In 1959, when I was 16, an American documentary about the Beat Generation aired on British television. The film was shot in San Francisco, in flickering black and white, and featured interviews with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, and other North Beach luminaries. British television used more lines than the American system, so documentaries from abroad were always a bit blurry, which only enhanced the impression that this remote world of poetry, free love, art, and bohemianism was coming from the moon. I wanted to live like that.
In 1960, I wrote Ferlinghetti, world-famous poet and proprietor of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, to ask if I could reprint two of his poems in a mimeographed little magazine called Tree that I was bringing out from my art college in Cheltenham, England. He sent a friendly postcard giving permission. It was my first contact with the Beats. Later that year, in a tumbledown, 400-year-old cottage in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where I lived with a group of art students, we lettered Ferlinghetti’s poem “Dog” across the whole of one whitewashed stone wall.
For me, Ferlinghetti represents the open, bohemian sensibility more than any other Beat writer. His books—among which A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) is the best-known, having reportedly sold more than a million copies—draw upon the avant-garde, Dada, and surrealism, as well as home-grown anarchism and a deep love of freedom. Moreover, City Lights, which he co-founded in 1953, ranks alongside Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company in Paris and Frances Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart in New York as a center of avant-garde and experimental writing. As a publisher with nearly 200 books in print, City Lights also has the distinction of being (alongside New Directions and Grove Press) one of the primary sources of radical modern poetry, works in translation, and dissident literature in America.
Ferlinghetti has always rejected the Beat label, preferring instead to describe himself as part of an anarchist bohemian tradition. His cultural background certainly differs from that of other Beats. He is the only member of that cohort to hold a PhD, from the Sorbonne, for a dissertation (in French) titled “La Cité: Symbole dans le Poésie Modern: À la Recherché d’une Tradition Métropolitaine.” He spoke French before English because his mother was French-speaking. He was born in New York but went to France when he was about a week old, and spent his first six or seven years there. As he told me in 1986, “I really felt more French than American a lot of the time. I was a long way from the Beat Generation and I became associated with the Beat Generation by publishing them. I mean, this was the McCarthy era, and there was no such thing as the alternative press. There really wasn’t any place for them to get published.” In this regard, Ferlinghetti’s contribution to American literature is immense, not only for publishing groundbreaking experimental literature, but also for promoting it through his bookstore. And, of course, the legendary Howl trial laid the groundwork for ending literary censorship in the United States.
In the case of Howl (1956), Ferlinghetti had already determined to publish it even before the celebrated reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco during which Ginsberg read the poem in public for the first time. “I’d had the manuscript when the Six Gallery happened, and I went to the reading, I was there,” Ferlinghetti told me years later. “And when I got home that night—I didn’t know them well enough to go out with them after the reading—I sent Allen a telegram to his Berkeley address.” This was the famous telegram in which Ferlinghetti repeats Emerson’s message to Walt Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” only Ferlinghetti added, “When do I get the manuscript to Howl?” (Ginsberg had taken it back to show someone else, but not until Ferlinghetti had already agreed to publish the title poem as a pamphlet.) “When I heard [Ginsberg] read [Howl] aloud, at the Six, one of those magic moments happened, one of those moments editors know are very rare, and I was suddenly revved-up to rush it into print,” Ferlinghetti told me. The book appeared from City Lights on November 1, 1956.
On March 25, 1957, Chester MacPhee, collector of customs for San Francisco, seized 520 copies of the second printing of Howl and Other Poems, which had been shipped from John Sanky’s Villiers Press in England, on the grounds that the book was obscene. A week later, the American Civil Liberties Union said they would contest the legality of the seizure (Ferlinghetti had shown them the manuscript prior to publication and they had agreed to defend it if necessary). In May, Ferlinghetti printed 2,500 copies of Howl in the United States, thereby avoiding Customs. On May 29, Customs dropped the case, but shortly after, undercover police inspectors Russell Woods and Thomas Pagee bought a copy of Howl from Shigeyoshi Murao at City Lights. Shig was arrested for selling an obscene book, and Captain William A. Hanrahan of the Juvenile Bureau of the San Francisco Police Department issued a warrant for Ferlinghetti. The trial of Howl had begun.
