Last month, I found myself increasingly excited about my upcoming trip to San Francisco. After all these years, I would finally see City Lights Bookstore and the city that held such significance for so many Beat poets.
I’d visited my Beatnik shrines in Paris, like Shakespeare and Company and the Beat Hotel, during the height of my Beat obsession. Such places continually exude history for the endless procession of sentimental visitors. I am one of those people who stands stupidly smiling while touching an historic plaque, hoping that some of its knowledge will rub off on me.
So going to City Lights meant a lot to me. More than Paris and, in many respects, more than New York, San Francisco is really the place to go when you want to drool over Beat history. And yes, it’s only a bookstore, but walking through its doors was exciting and energizing. So many books, so much history.
When I was about 16, I tried to memorize Howl, which was published by City Lights Books in Howl and Other Poems (1956). My grandmother had gone to school with Allen Ginsberg, I was (am) an aspiring poet, and I felt an absurdly strong connection to the poem. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who had championed Howl when taken to court for having published an “obscene” work, also wrote one of my favorite poems about Italian-American culture, The Old Italians Are Dying.
You have seen them on the benches in the park in Washington Square the old Italians in their black high button shoes the old men in their old felt fedoras with stained hatbands have been dying and dying day by day
My great-grandfather was an old man in his felt fedora, and reading Ferlinghetti’s poem as a teenager gave me a chill. A feeling I would soon become familiar with as I started to learn more about feminist poetry, the connecting power of language.
For a short while, I soaked in the literary history of City Lights. I ran my hands over as many books as possible, pulled out a bunch of poetry books, and settled on a couple of copies of Howl from “The Source,” as I joked with a friend, and a book of poems by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Hopefully all that sentimental wonder at the beautiful array of books and history will translate into inspiration for the months to come.