Thursday, July 29, 2021

A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Source of book: I own this, more or less.


The story behind this selection goes back a number of years, and follows a couple of threads. First of all, every law student studies cases about free speech and obscenity, which means at least a passing mention of Allen Ginsberg and Howl. While it was other cases that went as far as the US Supreme Court and thus became named cases to be poured over by law students since, it was the trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Howl that most caught the popular imagination. 


After Ginsberg composed and performed Howl, Ferlinghetti proposed that the poem and some others be published by Ferlinghetti and sold at his City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. When the book went on sale, local police arrested Ferlinghetti and his store manage and charged them with obscenity. After trial, the court ruled that the book was not obscene. In the meantime, other cases showed that the Supreme Court was unlikely to agree with book banning, and the case never was appealed. But the media coverage catapulted Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti to fame, presumably the opposite of what the pearl-clutchers intended. 


Ferlinghetti ran City Lights for many years, and only passed on this last February, at the age of 101. Just prior, our book club read and discussed Big Sur by Jack Kerouac, and got off on the topic of City Lights and Ferlinghetti and the Beats and obscenity. This made me increasingly interested in locating some of Ferlinghetti’s own poems and reading them. 


The final impetus came when a friend and I got to discussing poetry and decided to read and eventually get together to discuss it. We haven’t managed a discussion yet, but I figured I would jot down my thoughts. 


Unfortunately, it is not easy to find a complete version of this, so I settled for a collection that had eighteen of the poems, and looked up any I saw referenced online. It’s probably not all of them, but at least the ones that people liked enough to mention as favorites. 

 I will admit that, having read Ginsberg, I never really warmed to his poetry. It reminds me of Whitman, who also bores me, mostly because it seems on occasion to be endless lists. Yes, there are some great lines, but you have to wade through the stream of endless words to find them. In general, I like shorter poetic works, as they seem more focused and careful. Likewise, I gravitate toward poems with form: meter and rhyme. But not exclusively, obviously. There are so many exceptions that I cannot even consider myself as having a rule. But generally, traditional over modern, short rather than long, and not that into Beat poetry. 


I was somewhat surprised, therefore, to find that Ferlinghetti really spoke to me. Several of the poems were outstanding, and the craft and language was superb. So, I kind of have to wonder if the reason Ginsberg became the most famous Beat poet is some combination of his explicit sexuality and his reputation as “dangerous.” 


Ferlinghetti is firmly in the Beat tradition, with his poems looking askance at post-war American culture, bourgeois self-righteousness, and capitalist greed. The forms are recognizable of specifically of their time, and the settings the kind of gritty urban coastal cities you would expect. He is deliciously anti-establishment in tone. His execution, however, is spot on in several of the poems, and even the weaker ones are pretty solid. 


My collection starts off with a bang, with this one, which is probably still my favorite. 


In Goya’s Greatest Scenes


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


They still are ranged along the roads   

          plagued by legionnaires

                     false windmills and demented roosters

They are the same people

                                     only further from home

      on freeways fifty lanes wide

                              on a concrete continent

                                        spaced with bland billboards   

                        illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness



                        The scene shows fewer tumbrils

                                                but more strung-out citizens

                                                                     in painted cars

                               and they have strange license plates   

                           and engines

                                           that devour America


I am a huge fan of Goya, and so many paintings sprang vividly to mind when I read this. And 2021 isn’t that much different from 1958, is it? The picture of “imbecile illusions of happiness” is genius. I loathe advertising, and have as long as I can remember. Okay, except for some of the amusing ones from my childhood. But I resent being manipulated that way, and remain suspicious that any business that spends a fortune on ads will be overpriced and underqualitied. 


Next up is this bitter little portrait of a soured relationship. I kind of have a mental picture of a particular spot in Golden Gate Park to go with this too. 


