The City Lights Pocket Poets Series

8 Dec

I didn’t start reading books for enjoyment until 2001 (as sad as that is).  I didn’t start reading poetry (outside of class) until 2002.  I didn’t start collecting books until the spring of 2004.  I didn’t start collecting the City Lights Pocket Poets series until early 2005.  Late bloomer.

There have been 60 volumes released in the City Lights Pocket Poets series from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s (poet and co-founder of the City Lights Press) 1955 Pictures of the Gone World to David Meltzer’s When I Was a Poet earlier this year.

Above: the City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology released in 2008, edited by Lawrence Ferlinghetti with excerpts of poetry released in the series.

I was introduced to the Pocket Poets series with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, City Lights’ most famous/infamous publication.  Howl was extracurricular reading for an English assignment in my junior year of high school.  I don’t want to pretend like Howl is my favorite poem, but as soon as I read “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” I was intrigued.  Like Ginsberg or not, Howl is one of the three canonical Beat Generation works, the others being Kerouac’s On the Road and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

Howl is one of approximately 20 volumes of the Pocket Poets series that are still in print.  I used to go to the local bookstore and look for poetry volumes that were half as tall as everything else on the shelf…I had a 5o:50 chance (or better) of finding a Pocket Poets.

The City Lights Pocket Poets series is responsible for publishing poetry collections by a number of Beat Generation poets which I spent the better part of my summer after high school plowing through (New York and San Francisco schools): Ginsberg, Kerouac, Corso…Ferlinghetti, Lamantia, Kaufman et. al.

What attracted me to collecting the Pocket Poets?

1)  City Lights published some of my favorite poets.

O’Hara’s Lunch Poems has a number of greats: “A Step Away From Them,” “Poem (‘Lana Turner has collapsed!’)” and “Ave Maria.”

2)  The aesthetic: It’s so simple and uniform in the early volumes.  Soft cover, two-tone…I’m not sure, but something struck home.

My gorgeous copy of Gasoline by Gregory Corso, another of my favorites…

3)  The early stuff is scarce!  There are a number of factors: the age of the books, printing sizes, the fact that they were soft cover with wraps and were intended to be kept in hip pockets, the demographic they were marketed to…

Number One: Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the Gone World.  Talk about scarce.  To give you an idea, there are more books for sale online now than ever before. has over 100,000,000 volumes for sale.  There is only one first edition of this book online, albeit a nicer copy, but some of these firsts are rare as hen’s teeth.

*   *   *

Over the past six years with bookstore/online purchases, garage sale’ing and generous birthday and Christmas gifts, I have amassed the collection that I have today: 59 first edition, first printings of this series. (10/7/2011 **please see note below**)

That’s 1-60 (minus Number 4: Howl)  As you can see, most of the first editions were released in softcover.  There are two hardcovers in the picture: Lamantia’s Becoming Visible and Ginsberg’s Plutonian Ode.  I have since acquired the softcover firsts of those two and hardcovers of  a few others.  Some true firsts were originally released in smaller edition sizes as hardcovers with slip cases.

For instance, Ginsberg’s Planet News.

As you can see on the left page, the edition size on Planet News was 500 copies.  And if you didn’t know what Allen Ginsberg’s signature looks like, now you do!  Though nice to have, Ginsberg’s signature means considerably less from a collectible standpoint because he signed everything.  Some signatures add a ton of value.  Frank O’Hara’s signature adds a great deal of value to Lunch Poems because he died tragically at the age of 40 after being struck by a dune buggy on the Fire Island beach.

More interesting than signatures are personalized inscriptions.  Here are two inscriptions  in firsts of Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs from Ginsberg’s life partner and fellow poet, Peter Orlovsky.

After the crossed heart dialogue bubble for Orlovsky and the bird: “We love cold water bath,” the inscription, dated June 18th, 1982 5:25am reads “For Bob Hilts, 1 teaspoon of bee pollen, chewed well because digestion starts in the mouth, has all 22 elements in the human body. – Samatha Vipashanna, meditation ta you—!”

Orlovsky inscribes in another heart-bubble “How we love cold water + now millet” with “Sweet wild apple juice to you!” as the salutation.  What a nut.  And how about that title?

