Raucous Sounds: City Lights Pocket Poets at 60

City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology, edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, features radical poets like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

By John TytellJuly 3, 2015

City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. City Lights Publishers. 306 pages.

But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

— Walt Whitman, “Poets to Come”

IT IS A COMMONPLACE, often denied by romantic humanists, that technology has a formative impact on life as we know it. Of course, the habit of reading — a book, newspaper, or this essay — depends upon technological innovation. A German goldsmith named Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg designed a printing system on a wine press using movable metal type in a small, dark room in the medieval town of Mainz in the middle of the fourteenth century. The cultural consequences of Gutenberg’s printing press led to the reproduction of classical texts — driving what we call the Renaissance — and allowed the possibility of democratic governance that depends on people getting the news.

In the American colonies, approximately three hundred years later, small, independent printing establishments could enable a printer like James Franklin to diminish the stranglehold of Cotton Mather and the Puritan theocracy in Boston, or pamphleteer Thomas Paine in New York to get the word of Common Sense and Rights of Man to farming folk in the back country. These were revolutionary developments. As late as the middle of the 19th century, a former journalist named Walt Whitman found a press in Brooklyn on which he could set the type of “Song of Myself” — the first long poem free of all classical or European models that could be called characteristically American.

All this is history, perhaps, but it matters in so far as the contemporary literary situation is concerned. This is an age when smaller publishers have been forced to collapse their trade divisions or have been swallowed whole by big publishers who consolidate to form a few giant conglomerates mostly owned by European entities like Pearson, Hachette, or Bertelsmann.

In such a moment, perilous for American readers and writers alike actually, the presence of alternative small presses (and online publication as well) has been both vital and potentially viral. One model for enduring small-press success has been the publishing entity City Lights in San Francisco, founded and formed by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1955.

Major cultural changes often result from individual vocation and choices. Ferlinghetti’s life story seems so characteristically American. He had a rocky beginning in life: his Italian father died six months before his birth and his French mother was sent to an asylum a few months after. Fortunately, he was adopted by the daughter of the man who founded Sarah Lawrence College and was raised in Bronxville, an elite suburb north of New York City. He was sent to prep schools, and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill he wrote on sports for The Daily Tar Heel, and contributed stories to The Carolina Quarterly, an excellent literary magazine. 

Enlisting in the Navy after Pearl Harbor, he served as an officer on subchasers, escort vessels that dropped explosives on German submarines. He participated in the invasion of Normandy, which was the beginning of the defeat of Germany, and felt impelled to visit Nagasaki six weeks after the atomic explosion that ended the war with Japan. On the G.I. Bill, he studied at Columbia University, and then went to France in 1947 to study at the Sorbonne where he received a doctorate. In 1951, in San Francisco, he began working with Peter D. Martin on his magazine, City Lights, named after Chaplin’s film, and where Ferlinghetti’s first translations of the French Resistance poet Jacques Prévert appeared.

With Martin, Ferlinghetti started a paperbound bookstore, a novel idea after the war as the book market was changing. Located between North Beach and Chinatown, City Lights was intended as a place to foster intellectual inquiry and activity. He also created a press that like Barney Rosset’s Grove Press was based on the notion that freedom of speech needed advocacy. One of its focal points became Beat-related publications like The Yage Letters, an epistolary exchange between Burroughs and Ginsberg from the Amazon basin, and Neal Cassady’s The First Third, an awkward, strained account of the Beat catalyst’s early years.

Ferlinghetti wanted to publish poetry in an inexpensive format that could reach working classes rather than the more elite audience that patronized poetry. The Pocket Poets Series issued funny looking little square paperbacks that could be easily carried in a pocket. The first book he published in this series was his own Pictures of a Gone World, a hand-assembled letterpress edition of 500 copies, a mixture of elegy and optimism influenced by the modernist anticipations of Apollinaire, Prévert, and e e cummings. The fourth slim volume in the Pocket Books Series was Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956), an explosion of form and content that changed the nature of American poetry and had to be vindicated by judicial process in order to appear in print at all.