The case against Shig was quickly dropped, as the prosecution couldn’t prove that Shig had read the book and therefore sold it “lewdly.” On September 5, nine witnesses for the defense testified to Judge Clayton W. Horn as to the poem’s literary merits. Meanwhile, Ginsberg was in Tangier, working with William Burroughs to assemble the text of Naked Lunch (1959). When I asked Ginsberg about the trial years later, he told me: “By hindsight, it seems I took it very lightly, and I’m glad I did. I didn’t hardly get involved. I didn’t have to. […] I didn’t think there would be any trouble winning. And if it lost, even better. If it got serious, then I would go back. In other words, I would put my own body on the line if it was necessary, but I was busy doing something that I thought was more important than the social work of a trial, which was in a sense a fait accompli and which they didn’t need me for.” Ginsberg added that the ACLU was footing the legal bills, which perhaps eased his conscience further. He also mentioned a favorable story about the “San Francisco scene” by the poet Richard Eberhart that appeared in the New York Times Book Review. Ginsberg saw that as a stamp of approval from standardbearers on the East Coast. On the West Coast, Kenneth Rexroth championed Ginsberg’s cause, as did, eventually, Louise Bogan, Theodore Roethke, Randall Jarrell (who was the US Poet Laureate, although the title was different then), and William Carlos Williams, who wrote the preface to Howl. “There was this literary backup that was impeccable,” Ginsberg said. “You couldn’t possibly lose the case.”
When I interviewed him in 1986 for my Ginsberg biography, Ferlinghetti took a different view:
We could have gone to jail easy. It was pretty close, it seemed to me. Allen wasn’t arrested. He was in Morocco. He wasn’t involved in it. It was not just me, Shigeyoshi Mureo was arrested with me. […] We went through the trial together. I don’t know whether Allen is trying to sweep all that under the rug. It seems to me that his latest interpretation of Howl is, he’s giving it all kinds of respectable derivations, where he got it, what the real sources of it were. This wasn’t the case when it was written. It was a bombshell when it came out and I don’t think he should try and make it now seem respectable.
However, the correspondence between the two men doesn’t reveal Ferlinghetti to be unduly worried. Ginsberg constantly asked for news and newspaper cuttings, but information was slow. On October 3, 1957, Judge Horn found Ferlinghetti and Shig not guilty. Nonetheless, Ginsberg wrote to Jack Kerouac on October 9: “No news on Trial, tho I guess it’s over.” No one had bothered to send him a telegram informing him of the verdict.
In 1965, Ginsberg came to London, where I then lived and managed Betterbooks on Charing Cross Road, which specialized in modern poetry and “little” literary magazines. Ginsberg was sent to me by the poet Ed Sanders, with whom I had a book exchange arrangement. Sanders sent us little mimeographed magazines from his Peace Eye Bookshop in New York’s Lower East Side, and I sent used Penguin books and anything about drugs or the counterculture originating in England. (Betterbooks’ owner, Tony Godwin, already had a similar arrangement with City Lights: we would ship used Penguins to them in return for copies of City Lights publications, which were then all printed in London.) I persuaded Ginsberg to give a reading in the shop and he soon adopted it as his headquarters. For six weeks, he lived with me and my wife, Sue, in our apartment in Fitzrovia, just a 10-minute walk from the bookshop.
Shortly after, Ferlinghetti arrived in town as well, and naturally came over to visit Ginsberg. They had known each other for a decade by then and had a casual, easy familiarity, with Ginsberg doing most of the talking: he had just been deported from both Cuba and Czechoslovakia. I thought I detected a slight wariness from Ferlinghetti as Ginsberg enthusiastically tried to persuade the former to publish this or that latest find. In the 1950s, these finds included Kerouac, Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder. Ginsberg had limited success though. City Lights was too small an operation to consider novels, and Ferlinghetti was determined to publish only what he liked.
