Saturday, August 2, 2008

A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
A Coney Island of the Mind
94pp. New Directions. $23.95. 978-0-8112-1747-7

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) is an amusement park for the imagination, a “circus of the soul”, as he calls it, where “the poet like an acrobat / climbs on rime / to a high wire of his own making”. These poems were composed to be read aloud, so it is fitting that this handsome 50th anniversary edition includes a CD. The elderly Ferlinghetti’s smoky-oaky reading voice is reminiscent of William Burroughs’s, if one swaps Burroughs’s icy malevolence for a far sunnier lyrical irony. Also included are three marvellous tracks from the 1957 LP Poetry Readings in the Cellar, where a young Ferlinghetti entertains a giggling audience with three poems – notably “Autobiography”, probably the best-known poem in A Coney Island of the Mind – punctuated by brief bursts of music from the Cellar Jazz Quintet.

Although a key player in the San Francisco Renaissance, Ferlinghetti was born in New York in 1920 and he does a mean impression of a Brooklyn tough, as well as a brash Italian-American (his father was Italian). His romantic, lyrical side frequently harks back to New York and the “fields of our childhood”, while observing that “our ‘fields’ were streets”. In a beautiful poem from his first book Pictures of the Gone World (1955), a selection from which also appears in this edition, he recalls a “summer in Brooklyn / when they closed off the street / one hot day / and the / FIREMEN / turned on their hoses / and all the kids ran out in it.”

In Ferlinghetti’s circus the poet is a clown, “a little charleychaplin man” (as befits the co-founder of the City Lights Bookstore and publishing house), and this collection is full of a literate good humour, sprinkled with borrowings from Shakespeare, Yeats, Eliot, Joyce and Beckett (“I’m tired of waiting for Godot,” he says in “Junkman’s Obbligato”). Somehow even the corniest lines retain their charm. What dates this collection most, perhaps, is its machismo, the references to “spilled sperm seed” and “penis erectus”, as well as naked women and their breasts (a Keatsian pursuit of Beauty is a constant theme). But one suspects that it was these elements, too, that helped to make it a bestseller in its day.

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