City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 30, New York: I’ve never been very good at reading poetry. I don’t say I’ve never liked poetry or that poetry has done me some offense, no, it’s just that I rarely have the patience for it. I do not read and reflect, I read for volume. I read for progress made. I consume prose, rarely do I marinate.

One of the few times I broke that was hurtling around Europe on trains at 19. I kept this book tucked close to me in a man purse (a camo green Army surplus bag) next to my writing notebook and whatever novel I was reading. No matter how often the novel changed, this book remained a constant. The pace of life for that six weeks was different; there was much time to kill across Europe. For once, I was happy to spend much of it reading these poems.

The City Light Pocket Poets Anthology is a compilation of beat and post-beat poems spanning multiple decades of City Lights’ history. There is Ginsberg and Kerouac, and also Frank O’Hara and Pablo Picasso and Malcolm Lowry. This little book is a treasure. When I first thumbed through it I still had never been to San Francisco; I hardly knew what City Lights was other than I knew Kerouac and Ginsberg and had heard Lawrence Ferlinghetti had been named the city’s poet laureate. The very first time I ever made it up to SF, long before I moved there or even thought of it, I made a pilgrimage to City Lights. Originally, it was for this book, but I fell in love with the store. When I moved to San Francisco, I’d try to go at least once every couple of months.


Photo by Ris Rosko, from here.

This time, I read this book all wrong. I am in the middle of a reading sprint! I am measured by books completed! So I would open this guy up on the subway, struggle with a poem or two and then just begin to page through, scanning. Terrible poetry reading! Ultimately I focused on reconnecting with old favorites.

“Mexican Loneliness” by Jack Kerouac: “And I am an unhappy stranger / grooking in the streets of Mexico—”

“Why I Choose Black Men for My Lovers” by La Loca: “In 1967 I stepped through a windowpane / and I got real / I saw Mother Earth and Big Brother / and / I clipped my roots which choked in the / concrete / of Sunset Boulevard”

“Why is God Love, Jack” by Allen Ginsberg: ” Because I lay my / head on pillows, / Because I weep in the / tombed studio”

I discovered a handful of new poems this time around, which is actually one correct way to read this book. Of course, my Neal Cassady theme made a heart-shot out of “Elegy for Neal Cassady” by Allen Ginsberg: “Kesey’s in Oregon writing novel language / family farm alone. / Hadja no more to do? Was your work all done? / Had ya seen your first son? / Why’dja leave us all here? / Has the battle been won?”. And I loved Kenneth Patchen and Jacques Prévert and really, really liked “Room 5600″ by Ernesto Cardenal, all about the Rockefellers: “They had a happy childhood on the banks of the Hudson / on a 3500-acre estate / with 11 mansions and 8 swimming pools / and 1500 servants / and a great house of toys / but when they grew up they moved into Room 5600 / (actually the 55th and 56th floors of the tallest skyscraper / at Rockefeller Center) / where hundreds and hundreds of foundations and corporations / are managed like / —what truly is— / a single fortune.

Perhaps then, it is not that I read this book the wrong way, because this is how I believe one can appreciate poetry: groping around for the gem that catches you. To be between 34th Street Herald Square and 28th Street on the N/R and suddenly be bowled over by a line like “See how those stars tramp over heaven on their sticks/Of ancient light” (Patchen). Now if only I was reading poetry on the subway every day. I hereby resolve to have a bit more poetry in the 66 Project.

Buy the City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology straight from the source itself.

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