View Electronic Edition

City Lights

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was named the first poet laureate of San Francisco by Mayor Willie Brown in August 1998. His inaugural speech, printed here in slightly edited form, was delivered to an enthusiastic, full house at the San Francisco Main Library in October [for the full text, see the City Lights Web site,]. In her introduction, city librarian Regina Minudri told a marvelous story about being a "baby librarian" in the fifties, trying to get her library to purchase a banned Henry Miller book. After her request was turned down, she went to City Lights, determined to buy it with her own money to place it in the library. She told Ferlinghetti why she was buying it; it was an expensive book at that time. Lawrence said that if she would truly put it into the library's collection, he would give it to her, and then did. That says it all.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti today is the author of fourteen books of poems, as well as fiction, translations, plays, and essays. He is also a committed painter, a renowned publisher, and co-proprietor of the irreplaceable City Lights Bookstore, which he co-founded in 1953. His latest book, A Far Rockaway of the Heart , just out in paper, is a kind of sequel to his A Coney Island of the Mind . That book, first published in the fifties, has been called the best-selling poetry book of all time, pushing the million mark. Along with Michael McClure, David Meltzer, and Gary Snyder, he guest-edited CoEvolution Quarterly No. 19, "Journal for the Protection of All Beings." Lawrence Ferlinghetti has created a place to be a poet on this west edge of America, writing in a voice that has particularly inspired the young, setting the stage for generations yet to come.

—adapted from Poetry Flash, November/December 1998.

I certainly was surprised to be named Poet Laureate of this far-out city on the left side of the world, and I gratefully accept, for as I told the Mayor, "How could I refuse?" I'd rather be Poet Laureate of San Francisco than anywhere because this city has always been a poetic center, a frontier for free poetic life, with perhaps more poets and more poetry readers than any city in the world. But we are in danger of losing it; in fact, we are in danger of losing much more than that. All that made this City so unique in the first place seems to be going down the tube at an alarming rate.

This week's Bay Guardian has the results of a survey that "reveals a city undergoing a radical transformation—from a diverse metropolis that welcomed immigrants and refugees from around the world to a homogeneous, wealthy enclave."

The gap between the rich and the poor in San Francisco increased more than 40 percent in just two years recently. "San Francisco may soon become the first fully gentrified city in America, the urban equivalent of a gated bedroom community," says Daniel Zoll in the Guardian. "Now it's becoming almost impossible for a lot of the people who have made this such a world-class city—people who have been the heart and soul of the city for decades—from thefishers and pasta makers and blue-collar workers to the jazz musicians to the beat poets to the hippies to the punks and so many others—to exist here anymore. And when you've lost that part of the city, you've lost San Francisco."

And Richard Walker, head of Geography at UC Berkeley, has said, "It means a one-dimensional city, a more conservative city—one that will no longer be a fount of social innovation and rebellion from below. Just another American city, a corporate city—a fate it has resisted for generations."

When I arrived in the City in 1950, I came overland by train and took a ferry from the Oakland mole to the Ferry Building. And San Francisco looked like some Mediterranean port—a small white city, with mostly white buildings—a little like Tunis seen from seaward. I thought perhaps it was Atlantis, risen from the sea. I certainly saw North Beach especially as a poetic place, as poetic as some quartiers in Paris, as any place in old Europa, as poetic as any place great poets and painters had found inspiration. And this was the first poem I wrote here...a North Beach scene:

Away above a harborful

of caulkless houses

among the charley noble chimneypots

of a rooftop rigged with clotheslines

a woman pastes up sails

upon the wind

hanging out her morning sheets

with wooden pins

O lovely mammal

her nearly naked breasts

throw taut shadows

as she stretches up

to hang at last the last of her

so white washed sins

but it is wetly amorous

and winds itself about her

clinging to her skin

So caught with arms


she tosses back her head

in voiceless laughter

and in choiceless gesture then

shakes out gold hair

while in the reachless seascape spaces

between the blown white shrouds

stand out the bright steamers

to kingdom come

But this past weekend North Beach looked like a theme park, literally overrun by tourists, and kitsch was king.

What happened to it? What makes for a free poetic life? What destroys the poetry of a city?

Automobiles destroy it, and they destroy more than the poetry. All over America, all over Europe in fact, cities and towns are under assault by the automobile, are being literally destroyed by car culture. But cities are gradually learning that they don't have to let it happen to them. Witness our beautiful new Embarcadero! And in San Francisco right now we have another chance to stop Autogeddon from happening here. Just a few blocks from here, the ugly Central Freeway can be brought down for good if you vote for Proposition E on the November ballot. [Proposition E passed with 53 percent of the vote— Ed.]

