Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Romance of City Lights

“Black and white and read all over, City Lights’ Pocket Poets books were a depth charge in the American mind, back in the Eisenhower ’50s. Part of the literary explosion known as the San Francisco Renaissance, they blew wide a hole the counterculture of the coming decade would be only too happy to step through. Sixty years ago this August, the first of the series rolled off the letterpress. Rain-slicker yellow with a black border, the cover of publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s own Pictures of the Gone World was designed to blare, and blare it did, grabbing the attention of browsers scanning bookstore shelves or, more likely, perusing the display racks in train stations, bus terminals, and drugstores where paperbacks were more commonly found. … [Allen] Ginsberg, who had read Pictures of the Gone World, had been drawn to City Lights partly because he “liked the way the Pocket Poets books looked,” writes Ferlinghetti’s biographer, Neeli Cherkovski. “He liked their size and shape.” Instantly iconic, their bold, minimalist covers telegraphed the hard-blowing truth of poetry whose rants and revelations jittered to the beat of bop jazz. Two or three colors. No illustration, just type set starkly against a colored or in some cases white square framed by a contrasting border. The tabloid urgency of their design called to mind the modernist poet Ezra Pound’s definition of literature as ‘news that stays news.’ (This, remember, was a moment when poetry, along with jazz and foreign films, was hip culture’s conduit to truths mocked, ignored, or suppressed by official culture.) Likewise, the series’ format—true to its name at a pocket-sized six inches long by about five inches wide—recalled the hit-and-run political pamphlet, from Tom Paine’s Common Sense to the revolutionary tracts of the International Workers of the World, anarcho-socialist trade unionists of the teens and early ’20s. … City Lights Books has for much of its life been ‘a one-man press,’ he notes, so it’s no surprise that Ferlinghetti designed most of the early Pocket Poet covers himself. He employed a quick-and-dirty approach that got the job done, slapping paste-on letters on a background and, later, for ventures into prose such as A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard (1962) by Paul Bowles and The Yage Letters (1963) by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, sticking them directly onto the cover image, typically a black-and-white photograph. …”
The Daily Beast
NY Times: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Enduring San Francisco
Guardian – Interview with a Bookstore: San Francisco’s historic City Lights
W – City Lights Bookstore, W – Lawrence Ferlinghetti
YouTube: Read Here Now I City Lights Bookstore I Driven: True Stories of Inspiration, Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti laments changing San Francisco

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