Coney Island of the Mind, A

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
(1958)
   A Coney Island of the Mind is a three-part poetry collection by lawrence ferlinghetti, publisher of City Lights Books and owner of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. The book’s enduring popularity has led to dozens of reprintings, with Ferlinghetti’s international appeal revealed by numerous translations. Approximately one million copies of A Coney Island of the Mind are in print around the world, and the book stands as a signal work of the San Francisco Renaissance and the Beat Generation.
   The book opens with a series of 29 poems gathered under a subheading that repeats the title of the volume as a whole. These poems are untitled and are simply numbered 1–29. However, like Shakespeare’s numbered sonnets, Ferlinghetti’s poems are now often titled in correspondence to their opening lines. The second section is “Oral Messages,” which includes seven poems conceived for presentation with jazz accompaniment. The poems are meant to be spontaneous, and the written versions presented in the text are subject to improvisation in performance. The third and final section of A Coney Island of the Mind revisits Ferlinghetti’s first collection of poems published as Number One in the Pocket Poets Series from City Lights Books: pictures of tHe Gone world (1955): This third section includes 13 poems, with numbers 1–13 as titles. The three sections give A Coney Island of the Mind the feel of something more than a small book of poems. Ferlinghetti’s most popular book is a volume of selected poems from the early years of Ferlinghetti’s career as a writer. Inspired by a positive review of Pictures of the Gone World by kenneth rexroth in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ferlinghetti in 1956 wrote quickly and without revision, compiling a series of 29 poems in open form. He sent the group of poems to James Laughlin, the director of publications at New Directions, and Laughlin replied with enthusiasm, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, businessman, San Francisco, 1965. Photographer Larry Keenan: “I followed indicating his desire to publish several of the poems in volume 16 of New Directions, the magazine he published. Ferlinghetti agreed to the publication of the selections in ND, and when Ferlinghetti’s controversial publication of allen ginsberg’s Howl and other poems led to a censorship trial and subsequent publicity, including an article in Life, Laughlin pursued the idea of publishing a book by Ferlinghetti. Laughlin, however, wanted to produce more than a short book of poems. He urged Ferlinghetti to develop additional material, including selections from Pictures of the Gone World. Ferlinghetti at this time was also engaged in performing poetry with jazz accompaniment with Rexroth at The Cellar in San Francisco, and the performances were released as a Fantasy LP. Laughlin liked the recording, and Ferlinghetti submitted the texts of the poems as possible inclusions for the book that Laughlin intended to produce. Thus, A Coney Island of the Mind went to press at New Directions not as a brief sequence of poems but as a three-part collection that reflected the various dimensions of Ferlinghetti’s developing career.
   The title of the collection, as Ferlinghetti indicates on the page opposite the first poem, comes from Into the Night Life (1947), a book produced through the collaboration of Henry Miller with Palestinian artist Bezalel Schatz. The book features silkscreen art by Schatz and text by Miller originally published in Black Spring (1936). Ferlinghetti borrows the phrase “a Coney Island of the mind” without intention to allude to Miller’s text and to derive supplemental meaning from Miller; instead, Ferlinghetti says that the phrase independently suggests the spirit of Ferlinghetti’s work—“a kind of circus of the soul.”
   The subsection “A Coney Island of the Mind” opens with “In Goya’s Greatest Scenes,” a poem which reveals Ferlinghetti’s characteristic linking of visual art with his writing. The poem calls attention to numerous details from Francisco Goya’s sequence The Disasters of War (1863). The scenes of Goya, Ferlinghetti says, capture the suffering of humankind, with images of “bayonets,” “blasted trees,” “bats wings,” “cadavers,” and “hollering monsters.” The images are at once “abstract” and “bloody real” and therefore stimulate the imagination to achieve a reckoning with disaster. This recognition of disaster, says Ferlinghetti, corresponds to contemporary society, which goes forward with “freeways fifty lanes wide” and “bland billboards” that portray “imbecile illusions of happiness.” Perhaps the contemporary scene does not include as many “tumbrils” as Goya’s scenes, but contemporary citizens drive “painted cars” with “strange license plates” and motors “that devour America.” Ferlinghetti’s poem ultimately is a warning about society’s miserable self-destruction in the same way that Goya’s great scenes are warnings about the atrocities of war.
