2008 is the 50th anniversary of a book of poems that has become so revered that it is something of a rite of passage, handed down from generation to generation: A Coney Island of the Mind. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, is himself a cherished institution. He is the rarest of rare breeds: a poet, publisher, and bookstore proprietor. And, oh, that’s not any old bookstore but the perhaps premiere independent bookstore in the United States, City Lights, which was named after arguably the finest movie ever made by another cherished American institution, Charlie Chaplin. Not coincidentally, Chaplin was lyrically immortalized, in the following excerpt, as a distinctive descriptor for the high-wire occupation known as poet:
—–a little charleychaplin man
——————-who may or may not catch
—–her eternal form
————-spread-eagled in the empty air
—————– from “Constantly risking absurdity”
In reading through this volume after many years, I was struck by two things: Ferlinghetti’s use of the entire page visually and sonically, helping to accentuate certain words and lines as other poets use line breaks. The second thing, which I don’t believe I ever noticed in previous readings, is how he grabs the reader with a poem’s opening lines. Here’s a couple of examples:
“In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see …”
“Sometime during eternity / some guys show up …”
“In a surrealist year / of sandwichmen and sunbathers …”
“Cast up / the heart flops over / gasping ‘Love’ …”
“‘One of these paintings would not die …'”
“Don’t let the horse / eat that violin …”
“Christ climbed down / from His bare Tree …”
“Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass …”
“Fortune / has its cookies to give out …”
“I am waiting for my case to come up/and I am waiting/for a rebirth of wonder”
Some aspects stand out about these opening lines. Narratively, they pull you in; visually, they conjure vivid imagery; thematically, Ferlinghetti digs art; and, linguistically, they are playful, casual and, if a tad surreal, direct in the plain speaking sense. His dedication to the poet’s eternal quest for beauty is single-minded and old school, continuously revealed in the mundane details of everyday life.
The 50th anniversary calls, of course, for a celebration and so there is an anniversary edition of A Coney Island of the Mind. This edition contains the original poems plus a cd of Ferlinghetti reading them. If you’d like a taste of what that might be like, check out the following video of a reading he gave for the “Lunch Poems” series at the Morrison Library of the University of California Berkeley:
The video, which runs almost 50 minutes, features a couple of poems from Coney Island, as well as a very powerful anti-war poem entitled The History of the Airplane that finishes up the reading. Recently written, it just goes to show that Mr. F. has not lost a step.
Of related interest is a 2006 publication for children, entitled Mr. Ferlinghetti’s Poem, written and illustrated by David Frampton.
It is a picture book of the story behind the poem “Fortune / has its cookies to give out …” from Coney Island and contains the entire poem, profusely illustrated, with in a frame story. The premise is a good one; the story behind the poem is about a hot day in Brooklyn when the local firemen turn on their hoses for the enjoyment and relief of the neighborhood kids. In execution, it is an interesting idea if partially successful. The poem is a bit subtle and may not work for a younger child. Even worse, the poem’s intricate layout is totally abandoned, which removes one whole layer of visual, visceral meaning that, ironically, children understand intuitively and adults often struggle with. The illustrations are wonderful and, with the right child, this could be a winner.
If you are looking for something different by Ferlinghetti, there are plenty of volumes in library collections throughout the county. Here are a couple of recommended titles in addition to Coney Island that highlight him at his best: