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The World is a Beautiful Place

My last column was in praise of our dear departed peace poet and friend, Adrian Mitchell. Happily, this time, I’m celebrating the lasting creativity and indefatigable spirit of the American poet, novelist, publisher, and painter, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferl was – unbelievably because he seems to me forever young – 90 on 24 March and his continuing presence is a blessing on us all.

Back in 1952, Peter Martin opened a paperback bookstore in San Francisco and named it after a Charlie Chaplin film. In 1953, Ferl became his partner but in 1955, after Martin left for NY, he became its sole owner. Since then, City Lights Bookstore has become a literary launchpad, a community source of strength, and a catalyst of resistance to sexual repression, unfettered capitalism and military might. From the off, though, Ferl’s vision was a larger one than simply selling books – he wanted to publish too. Particularly poetry.

Thus, in 1955 he launched the world-famous City Lights Books Pocket Poets series and these wonderful paperbacks revolutionised the rather academic and rarefied world of poetry publishing. First off the press was his own collection of poems, Pictures of the Gone World. This lovely little (pocket-sized) book cemented his reputation as a major American poet. In 1958 New Directions published his collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, which has now sold over a million copies. City Lights Books went on to publish an extraordinary and international range of men and women and opened American ears to the world of poetry as no publisher had done before.

“From the beginning”, says Ferl, “the aim was to publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic….I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment”. None can doubt that City Lights Books has succeeded in this aim and when he published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1958, the ensuing trial, on a charge of publishing obscenity, created a furore reaching far beyond the USA.

The Pocket Poets Series has now published over 60 titles including works from American Beat poets Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso, the Russian dissident poet, Yevgeni Yevtushenko, the very important women writers Denise Levertov, Anne Waldman, and Diane DiPrima, the environmentalist Gary Snyder, the pacifist Kenneth Patchen, and not least of all, the French poet, lyricist and screenwriter, Jacques Prévert. In 1958 Ferl translated Prévert’s Paroles, their first publication in English – and they appeared as Pocket Poets number 9. Prévert’s poems are still in print, have sold hugely and have had a lasting influence on Ferl’s own work and on other American poets who came to prominence in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Ferlinghetti first arrived in San Francisco in 1950 and remembers it “looked like some Mediterranean port – a small white city, with mostly white buildings – a little like Tunis seen from seaward”. He’s lived there ever since and has fought against its descent from bohemia into gentrification: “I saw North Beach especially as a poetic place, as poetic as some quarters in Paris….as poetic as any place great poets and painters had found inspiration”.

From 1971 until her retirement in 2007, Nancy Peters was Ferl’s bookstore and publishing partner: “When I started working here, we were in the middle of the Vietnam War, and now it’s Iraq. The place has been a beacon, a place of learning and enlightenment.”

The last words, however, must go to Ferl. They are from his wary-eyed affirmation that “The World is a Beautiful Place”:

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing all the time

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don’t mind some people dying
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn’t half so bad
if it isn’t you

Topics: Culture