The Penny Post

Hail, City Lights Books at 50

By Andrei Codrescu

Not too long after the beginning of the 20th century, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was walking through a field strewn with corpses, saying, “no, no,” and trying to knock down with a walking stick the huge billboards with the faces of Hitler and Stalin. Happily, he met a fellow vagabond who was greater than Marx, Lenin, Stalin, or Hitler, and even Christ or Budha. He was a little tramp named Charlie Chaplin who was not afraid to laugh in the faces of tyrants and not ashamed of his job as a street-sweeper in the City of Lights. Chaplin gave Ferlinghetti a sword of laughter and the power to be a mirror walking down a strange street, and ever since, everything Ferlinghetti did was a slapstick in the face of that century that hastened its demise

And now the 20th century is dead

The wicked witch is dead

And all that remains of it is a bit of laughter and love

And here are some of the things Ferlinghetti did:

He was a mirror walking down a strange street, a poet, a painter, a happy person

He loved the Paris of his youth, of artists and bookstalls

And he transformed his own neighborhood in San Francisco

Into the Paris of his youth

And he marched right up into the face of the 20th century and called in a mighty voice: “Read something different, you ignorant fool!”, because the world was full of criminals waiting in line to slaughter everyone for ideas they’d gotten from bad books

And he made the poems of his loving, tragic and Chaplinesque friends into books that the young of the 20th century read and then set out to bring about the demise of the 20th century

And Charlie Chaplin and Edith Piaf were regular customers at City Lights

Making everyone laugh and cry

Until laughter and love grew stronger and the streets changed their names

From those of politicians and ignoramuses to those of poets and artists

Who traveled through underground tunnels from Paris and Prague and New York

To bring their lights to City Lights bookstore

A honeycomb of tunnels ran through the second half of the 20th century

Weakening it and hastening its demise

And whenever it threatened to blow up these tunnels

A ragged mob with wild eyes spilled out holding blinding mirrors to it

Led by Lawrence Ferlinghetti with Chaplin’s hat on his head and a rolled up newspaper in his hand

Fifty years later the poet, actor, satirist, fearless contrarian, wanderer, and citizen of San Francisco and the world, stands over the corpse of the 20th century

The future shops at City Lights Books

Note: City Lights Books in San Francisco, founded by poet Lawrence Ferlighetti, celebrates its fiftieth anniversary Sunday June 8th. During the festivities, the streets around the famed meeting place for generations of bohemians will be closed to traffic. Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been named Poet Laureate of San Francisco. Thanks to his efforts many of the streets around the bookstore have been renamed for rebel poets and writers whose works were first published by City Lights Books, beginning with Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” the greatest protest anthem of the 20th century.


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