Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post: Ferlinghetti’s “Coney Island” at 50


NBCC board member Oscar Villalon, book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, gives us permission to reprint NBCC member Barbara Berman’s review of NBCC Sandrof award winner Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s classi, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” from today’s edition of the book review.

“A Coney Island of the Mind,“50th Anniversary Edition,by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. New Directions; 94 pages, plus CD; $23.95

Like the best books of its generation, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind” has lost none of its luster over time. It is also bracingly superior to a lot of poetry it has influenced.

My now-battered copy was from the book’s 17th printing; I bought it 40 years ago. The cover of the 50th anniversary edition replaces the famed light-strung black and white photo with a bright white background and large lettering colored to suggest the Summer of Love. Inside, the same type and minor, respectful design differences await collectors, newcomers or anyone seeking an inspired gift. The accompanying CD is an essential part of the package, given Ferlinghetti’s lifelong dedication to poetry composed for performance.

Ferlinghetti was San Francisco’s first poet laureate. He is a founder of a thriving landmark, one of America’s most influential independent bookstores, and the founder of a revered publishing house, both named City Lights. He has received national and international honors and is a subversively exuberant patriot, making some people angry and nervous with words and actions that support a consistent ethic of pacifism and free speech.

In 1958, he was 39 and well-educated by the University of North Carolina, Columbia, the Sorbonne and the U.S. Navy, having commanded a submarine chaser during World War II. He was in Japan soon after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In the first piece in the book, called “1,” he wasted no time addressing universals and specifics of agony.

In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see

the people of the world

exactly at the moment when

they first attained the title of ‘suffering humanity’

They writhe upon the page

in a veritable rage

of adversity

Heaped up

groaning with babies and bayonets

under cement skies

In an abstract landscape of blasted trees

bent statues bats wings and beaks

slippery gibbets

cadavers and carnivorous cocks

and all the final hollering monsters

of the

‘imagination of disaster’

they are so bloody real

it is as if they really still existed

And they do

Only the landscape is changed

May I always remember being made breathless by those lines as they build and briefly pause there, before completing a well-fashioned rant. It’s a fitting start for this veteran who has seen, heard, felt and participated in enormous devastation.

The poem loses none of its force in his low-key delivery on the CD, recorded specifically for this edition. Highlighting his commitment to spoken verse with and without instrumentation, the CD delivers renewed appreciation of this seasoned performer, especially as his accent changes to reflect region and sensibility. He’s having very serious fun.

And then one recalls how young his voice was in “Oral Messages,” Part 2 of the same volume, as he asked in “I Am Waiting” “to set sail for happiness,” and “for Alice in Wonderland/ to retransmit to me/ her total dream of innocence.” Again and again he hungers here for “a new rebirth of wonder,” and he breaks the heart.

“If poetry is pentimento/ as most of its bones seem to show.” Charles Wright made that observation in “Littlefoot,” and it is vividly germane to “A Coney Island of the Mind.” Ferlinghetti’s bones are pentimento with a twist, as when he tweaks Yeats’ Innisfree. That legendary island becomes “Manisfree” in “Junkman’s Obligato,” a poem that also contains “My Country Tears of Thee,” in a rolling session of free association that would be an embarrassment in lesser hands. Its nods to Cervantes, T.S. Eliot and Whitman are the stuff of welcome dizziness, and they dance with the kind of visual verve and subtlety expected from someone who was, even then, a painter with brush.

It is not news that “A Coney Island of the Mind” is the work of a gifted man who has faced the abyss and refused to be overcome by what must not be denied. Art, truth and citizenship – of country, of world, of the individual and collective spirit – are in need of each other with an ongoing urgency. And make no mistake. The classic poem “Christ Climbed Down” can still be used as legitimate prayer, and as a reminder of how, at their best, his followers have always been unsettling.

“I contain multitudes,” Whitman famously declared. Ferlinghetti’s expansive reach in his own early work has rightly been considered equally liberating. For 50 years, he has bestowed permission to “goose statues” and to do whatever else it takes to move life and letters toward a more humane, celebratory place.

Ferlinghetti is a tonic for a world thirsting for the loving outrage and energetic reverence that helped reignite and sustain the enterprise of bard-fueled citizenship. “A Coney Island of the Mind” was, is, and always will be, a necessary joy. {sbox}

Barbara Berman is the author of the chapbook “The Generosity of Stars” (Finishing Line Press).This book review appeared on page M – 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle. Reprinted with permission.