City Lights Pocket Poets

I had an unconventional, but definitely not unique way to City Lights poetry books – through Rory Gilmore. Or, let’s be honest, though Jess Mariano, who picked the book out from Rory’s bookshelf. I was all team Jess, so of course I needed the book (and if you don’t know who I’m talking about, we can sadly not be friends). That was in 2012. It took five years until I finally bought it. And it turns out, I liked it. And so began my love for the Beatniks, through a favourite TV show of girls from around the world.

Throughout the years I have added some City Lights books and here are some thoughts on my little stack of poetry. From someone who knows nothing about poetry, really. Listed in the order, I read them. I didn’t used to take notes about books when I read the first ones, so the first memories are a bit hazy.

About the series

The City Lights Pocket Poets Series is a series of poetry collections published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books of San Francisco since August 1955. The series is most notable for the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s literary milestone “Howl”, which led to an obscenity charge for the publishers that was fought off with the aid of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The series gave many readers their first introduction to avant-garde poetry. Many of the poets were members of the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance, but the volumes included a diverse array of poets, including authors translated from Spanish, German, Russian, and Dutch. According to Ferlinghetti:

“From the beginning the aim was to publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic…I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment.”

No. 4: Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, 1956

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was originally published by City Lights Books in the Fall of 1956. Subsequently seized by U.S. customs and the San Francisco police, it was the subject of a long court trial at which a series of poets and professors persuaded the court that the book was not obscene. Howl & Other Poems is the single most influential poetic work of the post-World War II era, with over 1,000,000 copies now in print.

My entryway to beat poetry and therefore quite hard to say something about. I loved it, even if I didn’t understand much of it on the first read. But something captured me, after having only read classical poems in school before.

The titular ‘Howl‘ was new and incredible, as was ‘America‘. But ‘Song‘ with its shortness and clear thought, moved me a lot (as it did James Bay, I guess).

No. 30: The Fall of America, Poems of These States 1965-1971 by Allen Ginsberg, 1972

Beginning with “long poem of these States,” The Fall of America continues Planet News chronicle tape-recorded scribed by hand or sung condensed, the flux of car bus airplane dream consciousness Person during Automated Electronic War years, newspaper headline radio brain auto poesy & silent desk musings, headline flashing on road through these states of consciousness. . . .

I had the wonderful opportunity to buy this from the Beat Museum in San Fransico in 2014. By then I had read a few books by Jack Kerouak and William S. Burroughs. And it all made more sense.

I haven’t re-read it since, but the poems with the folded page corners from this collection are ‘A Wov’, ‘Sonora Desert Edge‘, ‘Independence Day’, ‘Rain-wet asphalt heat, garbage curbed cans overflowing’

No. 14: Kaddish and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, 1961

The title “Kaddish” refers to the mourning prayer or blessing in Judaism. This long poem was Ginsberg’s attempt to mourn his mother, Naomi, but also reflects his sense of loss at his estrangement from his born religion. The traditional Kaddish contains no references to death, whereas Ginsberg’s poem is riddled with thoughts and questions of death.

After his mother’s death, a rabbi would not allow the traditional Kaddish to be read with Ginsberg’s Christian and Atheist friends, so he rebelled and wrote a Kaddish of his own. Ginsberg began writing the poem in the Beat Hotel in Paris in December 1957 and completed it in New York in 1959.

Flipping through this one I realize, I don’t remember much of it and have only one folded page corner in the whole book – part IV of ‘Kaddish’.

When I read Gisnberg’s poetry collection ‘Wait Till I’m Dead: Poems Uncollected’, I realised I mostly liked his later works.

No. 28: Scattered Poems by Jack Kerouac, 1970

Spontaneous poetry by the author of On the Road, gathered from underground and ephemeral publications; including “San Francisco Blues,” the variant texts of “Pull My Daisy,” and American haiku.

Having read quite a few of Kerouac’s books, this was my first dip into his poetry. It was, well, a bit confusing, but more in a positive way. I will just say, that I enjoyed the collection and marked some of my favourites to re-reading: ‘Lucien Midnight’, ‘How to Meditate‘, and a few nameless ones.

No. 1: Pictures of the Gone World by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1955

Lawrence Ferlinghetti has influenced American culture like few other poets. But in 1955, shortly before he would gain fame as the beloved author of A Coney Island of the Mind, he was an unpublished and mostly unknown poet. He launched City Lights Publishers that year with a five-hundred-copy letterpress edition of Pictures of the Gone World, Number One in the Pocket Poets Series. A classic collection of early work, Pictures includes many of Ferlinghetti’s most iconic poems. 

