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.
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 dancing and going swimming in rivers on picnics in the middle of the summer and just generally 'living it up' Yes but then right in the middle of it comes the smiling mortician --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).