The year 1965 was also the year of the famous Royal Albert Hall poetry reading in London at which Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and Corso performed alongside Adrian Mitchell, Christopher Logue, Ernst Jandl, and a dozen others. The Royal Albert Hall was the largest venue in London: 7,000 people showed up to listen to modern poetry, with a further 500 turned away.
Ferlinghetti’s poetry is designed to be read aloud, and he turned in one of the evening’s best performances as he bellowed out “To Fuck Is to Love Again, Kyrie Eleison Kerista” to the horror of the British Legion attendants. “He’s shouting four-letter words at them, and they’re loving it,” exclaimed one of the aged attendants. “It was dark on stage, and we were looking up at this huge crowd,” Ferlinghetti told me. “It was the first time we got into the realms of rock concerts. Since then there have been huge readings all over the world.”
Corso read a long difficult poem, unsuited to such an occasion, and Ginsberg—unusual for him—was drunk and read badly. But the audience enjoyed the evening so much they didn’t want to leave. The reading ran over by two hours. “Go back to your homes—if you have any,” yelled the exasperated attendants, as they angrily shooed people out.
A few days later, on June 15th, another reading at the Architectural Association was everything the Albert Hall wasn’t: terrific, accessible poetry read by world-class poets to an enormously appreciative audience. Ferlinghetti read “Bus Trip to NY-Albany” and “Underwear,” a good example of his humorous poetry, which is sometimes dismissed as lightweight with lines such as:
And poetry still the underwear of the soulAnd underwear still coveringa multitude of faultsin the geological sense—strange sedimentary stones, inscrutable cracks!If I were you I’d keep asidean oversize pair of winter underwearDo not go naked into that good night
It’s a deceptively simple poem whose subtext deals with politics, consumerism, sexual attitudes, and revolution.
At the end of June, Ginsberg continued on to Paris, followed by Ferlinghetti, who then returned to stay with us. Physically, Ferlinghetti was then a large man, tall but slim, with a Roman visage and intense shining blue eyes. As Kay Boyle said of Eugene Jolas, he had “the fine head of a Roman senator and the wild gaze of a poet.” He was genial and slow-talking, and in those days wore a neatly trimmed beard and the brown corduroys of the Americans of Montmartre and Montparnasse in the teens and ’20s.
Unlike Ginsberg, who bombarded us with questions about London, Ferlinghetti rarely inquired about anything, though he obviously had a great intensity of vision and saw more than most on his daily perambulations. I considered him a thoughtful, silent observer. Only later did I realize he was probably shy. Many of his poems are written from the point of the view of the outsider, rarely the participant.
As an American used to all the modern conveniences, it shocked him that electricity had been connected to our building only the year before, despite being a five-minute walk from Oxford Circus. We did have an inside lavatory but, like millions of other Brits, the tub was in the kitchen and the kitchen sink was used for washing both dishes and faces, but it was several days before he finally asked where the bathroom was.
I enjoyed his company and asked a lot about his life and travels. He said he preferred to travel alone, but in all his stories I sensed an undercurrent of loneliness and a longing for companionship. In discussing his poetry, I made the usual error of associating him with the Beats, but he was adamant that his poetry wasn’t at all like Ginsberg’s, or Corso’s, or Kerouac’s, and that his only connection was as their publisher, though he did share some, not all, of their views. He stressed that his poetry had different influences. Years later, when we returned to that conversation, he described his style as based on “open form,” a term used in nonobjective painting and by fellow poets Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. “The basis of my typography, the Open Form typography, was if there’s a word isolated by itself on a page, white space is silence,” he said, adding that he was more influenced by E. E. Cummings than Williams during this period. Ginsberg described Ferlinghetti’s work as having “a certain melancholy old world quality,” and a style that was referential, punning, and French in mood and atmosphere—unlike the often freewheeling, vernacular, unabashedly American poems of the Beats.
