August 28, 2019

Still Going Strong at 100, Ferlinghetti Adds Another Wild Ride to His Coney Island of the Mind

By Stuart Mitchner

A brave man and a brave poet.
— Bob Dylan

In Jack Kerouac’s 1962 novel Big Sur, Lawrence Ferlinghetti appears as Lorenzo Monsanto (his real-life middle name), “with his husky shoulders, big blue eyes, twinkling rosy skin, that perpetual smile of his that earned him the name Smiler in college,” a smile “you often wondered ‘Is it real?’ until you realized if Monsanto should ever stop using that smile how could the world go on anyway — It was that kind of smile too inseparable from him to be believably allowed to disappear.”

Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti is still here, still smiling the world on its way his way anyway in Little Boy, a 179-page song of myself/ourself/itself/everyself published March 24 on his 100th birthday (the “Little Boy” is Ferlinghetti as a child). How big is this underwhelmingly titled tour de force? Singer songwriter Tom Waits says, “When I first came out to San Francisco and heard the name Ferlinghetti, I thought it must be a large geographic area. Turns out it is.”

Abandon all hope ye who enter the realm of Ferlinghetti if you’re “half in love with easeful” semicolons and periods. After the first 16 or so pages, the machinery of punctuation is all but dispensed with “like a used-up booster rocket” in the words of former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, who calls Little Boy “the last wild, motor-mouth, book-length riff of this poet’s generation … a hip word-flood,” not “a stream” but “a “torrent of consciousness.” In the author’s own words, he’s speaking with the “inexpressible ecstatic at once coherent and incoherent sighing or babbling the voice of all of us heard and unheard loud and soft.”

Prominent among the literary forces at play here is Molly Bloom’s “yes-I-will-yes” soliloquy in the closing chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Other writers cited and sampled in passing range from Twain to Whitman, Eliot to Keats to Yeats, as Ferlinghetti performs a death-and-old-age-be-damned variation on the famous endless scroll of his old friend Kerouac’s On the Road.

“So Here’s This Bully”

During one lull in the word-storm, Ferlinghetti acknowledges some other members of the 1919 club — Pete Seeger, Jackie Robinson, Nat King Cole, Eva Perón, J.D. Salinger, and Sir Edmund Hillary “who scaled the heights if not the depths.” Ferlinghetti treats death like the last line of an endless poem. The reference to Hillary’s Himalyan heights and depths   leads him to “the things we don’t know we don’t know since they are beyond our imagination,” where “all is darkness where all all is light and does all this mean that I am about to ‘die’  Well that is a distant possibility although I doubt it since I of course am American and Americans don’t die and so I am not about to croak oh no baby not me not not” —

So ends without-really-ending one paragraph, a brief sample of what to expect if, like me, you settle down with Little Boy and nothing else for a day’s reading while keeping in mind that at least some of this message from the “geographic area” of Ferlinghetti was written after election day 2016. Although the president is never mentioned by name (as he is in Ferlinghetti’s recent poem, “Trump’s Trojan Horse”), he’s hard to miss in a world where “the plumber with the right joint wins the golden shower.” And “there’s no turning back when you do enough dumb things to screw up the country and everybody knowing what should be done but they don’t do it anyway and bang goes the ballgame and there ain’t no joy in Mudville.” So here’s “this bully with his fascist mentality loping alongside of you and if you just ignore this goon he will grow larger and larger and take over.” And then there’s the indisputable issue of Russian interference when “watching baseball to escape the pain or ecstasy of existence and the Reds are beating the Yankees.”

Or maybe it’s just that a work so intense, so incessant, so all-over-the-place, so anything-goes, so all-bets-are-off, inspires you to not only read between but behind and over and under the lines.