   The fifth poem in the opening section—often referred to as “Sometime During Eternity” in consideration of the opening line—builds energy by discussing profound subject matter with low, hip language. The topic is Christ, the crucifixion, and the foolish need of people to feel sure that their religion is the real religion that has the full endorsement of Christ himself. The treatment of the topic has wit because Galilee is referred to as “some square-type place” where a man who is “some kind of carpenter” claims “that the cat / who really laid it on us / is his Dad.” This carpenter is too “hot,” and people gather to stretch him on a tree “to cool.” In time, people design their own replicas of this tree, and they implore “the king cat” to come down from the tree so that he can join in the performance of “their combo.” The irony, however, is that the cat does not come down, and the “usual unreliable sources” that provide the news proclaim that the cat is “real dead.” Ferlinghetti’s poem mocks the hypocrisy of humans who forsake Christ and then want Christ to save their souls. The 14th poem in the opening sequence— often referred to as “Don’t Let That Horse”—returns to Ferlinghetti’s appreciation of great works of art, but this poem is much more playful than “In Goya’s Greatest Scenes.” Ferlinghetti seems to call attention to The Equestrienne (1931) by Marc Chagall, specifically Chagall’s work in completing the painting. Ferlinghetti imagines Chagall’s mother imploring Chagall not to let the horse in the painting eat the violin, but anyone who observes the painting, which Ferlinghetti comically mistitles “The Horse with Violin in Mouth,” can see that the violin is under the horse’s jaw, not in his mouth, and the horse’s consumption of the violin is not a possibility because the horse has flowers in its mouth. Ferlinghetti further imagines that upon completion of the painting, Chagall jumps up and into the painting, mounting the horse, riding away, and “waving the violin.” Chagall gives the violin to “the first naked nude” he meets and there are “no strings / attached.” This joke concludes the poem, but Ferlinghetti’s comical reference to a devil-maycare Chagall is perhaps funnier if one understands that the original painting depicts a surreal yet elegant and serious vision of love.
   Perhaps the most memorable work in the opening section of A Coney Island of the Mind is the 15th poem, also known as “Constantly Risking Absurdity.” The poem discusses the risks of the creative performance of a poet by making an extended comparison between the poet and acrobats in a circus. The poet is a tightrope walker on a “high wire of his own making.” The poet, if he fails to discover “taut truth,” may in the eyes of his audience be deemed absurd. At a “still higher perch” is Beauty, who must make a “death-defying leap.” If the poet fails to catch “her fair eternal form,” then the poet is a failure, and like acrobats who crash to the floor below, the poet may “die” in the midst of performance. In Ferlinghetti’s view, the poet (or acrobat) is “a little charleychaplin man” who can rise to exquisite levels of artistry, but if anything goes wrong, he can sink to humiliating levels of foolishness. The business of being a poet is a risky business; yet the successful taking of risks makes artistic achievement possible.
   The second section of A Coney Island of the Mind is “Oral Messages,” and in this sequence the first poem is “I Am Waiting.” The title becomes a refrain in the poem as Ferlinghetti develops a catalog of all the changes for which he is waiting: an end to oppressive governments, an end to repressive religions and religious leaders, an end to apocalyptic atomic weapons, a renewal of concern for protecting the environment, and an end to racial segregation. Ferlinghetti would like to have all of these adjustments to society capped off by “a rebirth of wonder.” He wants the imagination to take a central place in human existence so that life can truly be satisfying and rewarding. Because the poem is meant to be heard with jazz accompaniment, not read from the page, Ferlinghetti sets his short lines with a consistent left-hand margin, not spacing the lines and varying indentations as he does in the first group of poems. Presented with music, “I Am Waiting” successfully conveys the witty spirit of dissent that Ferlinghetti takes pride in. He challenges society to see its flaws and finally do something about them.