I didn’t see Ferlinghetti again until 1969, when The Beatles asked me to start an experimental spoken-word label. The band already released their own albums through Apple Records, so John Lennon named their new non-commercial outfit Zapple Records. Paul McCartney tasked me with compiling a list of people I would like to record. I chose Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Olson, Michael McClure, Richard Brautigan, and Charles Bukowski. I block-booked Golden State Recorders in San Francisco, then the only professional recording studio in town, and arranged to record Brautigan, Ferlinghetti, and McClure more or less simultaneously. Ferlinghetti had more studio experience than the others and had good microphone etiquette from all of his public readings (mic placed high and pointed downward so the reader looks up and stretches his neck instead of looking down at the page, thus closing the throat.)
We recorded “Assassination Raga” and an amusing poem titled “I Asked Krishnamurti for His Autograph,” which required many takes before we got it right because it kept sounding too serious. Ferlinghetti was patient and always prepared to do another take. The most interesting track was “Moscow in the Wilderness, Segovia in the Snow,” for which Ferlinghetti was accompanied by the classical guitarist Jeffrey Chinn. Before we’d finished assembling the album, however, Allen Klein, the new head of Apple Records, convinced three of the Beatles that the band was losing money. The Zapple label closed overnight. I gave the tapes already recorded to the poets concerned. Ferlinghetti released some of his the following year, 1970, as Ferlinghetti: Tyrannus Nix? Assassination Raga, Big Sur Sun Sutra, Moscow in the Wilderness on Fantasy Records 7014.
I spent 1970 and the beginning of 1971 in New York, cataloguing Ginsberg’s tape archives, from which we compiled a 10-volume box set of the best recording of each of his published poems. Fantasy Records in Berkeley offered us their recording studio to master the tapes for pressing, so at the end of April my girlfriend, Ann, and I loaded six large boxes of tapes, two tape recorders, microphones, stands, and our own luggage onto the Santa Fe Super Chief and set off for San Francisco.
Four days later, Ferlinghetti was at the station in his VW microbus. Ginsberg had arranged for him to meet us. He drove us to City Lights and put us up in the guest room just behind the shop until we could find a hotel. Ginsberg arrived a few days later, and Ann and I moved into the Sam Wong Hotel—a favorite of Kerouac’s—on Columbus near the bookshop while Ginsberg took over the City Lights guestroom. In the end, Ginsberg, Ann, and I took a floor of a hippie commune in Berkeley for six months, only a short drive to Fantasy Records’ studio down by the harbor.
During this visit to California, Ginsberg received royalties from City Lights. He sat in a café and wrote an entire checkbook to impoverished friends such as Corso and the artist-filmmaker Harry Smith, underground newspapers that had been busted, and political and ecological pressure groups. He kept hardly anything for himself. That same week, Ferlinghetti received a substantial royalty check from New Directions that he spent on land in Bixby Canyon in Big Sur. Ginsberg challenged him on this, pointing out that he already owned two cabins down there that sat empty much of the time. It led to an argument during which Ferlinghetti forcefully countered that he had earned the money and should be able to do what he wanted with it—in this case, buy a neighboring plot to prevent anyone building a cabin next door. My sympathy was with Ferlinghetti, particularly when I saw the cabin in question.
The main cabin was where Kerouac experienced the alcoholic breakdown he describes in Big Sur (1962). On the wall of the lean-to privy outside was his graffiti:
Useless, useless,the heavy rainDriving into the sea.
The night we arrived, both Ferlinghetti and Shig slept outside on the terrace. It was idyllic. Before we returned to the city we visited the Esalen Institute. At the gates from the highway, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti debated which of them was a member. In the end, they decided they were both honorary members, and it’s true, they were welcomed as honored guests. We were fed, given wine, and invited to take part in the naked group photograph, although we had to leave before that occurred. It was interesting to see the reaction to Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti there. Both were respected as part of the California alternative body politic as expressed by Shelley’s line “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”
I was intrigued to see Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti together. The former had a high regard for Ferlinghetti as a poet and deeply respected his political activism. Ferlinghetti worked tirelessly with radical ecological and political groups, year in and year out, whereas Ginsberg’s enthusiasms were sudden and short-lived. He recognized that Ferlinghetti did the more rigorous, time-consuming work.
