Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Romance of City Lights
Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ was the most famous of the Pocket Poets series published by City Lights Press, but those striking looking little books changed the course of American lit.
Black and white and read all over, City Lights’ Pocket Poets books were a depth charge in the American mind, back in the Eisenhower ’50s. Part of the literary explosion known as the San Francisco Renaissance, they blew wide a hole the counterculture of the coming decade would be only too happy to step through. Sixty years ago this August, the first of the series rolled off the letterpress. Rain-slicker yellow with a black border, the cover of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s own Pictures of the Gone World was designed to blare, and blare it did, grabbing the attention of browsers scanning bookstore shelves or, more likely, perusing the display racks in train stations, bus terminals, and drugstores where paperbacks were more commonly found.
In the gray-flannel conservatism of the times, the syncopated, sardonic Beat poetry between the book’s paper covers made an even more jarring noise in the head. “Oh the world is a beautiful place/ to be born into/ if you don’t mind/ a few dead minds/ in the higher places/ or a bomb or two/ now and then/ in your upturned faces/ or such other improprieties/ as our Name Brand society/ is prey to,” wrote Ferlinghetti, in Poem #25. Ferlinghetti’s opening salvo was a love tap compared to Pocket Poets Number Four, published exactly a year later, in August 1956. Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg was a succès de scandale. In Memoirs of a Beatnik, the poet Diane DiPrima describes her first encounter with Ginsberg’s manic, breathless incantations against ‘50s America in all its buzz-cut, beehived, pinko-baiting, fairy-bashing, lynching, lobotomizing grotesquerie. “The priestly ex-book-thief arrived and thrust a small black and white book into my hand, saying, ‘I think this might interest you.’ I took it and flipped it open idly, still intent on dishing out beef stew, and found myself in the middle of ‘Howl’… Put down the ladle and turned to the beginning and was caught up immediately in that sad, powerful opening: ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…’” In a trance, she handed the ladle to a friend and wandered off to pore over the poem and make sense of its impact. “The phrase ‘breaking ground’ kept coming into my head,” she recalls. “For I sensed that Allen was only, could only be, the vanguard of a much larger thing. All the people who, like me, had hidden and skulked, writing down what they knew for a small handful of friends… would now step forward and say their piece. Not many would hear them, but they would, finally, hear each other.”
Ginsberg, who had read Pictures of the Gone World, had been drawn to City Lights partly because he “liked the way the Pocket Poets books looked,” writes Ferlinghetti’s biographer, Neeli Cherkovski. “He liked their size and shape.” Instantly iconic, their bold, minimalist covers telegraphed the hard-blowing truth of poetry whose rants and revelations jittered to the beat of bop jazz. Two or three colors. No illustration, just type set starkly against a colored or in some cases white square framed by a contrasting border. The tabloid urgency of their design called to mind the modernist poet Ezra Pound’s definition of literature as “news that stays news.” (This, remember, was a moment when poetry, along with jazz and foreign films, was hip culture’s conduit to truths mocked, ignored, or suppressed by official culture.) Likewise, the series’ format—true to its name at a pocket-sized six inches long by about five inches wide—recalled the hit-and-run political pamphlet, from Tom Paine’s Common Sense to the revolutionary tracts of the International Workers of the World, anarcho-socialist trade unionists of the teens and early ’20s.
When I told Ferlinghetti that the stripped-down design of the Pocket Poets titles reminded me of the more plain-Jane IWW pamphlets, he said, “That’s the tradition we were working in. We were starting a radical Left press, which I hope it still is.” Like the rabble-rousing Wobblies, as the IWW-ers were called, Ferlinghetti and his collaborators “were more concerned with the content than the appearance,” he says. That said, “I was always interested in cover design, naturally,” he adds. “The words on the cover were the most important words in the book.”
City Lights Books has for much of its life been “a one-man press,” he notes, so it’s no surprise that Ferlinghetti designed most of the early Pocket Poet covers himself. He employed a quick-and-dirty approach that got the job done, slapping paste-on letters on a background and, later, for ventures into prose such as A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard (1962) by Paul Bowles and The Yage Letters (1963) by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, sticking them directly onto the cover image, typically a black-and-white photograph.
“I never thought of hiring a designer,” says Ferlinghetti. “I was a painter before I started publishing poetry; I had a big studio in Hunters Point shipyard here, so I just went down to the studio and did the covers whenever I needed them.”