   Also included in the section “Oral Messages” is “Autobiography.” Though the poem makes reference to scenes from Ferlinghetti’s youth, including his “catching crayfish in the Bronx River,” his riding of an “American Flyer bike,” his delivery of newspapers, and his military service, the poem explores more completely the shaping of a Beat attitude. Ferlinghetti admits, “I had an unhappy childhood.” He adds, “I looked homeward / and saw no angel.” Ferlinghetti repeatedly insists that he is leading a “quiet life” and that he spends time in “Mike’s Place,” yet he reads “the papers every day” and senses “humanity amiss / in the sad plethora of print.” To his employer, Ferlinghetti is “an open book,” but to his friends, he is “a complete mystery.” He says that he has “read somewhere / the Meaning of Existence,” but he cannot remember exactly where. The text develops an extensive catalog of references to myths, history, and literature, often with witty twists of wording, creating a dry humor that relentlessly questions daily life. Of all the poems in the “Oral Messages” section, “Dog” is the most perennially popular. The poem establishes an extended comparison between the Beat artist and a dog that roams the streets of San Francisco without inhibitions. The refrain in the poem is “The dog trots freely in the street” and Ferlinghetti provides an extensive list of things that come into the dog’s view, including drunks, trees, ants, puddles, and cigars. However, the dog goes well beyond the normal range of a dog’s consideration as he determines that he “has no use for” police officers and that Congressman Doyle of the House Un-American Activities Committee is “discouraging,” “depressing,” and “absurd.” The dog is an intellectual who contemplates reality and ontology and is ready to offer his opinion. The dog is a relentless investigator of the world, and like the dog on the RCA Victor label, he peers “into the / great gramophone / of puzzling existence,” expecting complete and meaningful answers.
   The final section of A Coney Island of the Mind is a selection of poems from Pictures of the Gone World, the small poetry book that Ferlinghetti published in 1955. The opening poem, simply titled “1,” describes a woman hanging wash. This activity may seem dull and ordinary, but Ferlinghetti discovers sensuality in the woman who struggles with sheets “with arms upraised.” Her breasts are visible, and the wind presses the wet and “amorous” sheets against her. She joyously frees herself and pins the sheets to the line. Ferlinghetti then enlarges the scene, capturing the view of the harbor beyond the woman and her sheets. On the water are “bright steamers” and they are bound for “kingdom come.” With this enlargement of the scene, Ferlinghetti reminds the reader of the contrast between the vibrant life of the woman and the inevitable slow course of time that will bring her vitality to an end. A similar contrast is developed in “11”— sometimes known as “The World Is a Beautiful Place.” The poem begins with robust irony as Ferlinghetti says that the world is beautiful but quickly short-circuits that beauty by referring to death, starvation, ignorance, violence, vanity, racism, and foolishness. Nevertheless, Ferlinghetti reasserts the beauty of the world, noting that life includes fun, love, music, flowers, dances, picnics, and swimming. The world seems to offer plenty of opportunities for people to engage in “ ‘living it up,’ ” yet at the end of the poem Ferlinghetti provides a stinging message: Death is always lurking in the background, and just when life seems to be at its peak, one must be ready to meet “the smiling / mortician.”
   The dark mood of the poems selected from Pictures of the Gone World is also shown in “12,” which begins “Reading Yeats, I do not think / of Ireland.” When reading Yeats, Ferlinghetti thinks of the elevated public transit in New York and the absurdity of the sign that prohibits spitting. Ferlinghetti imagines the bizarre world of the people who live near the elevated tracks: “an old dame” who waters her plant, “a joker in a straw” who is on his way to Coney Island, and “an undershirted guy” who sits in a rocking chair and contemplates the passing trains. Some who read Yeats may think of “Arcady,” but Ferlinghetti instead thinks “of all the gone faces / getting off at midtown places.” Life seems to reflect the words that Ferlinghetti once saw in pencil within a book of Yeats’s poetry: “HORSEMAN, PASS BY!” These words refer to the startling epitaph on the gravestone of W. B. Yeats, taken from the final lines of “Under Ben Bulben” (1939): “Cast a cold on eye / On life, on death. Horseman, pass by!”
   A Coney Island of the Mind remains a remarkable combination of wordplay, allusions, hip language, rich alliteration, freedom in the distribution of lines on the page, and freedom from standardized punctuation. Ferlinghetti is a dissenter, and he questions the wrongs and evils of society and seeks to correct such wrongs and evil through wit and humor. Though his work is plain enough for any reader to enjoy, it is also sufficiently complex to elude the final analysis of the finest scholar.
   William Lawlor

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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