Thursday, March 26, 2009

A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti


My reading swerves off into another direction, yet again. From the awkward, plain-spoken tones of Ellen Kennedy, to Lawrence Ferlinghetti at his most exuberant. This book originally hit paper more than fifty years ago, just three years after Allen Ginsberg's HOWL--and its subsequent obscenity trial--brought the Beat Generation into mainstream consciousness, but it doesn't feel particularly aged or particularly "beatnik" in the cliche sense of the word (spacey poets dressed in black, with berets and goatees and Bebop jazz accompaniment). In fact, Ferlinghetti seemed aware of the cliches even then, and mocked them in the language used in poem "5": "[...] a kind of carpenter/from some square-type place/like Galilee/and he starts wailing/and claiming he is hep". The rest of the poems are written in language little different from what we use today (with the exception of "9," which sort of mixes beat-speak with prohibition-mobster snideness), and they focus on topics we still worry about, especially America's incredibly rapid growth, development, consumerism, and the burdens of assimilation and conformity such development entails for the people. You get it right from the get go, with the first poem in the book, "1":

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 maimed citizens
in painted cars
and they have strange license plates
and engines
that devour America


Another aspect of Ferlinghetti's poetry shown in the above sample is his use of alliteration (concrete continent, illustrating imbecile illusions), and other sound-based techniques. These poems are designed to be read aloud, and when you do so you tap into an energy and exhilaration that might be missed if you silently read words on a page. One of the ways that Ferlinghetti provokes that energy, that sense of desperation and exhilaration, is by masterfully controlling line lengths. We get plenty of lines that are stripped of punctuation or internal pauses, lines that race us along by tacking clauses together with 'and'. And then, every once in a while, the poem brings us to a crashing stop, as it does here in poem 11 from the book's third section:

Yes the world is the best place of all
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
dancing
and going swimming in rivers
on picnics
in the middle of summer
and just generally
'living it up'

Yes
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling
mortician


One of the interesting visual results of Ferlinghetti's vocal approach to poetry is the way the lines appear on the page. (Unfortunately, I'm incapable of demonstrating such line placement with Blogger, but you can see it for yourself by clicking here and then scrolling down.) Instead of being all left justified (with every line starting at the left side of the page), Ferlinghetti scatters the lines all over the place. I'm guessing that he does this because of the way it affects the reader's pace--if you finish one line and then drop down directly to the next line immediately below it, instead of having to crank your eyes back over to the left side of the page, it eliminates the momentary pause entailed by cranking your eyes back. The motion of the eyes might seem fast enough for this to be a trivial difference, but it has a definite effect, and the effect becomes more pronounced as it compounds.

In the end, a lot of these things I'm mentioning (the racing pace, the focus on sound, the tones of exuberance and concern, even the subject matter itself) had another significant effect on me: they made the book a lot of fun. I especially liked the first section, and I'd recommend giving it a go.

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