Like Ginsberg’s, Ferlinghetti’s poetry reacts to a rote academic formalism, and he seems inspired more by raucous sounds of the street than hushed whispers in a museum. His choices for the City Lights Pocket Poets seem guided by a sense of linguistic freedom influenced more by the way we actually speak in the heat of the moment than the manner in which past poets have put words on paper. The tradition of what should be called “natural speech” begun by Whitman is exemplified by the remark of William Carlos Williams, who told Allen Ginsberg the story of doing his rounds by car as a pediatrician in Paterson, New Jersey, when he heard two laborers arguing in a ditch. One of them shouted “I’ll kick yuh eye!” which became a hallmark of the immediacy, directness, and emotional honesty Williams wanted to capture in his poems.

As the neurologist Oliver Sacks recently pointed out in a column in The New York Times, the spoken word, as opposed to the more controlled written version, tends to be more open, improvised, unpredictable, spontaneous, and ultimately inventive. For the most part, the poems in the 60th-anniversary edition of the City Lights Anthology of Pocket Poets live up to Williams’s fresh, irrepressible expectations.

The disadvantage of any anthology, however, is that it can provide more of a particular taste than the sustenance of a substantial meal. While the result often may not fully represent the poet, it can serve an editor’s priorities. From the beginning of the series in 1955, Ferlinghetti’s intention was to provoke, to discover unknown new voices, to create an “international, dissident, insurgent ferment,” to challenge the political (or economic) given, the safe assumptions of a culture that seemed bound by its affluence and commodities. A good illustration exists early in the anthology, with the Moloch section of Ginsberg’s “Howl”:

Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless Jehovahs!
Moloch whose factories dream and croak in the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities!
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen! Moloch whose name is the Mind!

For Ginsberg, the Canaanite god Moloch, to whom children were sacrificed in pre-biblical times, stands for the inequities of a capitalist system. The pronounced rhythmic hammer of the exclamation point that recurs some 85 times in the two page Moloch section of the poem is typical of the rage that Ginsberg releases in the first half of “Howl.” The tone of the poem shifts drastically after the Moloch section, however, and the Footnote coda that Ferlinghetti includes — with its perplexingly haunting reiteration of the word “holy” — reflects the turn to the magnanimity of Ginsberg’s perspective, the sublimity and largesse of his conception. 

There is a lot more of Ginsberg in the anthology, especially since eight of Ginsberg’s poetry collections appeared with the Pocket Poets imprint. While many of the selections cannot match the intensity of “Howl,” there is a selection from “Kaddish,” the elegy Ginsberg wrote to his mother, perhaps his second most powerful and anguished poem, and a fragment of a key breakthrough dream poem, “Siesta in Xbalba,” written just prior to “Howl” when Ginsberg was living in Chiapas, Mexico. 

City Lights has always been key in the dissemination of Beat literature. Except for the early success of Howl and Other Poems and On the Road, the Beats were unpopular through the 1970s, belittled by Time Life publications, and frequently condescended to in places like The New York Times. The reputations of writers like Kerouac and Burroughs only began to change drastically in the 1990s with a Whitney Museum show and events like the LACMA show of William Burroughs’s shotgun paintings. Ferlinghetti was first in America to publish Jack Kerouac’s poems as number 28 in the Pocket Poets Series, and in this volume he includes poems like the brilliant “How to Meditate” and “Hymn” with its stunning prediction of Kerouac’s own brief transit on this planet:

So whatever plan you have for me
Splitter of majesty
Make it short
Make it snappy
   bring me home to the Eternal Mother

At your service anyway,
   (and until)

The Beat movement is often still limited to the success of a few figures like Ginsberg, Kerouac (who declared it was over long before “Howl”), and Burroughs (who denied participation, anyway). I’ve never done an actuarial count but my estimate is that there are at least one hundred writers who should be included. Some of them, like Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Philip Lamantia, Jack Hirschman, and Ginsberg’s companion Peter Orlovsky, with his Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs forming number 37 in the Pocket Poets Series, are represented here, as well as some neo-Beats like Harold Norse, Frank O’Hara, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, and David Meltzer.

