Nothing beats the Beats

August 2, 2013
2013-05-14 13.18.04

City Lights Bookstore/San Francisco

I was just two years old when Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights bookstore in North Beach section of San Francisco. It was 1953 and no one could have predicted where the Beat movement would take literature. Ferlinghetti is now 94 years old–still alive and kicking in San Francisco. He was front and center at the movement that sparked the Beats literary revolution,  and so was City Lights.

I was lucky enough to spend some time recently browsing its crowded stacks with a friend. No escaping it: the bookstore is redolent of Kerouac, Ginsberg and the rest of the band. If I lived in the city I’d be there all the time, thumbing through the diverse selection. As it is, I probably get there only a few times a year. If you’re a literature lover visiting San Francisco, don’t forget to hit up North Beach and drop in to this relic of a time that changed the direction of literature. And influenced later writers, such as Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, one of my writer-idols.

My favorite part of the store is the crowded, low-ceilinged downstairs, where I found this door:


John 10:9, actually.

I should have tried to open that door. Does anyone know what’s behind it? The reference is to the Biblical passage I am the door. By me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and go in and out, and find pasture.
Pasture would be nice….

And on the wall upstairs at City Lights:
2013-05-14 13.20.04

My latest visit spurred an online search for rare footage of the Beats. I found this William Buckley interview that includes the most fascinating character of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac. It’s kind of a silly interview, except for Kerouac’s presence. During the interview, he looks rough and acts like a drunken sot, but even his behavior can’t mask his intellect.

He died too young and too tortured.

And then, sometimes, the ghosts of the Beat inspire me. I used to take writing trips to San Francisco. My objective was to find inspiration just a few steps from my normal life. It’s been a while since I’ve done that and this reminds me to book one very soon.

Anyway, almost 10 years ago while walking around North Beach in the early morning hours on one of those trips, my mind was a jumble of images. I’m not going to pretend to be much of a poet, truly I’m not at all. But this poem came out of that walk and sat untouched in my file until a few months ago. In a frenzy of submissions (Ok, so I submitted two pieces, total and both got accepted for publication. That’s my definition of “frenzy.”) I sent this in to the poetry journal, Waterways. And one day in late June, the little journal arrived, and there was my poem. I should point out that I’ve never studied poetry and know absolutely nothing about its form or substance. So with that caveat, and in an abundance of insecurity, I’ll post it here:

City of Spirits
In an alley behind a bookstore in North Beach
the ghost of Jack Kerouac
through a pungent veil of incense
whispering whispering
walk to the edge
Spirits haunt these streets
listen closely for their whispers
beneath the clang of cable cars
Behind the gates of Chinatown
mystics stir potions, conjure
sage advice
for those who can hear
In the colorless dawn chill
wet mist
puddled on walkways
dires in the rising sun
Spirits slip behind shadows
to sleep
3 comments on “Nothing beats the Beats
  1. Susan Cooper says:

    Wow this will be on my list to visit next time I go to the city. I love book stores like this. They have such a charm about them. Thanks for the new gem to check out. 🙂

  2. Frances D says:

    Great post and video. I know Jack would love the poem as much as I do.

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