San Francisco Blues. I read the manuscript and was wanting to publish it, but as it was I didn't. One of the things that he wrote me, I remember, was that this was an important book to him and be would like to see it in print. Well, it was a matter of taste, and I didn't get too excited over it. It's more to my disgrace, maybe . A lot of people think I'm crazy. But there's a lot of famous poets I don't like, it's just a matter of publishing what I like. Kerouac should be known as a poet. I love him. He is a poet. But I happen to feel that his biggest talent is as a great gusto prose writer. He's a great, wild prose writer, and it's not necessarily true that his poetry would be as great as his prose. That he's a thinker is something else again, any more than Henry Miller is a thinker:. He's christianizing Buddhism is what Japhy Ryder accused him of indirectly doing, or suggested that this is what he's trying to do. But Kerouac seems a fairly conventional Catholic from other points of view.
"Otherwise, I get lots of manuscripts from kids all over the country. Not from college kids, though. I get lots of letters from college kids writing me about my own poetry, for instance, but most of the manuscripts I get are not from academic circles. They probably think it would be a waste of time. Probably it would be. What's interesting about Howl, though, was the response from the college kids, it was enormous. It's the college students and the young Bat Generation, the ones that are from 20 to 25, that are really digging the whole thing, everything about it. This has become part of the new liturgy just as Henry Miller and Kenneth Patchen were the old liturgy in the colleges. Used to be in the late Twenties and early Forties, Patchen was the avant-garde liturgy. Well, now it's Kerouac and Howl and some of myself.
"How would I define Beat? Well, this is the final question. It's just been defined by so many different . . . . Well, it's a bad word. I mean it's a term that isn't any good for, doesn't mean what it is supposed to mean. Kerouac and the people he knew when he was out here in 1950 or so, he considered that was the Beat back then, that was the Beat Generation, in the late '40s or 1950. That was his Beat his Beat Generation, but the term has been taken over by this younger age group, the ones that're in their 20s now. It doesn't mean anything to me. I don't like and I don't use the term, I don't think of myself as one, the term doesn't apply to me. It's a nice journalistic label invented by a columnist. evidently, or 'beatnik' is. Well, I think when Kerouac says it means 'beatific,' this is just something to mystify the squares that he threw out. When Clellon Holmes used the term, well, the objective terms to define it start off with some kind of jazz or hip, hipster's language background coming out of the beat in music and being beat. The hipster who is beat down. And then Kerouac's 'beatific.' This is all just phony. The whole term ought to be abolished. It's a useless term." ##NEXT: A CHRISTMAS CARD (AGAIN)
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