**The Note Below**  As of 11/14/2011.  UPDATE.  I obtained a first edition first printing of Howl and I now have the entire City Lights Pocket Poets Series in first edition, first printing!  Where’s my Members Only jacket??

It’s a near fine copy with a bit of foxing and sunning to the spine and a barely visible corrected crease on the front cover .  I plan to upgrade eventually, as I do with a number of the volumes, but for now…hell yeah!

If I had a better camera, I could zoom in without losing focus on line 18 on the reverse side where the first printing has a misprint of a period instead of a comma.  “…Yucatan and Chicago 1954.  West Cost since then.”  If book collecting wasn’t dorky already, I just went there.

I have to extend a major thanks to my creditor, who shall go unnamed, but whom I resemble, share a last name with and he’s pushing 60.  He even agreed to 5% interest on the loan.  Christ.  I’m hardly earning it.

But, seriously…thank you, Dad.

*   *   *

A few months ago, I stumbled upon a publication of a Pocket Poets collection while researching online.

The collection belongs to a gentleman by the name of Donald Heneghan.  Not only does he have a complete collection of firsts, most are in very fine condition, including signatures and inscriptions which add to the books’ historical importance and monetary value.  His collection also contains wonderful bits of Beat and City Lights photography and ephemera.

After some light internet stalking, I was able to track Mr. Heneghan down.  I emailed him out of the blue and to my elation he responded!  Mr. Heneghan, around my father’s age, ended his initial response with “I’d love to compare notes on how you pulled your collection together and some of the poets you may have met along this process. For me that was part of the reward.”  In my reply, I had to sheepishly admit that I’m only 26 and so most of the poets were dead long before I started collecting.

A quick digression: Several of the poets are still alive.  City Lights co-founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is 92, Maria Ponsot is 90, Nicanor Parra Sandoval is 97, Jack Hirschman is 78, Anne Waldman is 66, Diane di Prima is 77, Anselm Hollo is 77, Brad “Antler” Burdick is 65…and there are a couple of birthdays to be celebrated this month: Charles Upton is turning 63, Jerome Rothenberg will be 80 and Robert Bly is pushing 85.  There are others, but these are all poets who were published by City Lights prior to 1980.

Above: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Back to Mr. Heneghan…  He was nice enough to call me and share some wonderful anecdotes about collecting before AbeBooks which was refreshing to hear as a child of the age of the Internet.  He actually sat down and talked with poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Hirschman (among others).  His collection has been exhibited twice: once in Chicago and once in New York City.  Pocket Poetess Anne Waldman even attended the opening of his NYC show!

Most important, Mr. Heneghan was very kind and encouraging.  After all, we are two of who knows how many collectors (he knows of at least one other) that have a complete collection of first edition, first printings of the Pocket Poets…in the world.

*   *   *

All said and done, this collection is one of the few things in my life that I can say that I am very proud of.  I may not have worked nearly as hard or long as Mr. Heneghan to develop my collection because I’m an over-privileged brat, but I also purchased a number of the books on my [meager] dime, and when it came time to ask for Christmas gifts this year, I asked for new tires on my car and my father to go halvsies with me on a collectible book (John Clellon Holmes’ Go).

So, where do I go from here?  I honestly don’t know.  I’ve thought about collecting the City Lights poetry broadsides as I’ve picked up a couple along the way.

Copies of Bob Kaufman’s “Abomunist Manifesto” and Kerouac’s translation of Rimbaud.

Earlier this year, I got a copy of Corso’s “Bomb.”

Now I can read the poem the way it’s supposed to be read! (though I do have multiple copies of The Happy Birthday of Death)  “Budger of history    Brake of time    You    Bomb    Toy of universe   Grandest of all snatched-sky    I cannot hate you…”

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve graduated to the realm of bibliophile dorkdome.  In any event, thank you for taking the time to read the article.  Please email me at if you have any historical corrections or if you are interested in more information about the series.  I will be posting more on my collectible books in the future!

6 Responses to “The City Lights Pocket Poets Series”

  1. DD December 17, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    This is an astounding collection, and how thrilled am I that my favortie (and scarce,) Lamantia is included- oh, what I wouldn’t do for an original press! I had the extreme privilege of meeting David Meltzer in his home in Oakland two years ago. He talked mainly about Jazz and music (being his foremost passions) but we talked about poetry and his experiences as a beat in San Francisco, and at the end of the meeting he pulled me aside and put a volume of Ekstasis by Philip Lamantia in my hands. I hadn’t heard of him, my foundations in beat poetry being basic and taken for granted as I live minutes away from City Lights & Vesuvio Cafe, but reading Lamantia moved me in a way I hadn’t expected and it sent me on a hunt to find his other works which (as you know,) are mainly out of print.