I could go on until I'm singing to your snores, but I'll mention just one more destroyer: chain stores, or chain gangs. Corporate chain stores wipe out long-established independents, killing off local color, local traditions, and—in the case of bookstores—literary history. I've been to other great cities on poetry tours and found not a single independent bookstore left in neighborhoods where chain gangs have moved in. It's an old story by now, but it's time to revise a lot of old stories! If so much of this City's population doesn't want chain stores, why can't the City government take a united stand against them?

I've proposed that North Beach, with its long literary history including Mark Twain, Jack London, Ina Coolbrith, William Saroyan, and many others, including Beat writers, be officially protected as a "historic district," in the manner of the French Quarter in New Orleans, and thus shielded from commercial destruction such as was suffered by the classic old Montgomery Block building, the most famous literary and artistic structure in the West until it was replaced by the Transamerica Pyramid. I do hope someone will pick up this ball and run with it.

And I've already proposed that a small wooden house on Treasure Island or in the Presidio be made a Poet's Cottage where future laureates might live or work and conduct poetry events or even an annual city poetry festival. The mayor and the important journal Poetry Flash are already behind it, so I hope it will happen.

And since we are in the Main Library, let's remember that the center of literate culture in cities has always centered in the great libraries as well as in the great independent bookstores. This library should have ten million dollars a year to spend on books, more than twice as much as presently allotted. It also needs more space, since evidently this new state-of-the-computer postmodern masterpiece doesn't have as much shelf space as the Old Library next door—that classical Carnegie-style library with its great turn-of the-century murals. I believe the people made a great mistake in passing the proposition to remove the building from the library system. It might not be too late to reclaim it as a Library Annex, even though the proposition to get rid of it has already been partially implemented. All it would take is another proposition that may soon very well succeed in reversing an earlier misguided vote.

Other outrageous things on my wish list include: One—give bicycles and pedestrians absolute priority over automobiles, and close much of the original inner city to cars, including upper Grant Avenue. Two—make the City a center for low-power alternative radio and TV, with tax breaks for the broadcasters. Three—uncover our City's creeks and rivers again and open up the riparian corridors to the Bay. Four—Paint the Golden Gate Bridge golden. Five—Tilt Coit Tower—think what it did for Pisa!

I'd like to announce that City Lights is just now attempting to create a nonprofit foundation so that City Lights may continue through the next century as a literary center and poetic presence in the City. For such a foundation, we need help. Philanthropic literary angels are invited to descend upon us! [For more information, or to contribute, contact City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133. 415/362-8193.]

A few years ago I gave a talk in Michael McClure's class at the California College of Arts & Crafts, the title of which was "Why don't you paint something important?" (There was a graffito on the wall that said "You're so minimal.") Anyway, it was an attempt to pry the artists, like the poets, out of their hermetic worlds.

Well, I'm still on the same kick.

Most poets today still exist in a kind of poetry ghetto. They get pittances for published poems, compared to prose writers, even in mass media periodicals, if they manage to get in at all. And poetry readings don't begin to pay the rent for most.

What to do about it? How to get out of the poetry ghetto? The answer is obvious. Write poems that say something supremely original and supremely important, which everyone aches to hear, poetry that cries out to be heard, poetry that's news. And is it naive to think that even the mass media might print it or air it, if it were a new kind of news?

I would like to propose a regular monthly column in a daily newspaper with the title "Poetry As News." [Lawrence now writes "Poetry as News" in the Book Review section of the San Francisco Chronicle—Ed.] It would begin with great poems of the past that still are news. I think right off of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach":

Ah love let us be true

to one another!

For we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight

Where ignorant armies clash by night....

I think also of course of Whitman's "I Hear America Singing," of poems by Homer, Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats, Cavafy, Pablo Neruda, Marianne Moore, e.e. cummings, Kenneth Patchen, Kenneth Rexroth, Allen Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich. I think of Bob Dylan's early songs and of the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine," of "The Great Paramita Sutra," and perhaps of the latest rap poetry at the Nuyorican Cafe on the Lower East Side. And I think of the French poet Jacques Prévert whom I translated when I was a student in France:

The Discourse on Peace

Near the end of an extremely important discourse

the great man of state

tumbling on a beautiful hollow phrase

falls over it

and undone with gaping mouth

shows his teeth

and the dental decay of his peaceful reasoning

exposes the nerve of war

the delicate question of money

Poetic intuition and the intuitions of great poetry still remain our best medium for fathoming man's fate.