Constantly risking absurdity
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime…
— Lawrence Ferlinghetti in A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958
Lawrence Ferlinghetti beat poet and free speech advocate, dead at 101. I closed my eyes and rowed back in time. Back to the day in San Francisco when I’d attended one of his readings. It was probably in the late 1960s, most likely at City Lights, his North Beach bookstore that became the center of the city’s–and ultimately the nation’s—bohemian culture. I don’t recall the words he spoke or the poems he read. What I remember is feeling deeply affected. And spending the next decade immersed in the then-still-developing counterculture the legendary poet had helped inspire.
I was too young to have been a beatnik. Instead, I helped swell the ranks of the next generation, the ones who came later, the hippies who took the early beat philosophy and built on it, giving it a more positive and expansive spin.
And yet somehow, I had acquired beatnik blood. At least that’s what one of my professors told me. His name was Pierre Delattre, a poet and novelist himself, who spent a few years teaching at the small liberal arts college I attended in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. For me, though, his major claim to fame was that he had participated in the beginning, editing a San Francisco magazine called Beatitude that published the early works of many beatniks who later became famous.
“The most interesting thing about that period,” Pierre told me, “was that we were going in two directions. One was to slow down—getting into the slowness of stone—and the other was to speed up, just ride with it and go as fast as you could.”
We were walking down the railroad tracks outside San Miguel to the spot where one of the most famous beatniks of all—Neal Cassady—had died of a drug overdose in 1968. Cassady, immortalized by Jack Kerouac in his iconic novel On the Road, had died with Pierre’s address in his pocket.
“Neal was into a kind of frantic, speedy attempt to arrive at the end which, of course, is death,” Pierre explained. “He was a guy who caught the speed of our time.”
From its beginnings as a literary movement, the beat culture developed into a lifestyle. Then the hippies came along and took it to the next level, a philosophy encompassed by the slogan: make love, not war.
But here’s the thing; at its heart, the beatnik movement was about free expression.
Which is why it surprised me to find Los Angeles Times columnist Virginia Heffernan pontificating for censorship in a recent column called “Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Life Contains Lessons for the Cancel Culture.” Specifically, she wrote about the landmark 1957 case People of the State of California vs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti in which the state sought to enjoin City Light’s publication of “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem which prosecutors deemed obscene.
In the final decision affirming publication, Judge Clayton W. Horn used a phrase that has since become the gold standard. Even if some find a particular work obscene or otherwise offensive, he asserted, the law protects its publication if it bears “the slightest redeeming social importance.”
Yet Heffernan, amazingly, twists that into a justification for today’s burgeoning cancellation of dissenting voices. “To claim that using certain words in certain contexts is not only allowable…but has ‘redeeming social importance,’” she argues, “is a tall order.”
No sane person would ever describe Lawrence Ferlinghetti as a conservative, certainly not of the ilk now decrying the curtailment of their words and ideas, often in a political context. In fact, the old beatnik—often described as a “philosophical anarchist”—probably shared common ground with many of today’s left-leaning progressives.
I doubt, though, whether that ground included the brutal suppression of free speech through cancel—or any other—culture. If it did, then everything I know about the beatniks is wrong. And if that’s the case, well, I just may have to cancel my own beatnik heart.
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David Haldane’s latest book, a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street” is available on Amazon. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Surigao City, Philippines.
Published Originally in Mindanao Gold Star Daily