Books: Godfather of the Beats

Judith Palmer profiles Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in London this week
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"Here's my latest piece of propaganda," whispers Lawrence Ferlinghetti excitedly, riffling through his shoulderbag to peel out a sheaf of yellow photocopies. "It came to me in the middle of the night, in Prague last week," he explains, slipping me two pages of thick pointy handwriting. "Just imagine! A whole poem, all at once! Travelling always gets the mind going. Yup, I don't get much sleep right now, that's what it amounts to."

At 79, American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still unstoppable. The founder of San Francisco's famous City Lights book store and publisher to the Beat movement, he took on the US censorship laws in one of the century's most momentous obscenity trials, winning Ginsberg the right to howl and helping to put the whole Beat charabanc on the road.

Born in Yonkers, New York in 1919, Ferlinghetti spent the war skippering US sub-chasers. He studied at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill and made his way back to the States, determined to write and support writers. His hero is Charlie Chaplin, and it is from the Chaplin film that City Lights takes its name. "Chaplin's character represents for me the spirit of Eros, the very definition of a poet - the love-seeking, freedom-seeking spirit," says Ferlinghetti. "A poet, by definition, has to be an enemy of the State. If you look at Chaplin films, he's always being pursued by the police. That's why he's still such a potent symbol in the cinema - the little man against the world."

I met the grand old bohemian in Florence, where in a 14th-century monastery, a City Lights Italia book store is celebrating its first birthday with a five-night poetry festival. Luci della Citta was founded as an act of homage by five Italians who share Ferlinghetti's original aims.

"My idea from the beginning was to create a literary meeting place. There were no cafes back then in San Francisco, like I'd known in France," explains Ferlinghetti. "The shop clerk would never ask someone if they wanted to buy a book. People could just sit there and read all night, seven days a week from 10am till midnight. In fact, people always complain you've just about got to hit the clerk on the head with a book to buy it."

He opened the original North Beach City Lights, America's first all-paperback bookshop, in June 1953. It wasn't long before groups of beatnik writers were regularly hanging out in the basement bookstore, and in 1955, Ferlinghetti set up the City Lights imprint to publish them. Infamy struck with publication of the fourth volume in the Pocket Poets Series in 1956: Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems.

"Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell," warned the introduction to Howl. The US customs took heed and impounded the books. Unimpressed by the poem's invocations of a latter-day Sodom where "angelheaded hipsters ... let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy," they arrested Ferlinghetti for printing and selling obscene writings.

"I was willing to spend some time in jail," admits Ferlinghetti nonchalantly. "I didn't have anything better to do at that moment." Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti established the legal precedent that a book couldn't be judged obscene if it had the slightest redeeming social significance. It was a landmark decision, opening the doors for the publication of Henry Miller and Lady Chatterley's Lover.

"Through the whole trial we never took Howl out of the store window," chuckles Ferlinghetti. "The San Francisco collector of customs deserves a word of thanks. It would have taken years for critics to accomplish what the good collector did in a day.

"You'll often find many of the most successful publishers had an early succes de scandale, which put them on the map. I'm hoping I might be able to do the same for Luci della Citta," he adds. "Tomorrow they're publishing my translations of some semi-obscene verses by a 14th-century Roman poet, Lorenzo Chiera. A guy with the same name living in the same Testaccio district of Rome has sent a letter from his lawyers saying he'll sue if we publish. I'm going to personally post him a copy of the book."

A tall, unstooped figure in dark denim, with a high domed forehead, unlined face, and a neat white sea-captain's beard, Ferlinghetti looks fresh. He's written on LSD and Mescaline in his time, but his hasn't been the rowdy, bawdy life of his friends Kerouac and Burroughs. "I'm associated with the Beats of course, but only by publishing them. I was the last of the bohemian generation," he says softly. ""One of the main slogans of the Beats was `be here now'. Today with computer technology, fax and the cell phone, it's `be somewhere else now'. You see a nice looking guy sitting in a fancy restaurant, eating a fancy dinner with his lovely girlfriend, and he's talking on the cell phone. Not only is it rude, he's being somewhere else. It's the complete opposite of the Sixties."

Tonight (Sunday 17 May) .