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Light and Shadow

Light and Shadow

Howl by Allen Ginsberg

Light and Shadow

Who is Ferlinghetti? Visitors to San Francisco might spot his quote engraved on the concrete grounds of the Jack Kerouac Alley. It reads: “Poetry is the shadow cast by our streetlight imaginations.” It is perhaps this streetlight imagination that prompted the poet to present the city with a plan to transform the garbage-ridden alleyway into a cobbled walkway guided by the tender evening glint of streetlights. 

These streetlights now help guide the curious visitor to City Lights, an independent bookstore Ferlinghetti cofounded in 1953. Three years later, the bookstore-owner offered to publish Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which sent Ferlinghetti down the shadowy road of litigation and First Amendment protection. The government seized hundreds of copies of the publication directly from the shipping crates that brought them from City Lights’ London printing company. Its reasoning: “You wouldn’t want your children to come across it.” Ferlinghetti was then arrested and charged with selling an obscene book. An obscenity trial over the publication ensued. During this time, the state judge caught up on precedent by diving into James Joyce’s Ulysses, which caselaw deemed exempt from the government’s obscenity restrictions. (I wonder if he knew what he was in for?) Ultimately, the court held that Howl was not obscene because the work had redeeming social importance and literary value. Soon after, other publishers followed suit and helped shape the landscape of state and federal obscenity laws (think the publication of Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence.) 

An influential force in the San Francisco Renaissance, Ferlinghetti helped spearhead the publications of the postwar Beat Generation – a group of Columbia students who met in Morningside Heights, flocked to the bars on the corner of Greenwich Village’s MacDougal and Bleecker, and eventually migrated their way toward the west coast as non-conformists and writers. And their Bay Area counterparts.

And in the midst of that generation (and even ours), Ferlinghetti: A source of light and shadow. 

View our Ferlinghetti print

Lawrence Ferlinghetti Quote, Illustration by Obvious State

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