In Golden Gate Park That Day


In Golden Gate Park that day

                           a man and his wife were coming along   

         thru the enormous meadow

                           which was the meadow of the world   

He was wearing green suspenders

                              and carrying an old beat-up flute

                                                                        in one hand   

      while his wife had a bunch of grapes

                                  which she kept handing out


                                                      to various squirrels

                                                                           as if each   

                                                             were a little joke


      And then the two of them came on

                                                thru the enormous meadow   

which was the meadow of the world

                                                 and then

            at a very still spot where the trees dreamed

         and seemed to have been waiting thru all time

                                                                            for them   

             they sat down together on the grass

                                              without looking at each other   

                and ate oranges

                                    without looking at each other

                                                            and put the peels   

             in a basket which they seemed

                                       to have brought for that purpose   

                  without looking at each other


      And then

                  he took his shirt and undershirt off   

       but kept his hat on


                                                and without saying anything   

             fell asleep under it

                                           And his wife just sat there looking   

at the birds which flew about

   calling to each other

                           in the stilly air

      as if they were questioning existence

                   or trying to recall something forgotten


But then finally

                   she too lay down flat

                                                and just lay there looking up   

                                                                               at nothing   

                        yet fingering the old flute

                                                                which nobody played

                            and finally looking over

                                                                at him

                  without any particular expression

                                                               except a certain awful look   

                        of terrible depression


Good lord I hope I never end up that way. I still look at my wife with affection, and I hope she always looks at me that way too. And we certainly cannot go and sit somewhere without looking at each other. Well, and smooching too. Ferlinghetti captures a less pleasant moment, and it feels so very real.


This next one is another favorite, about the craft of poetry. 


Constantly Risking Absurdity


Constantly risking absurdity

                                             and death

            whenever he performs

                                        above the heads

                                                            of his audience

   the poet like an acrobat

                                 climbs on rime

                                          to a high wire of his own making

and balancing on eyebeams

                                     above a sea of faces

             paces his way

                               to the other side of day

    performing entrechats

                               and sleight-of-foot tricks

and other high theatrics

                               and all without mistaking

                     any thing

                               for what it may not be


       For he's the super realist

                                     who must perforce perceive

                   taut truth

                                 before the taking of each stance or step

in his supposed advance

                                  toward that still higher perch

where Beauty stands and waits

                                     with gravity

                                                to start her death-defying leap


      And he

             a little charleychaplin man

                                           who may or may not catch

               her fair eternal form

                                     spreadeagled in the empty air

                  of existence


Dang, that’s good - and perfect really. I cannot think of a single weak line or phrase, and I love it more each time I read it. 


There are more that I wish I could quote. The longer ones like “Autobiography” and “Junkman’s Obbligato” are quite good and compelling. I thought I might at least mention a line from “Dog,” which is worth reading in full. The last bit has a great line, though. 


a real live


                         democratic dog

engaged in real

                      free enterprise

with something to say

                             about ontology

something to say

                        about reality

                                        and how to see it

                                                               and how to hear it

with his head cocked sideways

                                       at streetcorners

as if he is just about to have

                                       his picture taken

                                                             for Victor Records

                                  listening for

                                                   His Master’s Voice

                      and looking

                                       like a living questionmark

                                                                 into the

                                                              great gramaphone

                                                           of puzzling existence

                 with its wondrous hollow horn

                         which always seems

                     just about to spout forth

                                                      some Victorious answer

                                                              to everything


“The great gramophone of puzzling existence.” Brilliant. 


Finally, I want to mention “I Am Waiting,” which is superb. It is a bit long to quote in full, but you can listen to a good version of it here. Filled with literary, poetic, and musical allusions, it is a gold mine of goodness. The final line in each stanza, “I am waiting for a new rebirth of wonder” is something that I too deeply desire. Call it a poem about utopia. Call it a poem about the failure of the American Dream. Call it a poetic Godot. Or whatever. But we are all waiting. 


I am waiting for my number to be called

and I am waiting

for the Salvation Army to take over

and I am waiting

for the meek to be blessed

and inherit the earth   

without taxes

and I am waiting

for forests and animals

to reclaim the earth as theirs

and I am waiting

for a way to be devised

to destroy all nationalisms

without killing anybody

and I am waiting

for linnets and planets to fall like rain

and I am waiting for lovers and weepers

to lie down together again

in a new rebirth of wonder


My collection contains at least excerpts from a few of Ferlinghetti’s other collections, and I expect I will enjoy reading through them as well. I’m not sure exactly what I expected, but consider this to have been at least a somewhat unexpected pleasure. And a welcome addition to my poetry collection.  


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