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Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2008

A Coney Island of the Mind

Great Poems 50 Years Later

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  Allen Ginsberg's Howl & Other Poems, the 50th anniversary of which was celebrated in 2006, is the most famous book by a Beat poet. A close second is A ConeyIsland of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose fledgling City Lights Press published Howl in 1956 and defended it at the ensuing obscenity trial. That landmark First Amendment case established a legal precedent that protected controversial literary work with "redeeming social significance."

  In the aftermath of Howl, City Lights became the premiere hip press, faithfully publishing each subsequent book by Ginsberg in its "Pocket Poet Series," which also included luminaries from Kerouac and Corso to Anne Waldman and Milwaukee's own Antler. Now 89, Ferlinghetti has deservedly won acclaim as a courageous publisher as much as for his own writing.

  Before he got to San Francisco, Ferlinghetti was commander of a subchaser during the Normandy invasion. After VE Day the Navy transferred him to the Pacific. Soon after the two atom bombs were dropped on Japan, he visited the ruins of Nagasaki. The experience turned him into a life-long pacifist.

  When chosen to be San Francisco's first Poet Laureate (1998-2000), he used the position not only to promote poetry but also, he said, "as a bully-pulpit to articulate the seldom-heard voice of the people." Along with Ginsberg he's unlikely to ever get official recognition from his own country's government. In 2007 Ferlinghetti (like Ginsberg in 1993) received a medal from the French Order of Arts and Letters.

  A Coney Island of the Mind has been translated into more than a dozen languages and has sold more than a million copies since published by New Directions in 1958. The dazzling archival black-and-white cover photo of Coney Island at night may have helped sales: a rare instance where you can tell a book by its cover, for the poems are dazzling too.

  Always a populist writing for the average person, rather than academic exegetes, he hasn't "dumbed down" his poems, but only avoided muddying them up. Nietzsche observed that too many poets "muddy their waters to appear deep." Nowadays the so-called Language Poets actually scorn intelligibility. Ever the descendant of Whitman and Williams, Ferlinghetti's poems are clear, yet full of keen observation and witty perception. For that reason, Coney Island is a good book to give teenagers to interest them in poetry. Adult readers, too, will appreciate its playful colloquial charms.

  In one of the poems, while workers erect a "statue of St. Francis / in front of the church / of St. Francis / in the city of San Francisco," the poet fantasizes a Nature goddess, "a very purely naked / young virgin… / wearing only a very small / bird's nest / in a very existential place / passing through the crowd / and up and down the steps / in front of St. Francis…/ singing to herself."

  In "Dog," a mutt on the loose becomes a symbol of freedom and democracy: "The dog trots freely in the street / and has his own dog's life to live / and to think about / and to reflect upon / touching and tasting and testing everything / investigating everything / a real realist / with a real tale to tell / and a real tail to tell it with / a real live / barking / democratic dog / with something to say / about reality / and how to see it / and how to hear it…"

  The 50th anniversary edition is available only as a $24.95 hardcover, including a CD on which Ferlinghetti recites most of the poems. Unfortunately, however, the original cover photo of Coney Island at night has been replaced by a bland cover with the title and author printed in large cotton-candy-colored letters. The CD oddly includes two readings of "They were putting up the statue of St. Francis"-one with music, one without-but omits two of the best poems: "Dog" and "Christ Climbed Down." Seeing as the CD runs 73 minutes, those poems could and should have been included. Luckily, the paperback edition with the classic cover photo is still available and costs only $9.95.

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