The minimalist design of the Pocket Poets series was inspired, he says, by the Untide Press edition of An Astonished Eye Looks Out of the Air (1945) by the poet Kenneth Patchen (whose Poems of Humor & Protest would be Pocket Poets Number Three). Untide Press, fascinatingly, was the imprint of Civilian Public Service Camp 21 (“Camp Angel”), at Cascade Locks, Oregon—a camp for conscientious objectors to World War II. (Ferlinghetti, not one to mince words even at 96, calls it a “concentration camp”). Men assigned to Camp Angel did unpaid gruntwork for the U.S. Forest Service; after hours, they transformed the camp into a hotbed of artistic activity, with an arts journal called Illiterati and a book-publishing arm, Untide. An Astonished Eye was letterpress-printed by William Everson, who later became Brother Antoninus, a Dominican monk and, improbably, a Beat poet. (Time magazine dubbed him “The Beat Friar.”) Kemper Nomland Jr., a modernist architect, designed the cover. “The idea I got from it was, there was a white label that was pasted over the staples—it was a stapled book—and so the staples were hidden by this white paper label, which wrapped around both the front and the back of the book, and then on the front half was printed the title of the book,” Ferlinghetti recalls. “So we used that as the basis of the covers for the Pocket Poets series.” The hip-pocket format was inspired by Poètes d’Aujourd’hui [“Poets of Today”], a series published by Éditions Seghers. Ferlinghetti discovered the trim little books when he was living in Paris after the war, earning a doctoral degree in poetry at the Sorbonne. From Howl on, Ferlinghetti’s typeface of choice for the titles of most of the early Pocket Poets books was Albertus, a sharply incised serif face familiar from books by the British publisher Faber and Faber. Designed in the ’30s by Berthold Wolpe, who later worked as a designer for Faber, Albertus has a chiseled-in-stone authority that, on reflection, seems out of step with the Beats’ Whitmanesque egalitarianism and their “spontaneous bop” aesthetic, as Ginsberg put it. Still, it does grab the eye.
Ferlinghetti’s Pocket Poets titles aren’t the most elegantly designed offerings in the City Lights catalogue: that distinction would have to go to the hallucinatory covers conjured up by the graphic designer and artist (and onetime disgruntled City Lights book clerk) Rex Ray, whose design and illustrations for titles such as The Story of the Eye (1987) by Georges Bataille and Bed of Sphinxes (1997) by Philip Lamantia update the mind-melting swirls and blobs of Fillmore West-era lightshows for the digital age. And they lack the dynamism of ’60s- and ‘70s-era outings like the City Lights Journal (“some of the best” of the press’s covers, says Ferlinghetti) and prose releases like Kerouac’s Book of Dreams (1961), Notes of a Dirty Old Man by Charles Bukowski, and M‘Hashish by Mohammed Mrabet (both 1969), which use high-contrast black-and-white photos and eye-jangling typefaces, laid out at crazy angles, to bounce the eye around the composition.
Still, there’s no denying the mystique that clings to the early Pockets. All these years later, their bold covers still convey the sense that any reader rash enough to open them had better buckle up and prepare to break the mind barrier.
In the world before the Web, Howl and Pocket Poets like it were passkeys to an alternative America, invisible in the mainstream but no less real for that. Handed from one kindred spirit to another in the back alleys of bohemia, City Lights’ little books made the emerging counterculture visible to itself, prefiguring the Web’s role in knitting isolated, seemingly impotent individuals into communities strong in number and political will.
Naturally, as apostates of the American Dream came out of the shadows, guardians of the status quo took to the battlements. The conservative commentator Norman Podhoretz—“Poddy,” to waggish left-wingers like Gore Vidal—fired off “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” (1958), an essay that opened with a pot shot at Ginsberg’s “little volume of poems,” then unloaded its blunderbuss at “the Beat generation’s worship of primitivism and spontaneity,” its “hostility to intelligence,” its unconscionable mockery of sack-suited squares, and its unapologetic homosexuality. Podhoretz—no friend to faggotry, he—was especially unstrung by Ginsberg’s gleeful description of the Best Minds of His Generation screaming with joy as they were “fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists,” an image calculated to make the Poddies of the world reach for their nitroglycerin tablets. As it happened, Captain William Hanrahan of the San Francisco P.D., Juvenile Division, was a close reader of Howl and Other Poems, too: in 1957, Ferlinghetti was arrested for peddling obscene literature. The ACLU defended him, and the judge found in Ferlinghetti’s favor, moved by his testimony that “it is not the poet but what he observes which is revealed as obscene. The great obscene wastes of Howl are the sad obscene wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms.” Of course the book was an instant bestseller, confirming Ginsberg’s belief that even if he lost, he—and we—would win.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He has been a professor of journalism at NYU, a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow at UC Irvine, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome. His latest book is the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. He’s at work on a biography of the author, illustrator, and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey for Little, Brown.