    I was allowed to transcribe a few of his poems from an old chapbook my Professor Steve Dickison had. He too has one of the most impressive collections of Beat poetry outside of City Lights itself. That said, I would love to put you in touch with Steve if the interest sparks. He is a wealth of knowledge and would be thrilled so see that someone in our shit-headed generation is taking on the Beat’s with such immense care.

    I have considered trying to anthologize Lamantia in totality, however I am living my own menial beat dream and hardly have the dime. Anyway I wanted to share a poem with you, perhaps you have read it, but I hope you haven’t and you will be as inspired as I am by this forgotten beat poet.


    Philip Lamantia

    It is I who create the world and put it to rest.
    you will never understand me
    I have willed your destruction

    It’s the beginning of the flower
    inside its black ore I salute abyss after abyss

    You are the exploding rose of my eyes I have nothing but third eyes!

    This is the end of clockwork sempiternity is the rose of time

    this flower talk will get you nowhere

    I will not be involved with people I call true distance
    I invite you only to the door of horror
    I keep stoning you with black stars

    Christ is superior to Apollo
    bodhisattvas are drunk with being God
    he who is living lives only the living live
    I will hate and love in the Way
    In this is being

    I will return to the poem

    A theatre of masked actors in a trance
    According to the virtues of sacred plants

    There are those dying of hunger
    mankind is sanctioned crime
    men should not die of hunger

    It is food, imperialist dogs! FOOD! not culture!
    There will come Judgment swift and terrible

    my actor will say in mask of sick dying poor man
    I cast you into hell! I die to live
    who will bring you back to life?

    Against this another whirls in a frenzied controlled dance
    he dreams on orgies dark forces revolve
    incinerations of the spirit
    the bomb
    in its mushroom flower actions round a dumb Black Angel cloud

    I have never made a poem never emerged it’s all a farce
    if I could unravel as this Raga into song
    opulent view of Kashmir
    thousands of images bearing light
    light thru clouds the beauty of things
    lit up slow unraveling of the morning

    On a himalaya
    this one in sight of heaven
    prayer of lungs sex eyes
    eyes poured in abysms of light

    the flight of horned heads
    gods, cats, bulls, dogs, sphinxes
    each head inside out a torso of fish

    Ranka uraniku
    bahaba hi olama
    sancu pantis droga
    harumi pahunaka

    I never see enough
    with those who fly tortoise shell in the infinite hangup
    words slow unraveling song

    the gods are vomiting
    I am entering earth I am walled in light I am where the song is
    Shot into my eyes O Light!

    • Elaine Katzenberger April 20, 2012 at 2:13 pm #

      Heads up that UC Press is scheduled to publish the Collected Poems of Philip Lamantia very soon, long overdue!

  2. the self-hating hipster December 21, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. Lamantia is largely unrecognized (unfortunately) as were a number of the San Francisco school of Beats. I have a few of his volumes outside of the Pocket Poets series, which aren’t first editions, but collectible nonetheless as they are out of print. My Beat library extends well past the this series of poetry, both in and out of print volumes.

    That’s wonderful that you were able to meet David Meltzer. Like I said, I regrettably have not met any of the poets published in this anthology. Perhaps one day.

    Also, I’d be delighted to correspond with Prof. Dickison. You can email me at and I can then provide you with some personal contact information.

    Thanks again!

    • Gosia June 13, 2015 at 4:21 pm #

      Oh dear, how I hate you.


  1. A true Pocket Poet lover… | Abandon All Despair Ye Who Enter Here - April 20, 2012

    […] we received a message from a blogger who writes under the handle The Self-Hating Hipster, alerting us to his post on his eponymous blog about his complete collection of first editions of […]

  2. “Plutonian Ode” by Allen Ginsberg « the self-hating hipster - January 1, 2013

    […] about a year ago I posted an article on my complete collection of the City Lights Pocket Poets Series.  I continue to add to the […]

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