And even though the Beats early on got the reputation of existing as an all-boy gang, there were a number of women involved, including Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Bonnie Bremser, Janine Pommy Vega, Anne Waldman, and Diane Di Prima (whose account of bathing simultaneously with Kerouac and Ginsberg is one of high points of Beat hilarity, like Robert Frank’s film, Pull My Daisy). Di Prima, Pommy Vega, and Waldman all appeared in Pocket Poet editions and, consequently, some of their work is represented here.

However, the anthology is not another Beat collection like Ann Charters’s The Portable Beat Reader or Anne Waldman’s The Beat Book. From the start, part of Ferlinghetti’s plan was international in scope to counter American insularity and provinciality, the planetary isolation caused before the age of aviation by the comfort of oceanic protection on each side of the continent. In the United States, no other publisher, with the exception of James Laughlin at New Directions, has been as dedicated to translation and the awareness that literature resonates on a transnational plane. So a good part of the anthology includes work by such writers as Pablo Neruda, Federico García Lorca, and Antonio Machado (all translated by Kenneth Rexroth, an early figure on the San Francisco Beat scene), Nicanor Parra, Ernesto Cardenal, Jacques Prévert, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Russian writers like Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Not all of the figures represented in the anthology fall into the Beat or international categories. Perhaps, my favorite moments in the book are provided by the delicately nuanced lyrics of Marie Ponsot (who met Ferlinghetti in 1945 on a ship returning from France) or Malcolm Lowry, best known for Under the Volcano, his dark, infernal novel of Conradian descent. Indeed, one of the brief poems included here is entitled “Joseph Conrad” and is as much about the seaman’s life as the poet’s “struggling with the form / Of his coiled work.” Lowry’s wrenched, wrestling poems of existential suffering, like the “Death of a Oaxaquenian” which revolves around the refrain of “So huge is God’s despair,” ring with the power of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets.

The true marvel of the City Light Pocket Poets Anthology is its reappearance in its 60th year. That represents a venerable tradition (and a long run) for an avant-garde that often mutates too quickly for continuity. A decade ago, I was invited to a bibliophile’s paradise, the Grolier Club in Manhattan, to view a collection of the chapbooks in the Pocket Poets Series owned by a Chicago headhunter. It was a swanky affair with the waiters passing trays of the most delectable hors d’oeuvres and enough cocktails to stagger any Dylan Thomas. Some of the invited guests were talking about Yeats manuscripts, others about the latest folio discovery — the Shakespeare hunt now 400 years old. I suspect the event cost more than the production of any of the Pocket books, and it probably added up to more than any sum realized by any of the poets who were represented.

The Beats by now have slipped into history, although there are a few second-generation survivors like Anne Waldman or David Meltzer, and a few active original collaborators left like the musician David Amram or the photographer Robert Frank. Ferlinghetti is 96, but he is still writing engaged poems, as politically and progressively inclined as ever. New Directions recently published his Time of Useful Consciousness, the second part of a longer work in progress called Americus. Just as Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems became the best-selling poetry book of a generation, Ferlinghetti’s own A Coney Island of the Mind, with its insouciant bravado and cheer, has passed the million sales mark. That’s a rare occurrence in these United States. So is the Pocket Poets Series.


John Tytell is best known for Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano and Naked Angels, an early history of the Beats.

LARB Contributor

John Tytell is best known for Ezra Pound: The Solitary Volcano and Naked Angels, an early history of the Beats. He had two new books appear in 2014: Writing Beat and Other Occasions of Literary Mayhem and The Beat Interviews.


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