Degrading Lady Liberty

So there I am ensconced in a comfortable armchair on the library’s second floor, a hundred pages through Little Boy, my mind freshly sown with the news of the day, such as the demonization of immigration taken to the unAmerican extreme of possibly removing the words “give me your tired, your poor” from Lady Liberty, not to mention the malign influence of our terminally self-absorbed president’s reaction to the word absurd coming from the Danish prime minister (a lady) after he makes a bid for Greenland. And Ferlinghetti somehow intuited it all well before the current news cycle: “But did I not lift my lamp or did she lift her lamp beside the golden door Ah yes but now who’s closing the door and scratching out the stone inscription so that it reads Don’t send me your poor your whatever yearning to be free….” [my italics].

And speaking of absurdity: “Absurd the waiting without action for the withering away of war and the withering away of the state Insane the waiting without action for the insane ending!” That exclamation point shining a light on the apprehension shared by most sentient beings stateside since Trump took office is one of only two allowed in Ferlinghetti’s infectious four-page cadenza on the word endless, which begins, “Oh endless the splendid life of the world Endless its lovely living and breathing its lovely sentient beings seeing and hearing feeling and thinking laughing and dancing sighing and crying through endless afternoons endless nights,” and ends-without-ending “in the endless silence of the soul in the long loud tale of man in his endless sound and fury signifying everything with his endless hallucinations adorations annihilations illuminations erections and exhibitions fascismo and machismo circuses of the soul astray merrygorounds of the imagination coney island of the mindless endless poem dictated by the uncollected voice of the collective unconscious … !”

The Coney Island Connection

There’s more to Ferlinghetti than the counterculture icon, poet laureate of San Francisco, owner of City Lights Books, creator of the Pocket Poet series, publisher and defender of Howl, and author of A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), one of the best-selling books of poetry ever published. There’s also the one-hundred-year-old sage who, according to the introduction to the long-time-coming spring 2019 Paris Review interview, “grew up essentially an orphan after his father died before his birth and his mother was committed to a psychiatric institution.” Raised in France by an aunt with a Louise Brooks haircut, taken back to the U.S. for school, an Eagle Scout, shoplifter, graduate of Thomas Wolfe’s alma mater the University of North Carolina, “commander of a submarine chaser who participated in the D-Day invasion and was sent to the Pacific for the proposed invasion of Japan that was canceled after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” the site of which “he visited weeks later and that instilled in him a committed pacificsm and the seeds of the revolutionary consciousness that characterizes his work both as poet and publisher.”

You may have noticed that in the sample from his riff on endlessness Ferlinghetti sneaks in a mention of A Coney Island of the Mind after “merrygorounds of the imagination.” The role of the Brooklyn seaside amusement park in his life is revealed early on in Little Boy — it’s the place where his Sephardic-Portuguese-French-American mother met his Lombard Italian immigrant father on a fun ride, when their bumper cars collided.

In Kerouac’s View

Easily the most sympathetic figure in Kerouac’s story of his post-On-the-Road breakdown at Big Sur, Ferlinghetti/Monsanto is “a grand guy” with “real manly sympathy” who “really felt I should not go on big binges if I felt so bad.” Kerouac pictures him “all decked out in his old clothes and looking forward to a wine and talkfest weekend in his pleasant cabin,” where Kerouac had gone to escape from crazed fans wanting to hang out with “the King of the Beats.” The breakdown was accelerated by drinking bouts and related complications involving the friends joining him at the cabin. Kerouac feels “excited to be with the gang but there’s a hidden sadness too and which is expressed later by Monsanto when he says ‘This is the kind of place where a person should really be alone, you know?’ “

In September 1961, “alone with myself” in the Bixby Canyon cabin “in the golden fields at the top of Big Sur, on one of the highest fields over the ocean,” Ferlinghetti stares at a starry sky and dreams of “making a book cover for a book of the story of my life,” with “the square open frame of stars as the cover.”

Though it has a different cover, Little Boy is that book. 

The passage quoted is from Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010 (W.W. Norton 2015), by the man Patti Smith calls “our American poet and wanderer, as beloved as the land itself.”

You can see and hear the author reading his new poem, “Trump’s Trojan Horse” on YouTube. Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems was published by NewDirections in 2017. Copies of Little Boy and Writing Across the Landscape can be found at the Princeton Public Library.