Turns out I love Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry. No idea how it took me so long to figure that out. They have great energy to them. They are short and mostly to the point, with great humour, criticism and understanding of the world.

I very much recommend reading his poems!

My favourites were poems no. 2, 13, 21, 28 and 25:

Also, great name!

No. 8: Gasoline & the Vestal Lady on Brattle by Gregory Corso, 1958

I had only fleeting knowledge of Gregory Corso through the works of other beatniks, mainly as the character of Yuri Gligoric in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans.

I got to know him as a real person through Sam Kashner’s book When I Was Cool’ (about his experience as the first student at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) Sam was tasked with ‘motivating’ Corso to finish his book of poems, which turned out to be quite a task, as Corso was, let’s say, not the easiest person to keep an eye on.

Gregory Nunzio Corso was the youngest member of the key inner circle of the Beat Generation and he had had a rough way getting there. He grew up being abused in foster homes, as a teenager spent time in jail and in the psychiatric ward and on his 18th birthday was sentenced to prison. But according to Corso, prison made him a poet. Gasoline is dedicated to “the angels of Clinton Prison who, in my seventeenth year, handed me, from all the cells surrounding me, books of illumination.”

And holy shit, this complicated background shows in his poems. I was very much confused most of the time reading them. But the introduction to the second book in the collection says it perfectly: “Corso, at his worst, cannot help himself, and the poem, always vigorous, runs away from him. But at his best, he achieves a clear-cut meaning without stiffening into the lifeless poet’s state of rigour mortis.”

Though I felt that the poems were mostly running around me, they left a trace of sadness and gratitude for life a the same time in their wake.

The one page I marked during reading and Sam Kashner’s memories of his graduation from the Jack Kerouac School, hopefully shows you a piece of Gregory Nunzio Corso:

Suddenly I could hear a howl from outside, like Quasimodo in the bell tower. It sounded like someone was yelling “Penguin dust!” It reached us in the shrine room while Allen was finishing his poem. It was Gregory’s voice, shouting from outside the shrine room: “Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit! That’s it! Tell Sam Kashner-that’s the title of our book!”

Allen, when he reached the end of his poem, wrote down the title as casually as if Gregory had been sitting across from him at tea. Of all the lunatics, I would miss Gregory the most. I had come to the Kerouac School, had come to knock on Allen’s door so that he would teach me to write and to become a poet. But Allen was a famous man who had other famous men around him, and others still who depended upon him and clung to him like a life raft, who sapped his energies and often left him too exhausted for his own work. There was a kind of terror in the way Allen insisted on being the one who held everything together, in our nuthouse, Allen was king.

But it was Gregory who had become my courage teacher, who had pulled over to the side of the road and made me watch the last few hours of sunlight going down through the mountains. He saw his own youth slipping away, but he wasn’t sorry. He was grateful. “I wish I could stop being young.” Gregory said to me the last time we were together. “To watch youth walk away would be a beautiful thing, to see it for what it’s worth, its vanity, and to take a final look at it and then cross to the other side of Time.”

That’s what Gregory had to say, but they wouldn’t let him say it at graduation. They didn’t even let him in the room. “For only the lovers of life are fit to die,” Gregory shouted through the high windows of the shrine room. And then again, “Penguin dust!” That was the last thing I heard him say. I ran out of my graduation ceremony and around the side of the building to find him, but there was no one there. You’d have a hard time talking me out of the idea that he was never really outside at all. Perhaps I just heard him, the one who made me laugh, roaming around inside my head. After the ceremony I dashed home and looked up autochthonic: “he loves the earth on which he walks.”

No. 19: Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara, 1964

Often O’Hara, strolling through the noisy splintered glare of a Manhattan noon, has paused at a sample Olivetti to type up thirty or forty lines of ruminations, or pondering more deeply has withdrawn to a darkened ware- or firehouse to limn his computed misunderstandings of the eternal questions of life, coexistence, and depth, while never forgetting to eat lunch, his favourite meal.

Marking the end of my beat poets discovery trip for now, it took quite a few lunches for me to get through this one.

Wasn’t really for me. But at the end of the book, there were some that I liked more, like: ‘Five Poems‘, ‘St. Paul And All That‘, ‘Yesterday Down at the Canal‘, ‘Poem‘.

So, 7 done. As of 2022, there are 63 books in the series. Thanks, Jess.