Ferlinghetti & Howl

Lawrence Ferlinghetti birthday weekend. The actual birthday’s tomorrow. Check out our yesterday’s Ferlinghetti post.

We feature today Ronald K L Collins and David M Skovers new book, The People v Ferlinghetti – The Fight to Publish Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.

From the publisher’s note:

“Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s name does not appear in any First Amendment treatise or casebook. And yet when the best-selling poet and proprietor of City Lights Books was indicted under California law for publishing and selling Allen Ginsberg’s poem, Howl, Ferglinghetti buttressed the tradition of dissident expression and ended an era when minds were still closed, candid literature still taboo, and when selling banned books was considered a crime. 

The People v. Ferlinghetti is the story of a rebellious poet, a revolutionary poem, an intrepid book publisher, and a bookseller unintimidated by federal or local officials. There is much color in that story: the bizarre twists of the trial, the swagger of the lead lawyer, the savvy of the young ACLU lawyer, and the surprise verdict of the Sunday school teacher who presided as judge. With a novelist’s flair, noted free speech authorities, Ronald K. L. Collins and David Skover tell the true story of an American maverick who refused to play it safe and who in the process gave staying power to freedom of the press in America. The People v. Ferlinghetti will be of interest to anyone interested the history of free speech in America and the history of the Beat poets.”

From the review in Publishers Weekly:

“Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100 on March 24. At nearly five score, there is much poetic breath left in the famed poet’s literary lungs…..Ferlinghetti’s fame as a poet is vast (millions of copies of his books have been sold); his talent as a painter is widely recognized (his works have been displayed in galleries and museums throughout the world); and his manifesto as an activist is manifest (“Poets, come out of your closets,” he roared in his 1976 poem “Populist Manifesto #1”). Many awards rest on his mantels, and popular culture has tapped into both his beat and bravado. He was a major figure in the cultural revolution known as the beat generation and gave a publishing presence to several of the great figures of that movement. And, of course, he was the man who, in 1956, breathed publishing life into Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems..Throughout Ferlinghetti’s long life, the revolutionary poet and born maverick has been beholden to none. Part of his nonconformist side was revealed in the courage he displayed in defending freedom of the press at a time when few did so. After publishing Howl and selling it in his bookstore, Ferlinghetti kept it alive despite federal and local attempts to ban it. In the ensuing legal battle in 1957, First Amendment law was forever changed. The Howl case is a remarkable chapter in the history of the free press in America.

The People v. Ferlinghetti centered on an iconoclastic poet, a revolutionary poem, an intrepid book publisher, and a bookseller unintimidated by federal or local authorities. There is much color throughout the case: the bizarre twists of the obscenity trial, the swagger of the district attorney, the savvy of the young ACLU attorney representing Ferlinghetti, and the surprise verdict. Combining an erudite calm with an ardent conviction to protect principle, Ferlinghetti prevailed: the municipal judge returned a not-guilty verdict and did so by way of a remarkable unpublished opinion (which survives).

The precedent set by Ferlinghetti’s words and deeds first changed his world and then reconfigured ours. It set in motion a new era in press and poetic freedom. No one has been prosecuted for publishing or selling a poem since.

Despite all of Ferlinghetti’s efforts in the case, his name is absent from the published pages of the law. The Supreme Court has never cited his name as a precedent for press freedom. It does not appear in any First Amendment treatise. It is an unfamiliar name to law students, lawyers, and judges.

The Howl case is the true story of an American who refused to play it safe and who, in the process, gave staying power to freedom of the press, first in 1957 and again in 2007, when he arranged a reading of “Howl” on internet radio to circumvent Federal Communication Commission broadcasting regulations.

“Pity the nation—oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode and their freedoms to be washed away.” These are Ferlinghetti’s commanding and cautionary words in his poem “Pity the Nation.”

Ferlinghetti is a painter, poet, publisher, bookstore owner, social activist, and First Amendment champion—and a true American maverick.”

We have already made mention elsewhere of Collins & Skover’s previous work.

Erwin Chemerinsky, distinguished law professor at the University of California, Berkeley:

“When it comes to First Amendment scholarship and storytelling, Collins and Skover are in a league of their own. With verve and vision, their engaging free speech narratives capture what has often been overlooked. That their latest work should focus on Lawrence Ferlinghetti (that rebel poet and publisher) is no surprise. His story lends itself perfectly to the kind of First Amendment history that sorely needs to be retold with historical accuracy, jurisprudential insight, and literary élan – the very kind of undertaking Collins and Skover have perfected.” 

This Tuesday (Tuesday March 26) City Lights will be hosting a book launching for the book.

On the same topic, we’d like also to highly recommend Bill Morgan & Nancy J Peters‘ 2010 City Lights book, Howl on Trial – The Battle For Free Expression

Lawrence Ferlinghetti – champion of free speech.

And let’s not forget (ever) Shig Murao


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