One of the more serious disputes between the two men was over the issue of whether poets and writers should receive government grants. Ginsberg’s approach was to infiltrate and occupy. He did his best to get NEA grants for his “gang,” as Ferlinghetti called them, and flirted with the American Academy of Arts and Letters and other official positions, hoping that his friends would become the new establishment. Ferlinghetti took a much purer position. “I thought that was complete hypocrisy to attack the government and then take money from it,” he told me. “The same government is killing people overseas, supporting dictators overseas. If you’re taking money and being supported by the same government it’s what Camus called ‘guilt by complicity.’ Most American writers sold themselves down the road.”
But, inevitably, honors came his way. In 1994, an alley in San Francisco was named Via Ferlinghetti, and in 2003, he received the Authors’ Guild Lifetime Achievement Award and the Robert Frost Memorial Medal and was inducted into the 250-member Academy, 30 years after Ginsberg and 20 after William Burroughs.
In Big Sur, Kerouac refers to Ferlinghetti as just a “genial businessman,” an insult that Ginsberg didn’t support. Indeed, Ginsberg was jealous of Ferlinghetti’s achievements: the poetry, the bookshop, the publishing house, the political work. He once told me, “I wish I could have done so much.” Ginsberg felt his own energies were too dissipated but didn’t know how to focus them. Ginsberg’s relationship with City Lights was more akin to that of a family than a publisher-author. No other publisher would advance money, send out endless manuscripts to little magazines, send books to the author’s friends, accommodate the author and his friends, and tolerate their raucous behavior.
Ginsberg worked closely with the editorial team at City Lights. Ferlinghetti told me, “Some of the earlier books, like Planet News, I remember [Ginsberg] asking me what to put in and what to leave out.” From the beginning, Ginsberg attempted to influence City Lights’s publishing policy. “He was always proposing people and in the latter years it was mostly a string of very young poets, but Antler was the only one I ever did,” Ferlinghetti said. “Allen didn’t bring up or suggest any authors that weren’t poets. Our poetry list is less than third of our list, but I can’t remember hearing him talk about any author that wasn’t a poet. His gang.” (I found the same to be true with Ginsberg when he was teaching in the ’80s. He was not aware of any of the new fiction being produced and had never even heard of most of the new names.)
Rather than perpetuate a myth, Ferlinghetti is honest about his relationship to the other Beats. “See, I really wasn’t that chummy with the New York Beat poets, so called,” he said. “I was always by myself. Allen never really included me in his gang. I remember when Kerouac died I just happened to be reading in Hartford [Connecticut], and I was staying in a hotel. When Kerouac died I would have gone up to the funeral, but nobody told me about it. So I missed that. I was sitting in this dumb hotel in Hartford. Reading it in the paper. I was his principle editor for 30 years, but, as I say, I really wasn’t one of his inner circle.”
Despite seeing himself as outside of the Beat circle, sometimes by circumstance and sometimes by choice, Ferlinghetti is central to America’s literary and cultural life. How do you even begin to describe his many decades of achievement? Ferlinghetti has done it himself. Little Boy (2019), his latest book, is a hallucinogenic stream-of-consciousness, autobiographical prose-poem, described by his publisher as a “literary last will and testament.” It’s a book full of the artists, poems, travel, loneliness, and joy in Ferlinghetti’s long life—the whole arc of his human experience passes in a sustained collage of images. I’m reminded here of the opening lines of his poem “I Am Waiting”:
I am waiting for my case to come upand I am waitingfor a rebirth of wonderand I am waiting for someoneto really discover Americaand wail
At the centenary of his birth, there’s no question that Ferlinghetti discovered America and that his work, as a publisher and a poet, has been an indelible wonder.
Barry Miles cofounded International Times, Europe’s first underground newspaper, in 1966. In 1968, he was the label manager of Zapple, the Beatles’ experimental record label. He has written many books on the Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 1989), The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs & Corso in Paris, 1957-1963 (Grove, 2000), and Call Me Burroughs: A Life (Twelve, Hachette, 2014). His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.