Ferlinghetti: “a few dead minds in the higher places”

YMCA Turk St. Hotel, San Francisco ca 1955, Wikipedia Commons.

Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti coined the phrase in today’s title in 1955; it is a line from the poem The World is a Beautiful Place that appeared in Number One of the Pocket Poets Series, published by City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. A copy of Number One is in Carto’s Library. Here is the story.

A few days after Christmas, 1956, I was discharged from the Navy in San Diego. I boarded a Greyhound bus for the overnight ride to San Francisco. The next morning, woozy from lack of sleep, I stepped off the bus at the 7th and Mission Greyhound depot. My plan was to live in San Francisco, which was known for two things: West Coast Jazz and “Beat” poets.

From the bus terminal, a short walk brought me into the Tenderloin District; I was looking for 351 Turk Street where the multi-storied YMCA Hotel poked into the SF skyline.  I rented a room (as I recall, the YMCA then charged about $5 a night for a private room) and settled in. From my room I could see the Black Hawk nightclub on the corner of Turk and Hyde. West Coast jazz would be playing there that night.

Black Hawk Jazz Club, San Francisco

After settling into my hotel room, I got the urge to tour the city a bit. I could listen to jazz in the evening, but first I wanted to find the City Lights Book Store, which was in North Beach a short walk from the hotel.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin had founded the City Lights in 1953 and Ferlinghetti became the sole owner in 1955. That was when he started publishing controversial “Beat Generation” poems.

City Lights had been notoriously in all the newspapers lately because the owner Ferlinghetti had been arrested for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. The city prosecutor alleged that Howl was obscene and had charged Ferlinghetti with the sale of obscene material.

I found the bookstore, but Howl was not on sale because of the litigation. (The trial, was decided in Ginsberg’s favor in October 1957.) So, instead of Howl, I bought Pictures of the gone world by Ferlinghetti (the price was 75 cents).

The world is a beautiful place (The 25th poem in Pictures of the gone world ) begins with these oddly indented lines:

      The world is a beautiful place
                  to be born into
if you don't mind happiness
                        not always being
                               so very much fun
      if you don't mind a touch of hell
                                      now and then
           just when everything is fine
                        because even in heaven
                   they don't sing
                               all the time

The indenting makes reading the poem out loud easier, and compensates for the lack of punctuation.

Ferlinghetti recorded this poem in 2005 to a jazz background composed by David Amram. The CD is titled Pictures Of The Gone World on the Synergy Entertainment label. The soft piano jazz accompaniment goes will with Ferlinghetti’s mild voice as he reminisces about his past.

The poem continues:

     The world is a beautiful place
                             to be born into
if you don't mind some people dying
                                all the time
         or maybe only starving
                             some of the time
     which isn't half bad
                         if it isn't you

     Oh the world is a beautiful place
                              to be born into
         if you don't much mind
                          a few dead minds
                in the higher places
                               or a bomb or two
                     now and then
                                   in your upturned faces
            or such other improprieties
                                  as our Name Brand society
                           is prey to
                                 with its men of distinction
                   and its men of extinction
                                          and its priests
                               and other patrolmen
                  and its various segregations
     and congressional investigations
                        and other constipations
                                that our fool flesh
                                         is heir to

      Yes the world is the best place of all
                               for a lot of such things as
                making the fun scene
                           and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
     and singing low songs and having inspirations
          and walking around
                     looking at everything
                                and smelling flowers
                and goosing statues
                    and even thinking
                          and kissing people and
                               making babies and wearing pants
           and waving hats and
           and going swimming in rivers
                                            on picnics
                       in the middle of the summer
               and just generally
                             'living it up'
     but then right in the middle of it
                                     comes the smiling


--Lawrence Ferlinghetti (formatted for the web by Carto)

Ferlinghetti’s Number One is still in print (the latest edition was published in 1995 (21st printing), and features 18 new poems not in my 1955 edition.

Beat poets and jazz were great, but my savings were non-existent. I needed to find a job. I was interviewed by a recruiter for RCA, then known as Radio Corporation of America, and they hired me. In a couple of days I was on my way out of San Francisco—RCA sent me to LA for training. That was the end of my life among the “beats”.

From LA I went on assignment to Denver and then to Great Falls, Montana. I didn’t return to California for many years and never did actually live in SF as I had planned when discharged from the Navy in 1956.

I still have my copy of Pictures of a Gone World and Ferlinghetti’s words ring true today, just as they did in the 50s.

Week 2-2012: PICTURES of the gone world, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Pocket Poets Series, Number One, 1955).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
This entry was posted in Memoir, Poetry and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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