Over a decade ago when I was working as a radio host at KALW, a small public radio station in San Francisco, I got an email from a producer. It was a script of an opera. He was wondering if I could read a short sample from it. Lawrence Ferlinghetti had written it. Actually, the producer said “Mr Ferlinghetti is making changes as I type this.” Ferlinghetti was almost 90 at that time. He wanted to tape a session, a rough read, to hear what it was sounding like.

The opera was called Waratorio and it was being conceived as a radio broadcast, a concert performance and a full-fledged opera. It was about war and peace, much of it a conversation between a military recruiter and Mahatma Gandhi, and the part they wanted me to read was of Gandhi’s. I was doubly alarmed. First of all, I could not carry a tune to save my life. Secondly, I was worried he wanted me to sound like Ben Kingsley.

The producer was reassuring. “Lawrence has heard you many times on air and thinks a ‘straight read’ from you would be perfect.” I couldn’t demur after that. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the first poet laureate of San Francisco, not only knew I existed, he had heard me “many times on air”!

One sunny morning I drove up to San Francisco’s fabled North Beach to Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope studio and played Gandhi for Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The man who dared to publish ‘Howl’

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, publisher, painter, bookstore owner, and librettist, died in San Francisco on February 22. He was almost 102. At 100, nearly blind, he published a book he had been working on for a couple of decades, Little Boy, the closest he said he would get to a memoir. A band played Happy Birthday under his window but he skipped his 100th birthday bash at the City Lights bookstore he made famous.

Ferlinghetti made an impact on my life long before I even knew who he was. As a callow impressionable teenager growing up in Kolkata, my exposure to a western literary canon was largely through the shelves of the British Council and American Centre libraries. The American Centre library was supposed to have a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s famous book/poem Howl. But it was never on the shelf. Each time I went to the centre I would look for it, hoping against hope that it would be there. It never was. The poem was regarded as so scandalous, I never had the guts to ask the librarian about it.

Years later I discovered that Lawrence Ferlinghetti had published this book in 1956 as a 75-cent paperback after hearing Ginsberg read at a gallery in San Francisco. He was arrested in 1957 charged with “wilfully and lewdly” publishing obscene material because of references to gay sex, illicit drugs and colourful curse words. A clerk at his City Lights bookstore was arrested when he sold a copy to an undercover policeman.

But the judge, a conservative Sunday school teacher, acquitted them, calling Howl a work of “redeeming social importance.” The book became a sensation. Ferlinghetti quipped the the police “took over the advertising account and did a much better job”, though I never found it on the library bookshelf in Kolkata.

A sample of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's work at San Francisco's Jack Kerouac Alley, adjacent to City Lights Bookstore | Image credit: Goodshoped35110s / CC BY-SA 4.0

The midnight bookshop

I knew of Lawrence Ferlinghetti as a poet but had read very little of his poetry. I knew of him as the man who nurtured the Beats – Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac and others, though he told an interview he was more the “last of the Bohemians rather than the first of the Beats”. His second collection of poems, A Coney Island of the Mind, also attacked for blasphemy, had never gone out of print.

He had written poems whose titles made me chuckle, like “Tentative Description of a Dinner to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower.” But watching him from afar I understood that he was much bigger than a poet or a publisher. An institution sounds stodgy, though there is a street named after him. A radical and iconoclast like Ferlinghetti was anything but stodgy. Ferlinghetti showed how one person could literally carry the arts scene of a city in himself.

He was a writer, publisher and bookseller, all at the same time. He wore all those hats with insouciant ease like the Chaplinesque bowler he loved. He opened City Lights bookstore, technically City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, in a triangular corner framed by Broadway and Columbus Avenue in San Francisco to deal in paperbacks exclusively, at a time when paperbacks were not considered “real” books. And best of all it was a bookstore which had chairs and tables and a sign that invited you to “pick a book, sit down and read.”

It also stayed open till midnight (originally till 2 AM) and Ferlinghetti was happy to talk to anyone who walked in. He also said it was one of the first bookstores to have a periodicals rack and he stocked radical publications from both the left and the right, Italian anarchists and Mussolini followers to cater to the neighbourhood’s Italian-American clientele. City Lights Press, said literary critic Gerald Nicosia, showed “you don’t need these big publishers in New York. You can do it, and you can get the books out, and not only that, you can make waves.”

City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco | Image credit: Sandip Roy

Standing by his principles

All of this I took for granted in a time long before toxic debates about award-wapsi and anti-nationals and seditious toolkits. I thought it was only natural for larger than life figures like Ferlinghetti to do these kind of daring things. This, after all, was a man who had chased submarines during World War II, been part of D-Day, went to Nagasaki seven weeks after the atom bomb dropped there, lived for a while in an orphanage, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris watching Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at a brasserie and had been picked up as a juvenile delinquent and withheld a token dollar from his taxes in protest against the government’s military spending.

It took a long time to realise that publishers do not always stand by their books in court, that bookstores do not always invite you to sit down and read, that great writers are not always welcoming to anyone who walked into the bookstore, that leading cultural figures do not always root for the underdog.

When Ferlinghetti stood up for Howl, solid citizens wrote letters to the newspaper complaining that people like him would “swamp the country with the filth and dirt they love so well.” Over seventy years later some of these arguments still sound chillingly familiar in courtrooms as far away as Delhi even though the issue might no longer be about sexual explicitness.

The police officer who arrested Ferlinghetti said openly he wanted to make an example out of Howl and that they would “await the outcome of this case before we go ahead with other books.” That argument still resounds today whether about a book, or a comedian’s act or a toolkit to amplify protest.

When I went to record for Lawrence Ferlinghetti I was too tongue-tied to ask about any of this. I was too nervous about getting my Gandhi right. Days later I was forwarded an email from the poet at City Lights. It thanked us (in all caps) for the run-through saying it helped immensely to improve the script.

I don’t know what happened to Waratorio, but I saved the email as a memento from the great Lawrence Ferlinghetti not realising that we already unwittingly carried his legacy within us because of that day he stood up in court for the right of a book to exist. He was asked if he ever wondered what would have happened if the verdict had gone the other way. If there had been a jury it might well have given the morals of the time.

Ferlinghetti thought it was quite possible he would be found guilty but he figured “I won’t be in there for more than a few months, and I’ll get a lot of reading done.”

He won that battle. But the war continues around the world.