Alan Shapiro’s most recent book is Broadway Baby.
In 1965, in a bookstore in Brookline, M.A., in the late afternoon of an ordinary school day, I discovered my inner Beat poet.
Anyone who might have seen me turning the pages of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind would have mistaken me for an unremarkable 13-year-old in a winter coat and unbuckled galoshes, with a book bag slung over his side. And up to that moment that’s exactly who I was: a typical lower-middle-class kid, whose parents (devout believers in the holy trinity of rank commercialism, status seeking and sexual prudery) worked long hours for little pay, with three kids and my mother’s mother to care for.
Life in my household was always tense and sulky, and, now and then, explosive. Terrified of blow-ups, I did my best to fit in. I tried to be the kind of person my parents expected me to be. I worked hard in school and I never got into trouble. I was more angster than gangster: the only tough guys I’d ever dreamed of being were the Jets and Sharks.
But reading Ferlinghetti, I encountered a breathtaking rejection of the values I grew up with. Ferlinghetti denounced American consumerism “singing from the Yellow Pages.” Unlike my elders, he was a “social climber climbing downward.” In his smart-alecky way, he counseled us to “confound the system,” “to empty out our pockets…missing our appointments” and to leave “our neckties behind” and “take up the full beard of walking anarchy.”
Longings I didn’t know I had suddenly sprung to life: Mine was the heart Ferlinghetti described as a foolish fish cast up and gasping for love “in a blather of asphalt and delay.” I wanted to be robust, uninhibited and wide open to the world like the dog trotting “freely in the street… touching and tasting and testing everything.”
When I left the store, I may still have been the middle-class kid I was, diffident, self-conscious and too eager to please. But from then on, I was inwardly transformed. I lived a secret life in the poetry I went on to read — and in the poems I began to write. On the page, I undermined the rules I lived by off the page. I dreamed of the world Ferlinghetti invited me to enter, a world of impulse and imagination where lovers went “nude…in the profound lasciviousness of spring in an algebra of lyricism.”
I even thought that I’d found that blessed state a few years later when I arrived at Woodstock, not knowing that even there in paradise I was still my parents’ son, which is why I think I was the only person among the half a million in attendance who was unable to procure either sex or drugs.
But that’s another story.
PG-13 is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Annalisa Quinn.