Lawrence Ferlinghetti was the kind of national poet laureate we really deserved but never officially got. Since he lived to the age of 101, it might occur to you that poetry and radical politics are good for your health. As a seminal figure of the international literary scene, Ferlinghetti's legacy is still going strong as are a number of other poets whom he published and championed, including Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Amiri Baraka, Daisy Zamora, Kamau Daood, Anne Waldman, and of course Allen Ginsberg. Ferlinghetti famously risked prison time for publishing Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems back in 1956 under the auspices of City Lights Books, an offshoot of the bookstore he and Peter Martin had launched a few years earlier, though the only person to spend time in jail was Shig Murao. Shig sold the offending volume to undercover San Francisco vice cops while Ferlinghetti was out of town.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of bookstores like City Lights and George Whitman's Shakespeare and Company in the 1950s. Shakespeare and Company opened in Paris around the time that Ferlinghetti was working on a PhD at the Sorbonne. After coming back to the United States, he decided to open a store with Peter Martin modeled on Whitman's, paying homage to it by putting up a sign, "Shakespeare and Company," just above "City Lights" and right above the front door. In the mid-50s, the paperback revolution was gathering strength and people like Ferlinghetti and Martin were in the vanguard, placing titles by New Directions and Grove Press on their shelves, as well as those of publishers even more on the cutting edge.
Many aspiring young poets and radicals made pilgrimages to City Lights to check out the latest books and magazines. They bought their Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Diane di Prima there, as well as Barney Rosset's Evergreen Review. Ferlinghetti stated emphatically that the Beat Generation provided the roots of both the 1960s radicalization and the counterculture. The Beats had a smaller audience, including only the most alienated teenagers throughout the nation who were ready to go on the road even if this meant dropping out of school.
In less than a decade, hundreds of thousands would attend "be-ins" or peace demonstrations inspired by the same sentiments found in works such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind, a collection of poems that was likely to be found on any bookshelf...