Lawrence Ferlinghetti
New York: New Directions, 1958
91 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2005

On a sunny crisp cold November day I curled up with a pot of hot tea and decided to go back and re-read A CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND, a book of poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti which had deeply influenced me back in 1959 when I read it for the first time. Since them I have often been back to this slim volume to read this or that favorite poem in the book, but I had not re-read the whole in 46 years.

The book is made up of three sets of poems. The first is a set of 29 poems collected under the same title as the book itself. Second come 7 poems under the collected title of Oral Messages. These were meant to be read aloud and accompanied by live jazz. Finally there is a set of 13 poems reprised from his first book of poetry of 1955, PICURES OF THE GONE WORLD.

In the main first set we get Ferlinghetti the deeply disenchanted, angry, even bitter man screaming out at the absurdities of American culture. He might say “culture?”. Many of the poems refer to paintings by various impressionist and expressionist painters – Bosch, Picasso, Chagall, the lesser known American painter Morris Graves and others. He also has references to many significant literary figures from the Greeks to Kafka and many mainline poets of the past. He seems to hold that the impressionist mode of expression, be it in paint or words, captures a world every bit as real as the external world itself.

Ferlinghetti denounces the mass society, the bomb, the anti-intellectualism of American culture. He bluntly tells us that poets and other artists are superior people in some important way, and he himself is in that elite number. One short example of his insight is his poem in which he presents a different notion of paradise than that conceived of by Dante in his poetry. Ferlinghetti celebrates this world and the joys and pleasures of the earthy, and not a turning to other worlds.

I will try to recreate the FORM of his poems as best I can.

Not like Dante
             Discovering a commedia
                                   Upon the slopes of heaven
I would paint a different kind
                            of Paradiso
in which the people would be naked
                                          as they always are
                                                                   in scenes like that
                            because it is supposed to be
                                                     a painting in their souls
but there would be no anxious angels telling them
              how heaven is
                                        the perfect picture of
                                                        a monarchy
              and there would be no fires burning
                            in the hellish holes below
in which I might have stepped
             nor any altars in the sky except
                                         fountains of imagination

The second set of poems were fascinating upon this re-reading since I hadn’t gone back to these in many years, since before RAP became an art form. This is a set of poems meant to be read aloud and with jazz accompaniment. I read them aloud trying several of them over and over, trying to achieve a rhythm that seemed would lend itself to musical accompaniment and I just wasn’t able to achieve it. Admittedly, Beat jazz generally wasn’t very melodic or orderly in rhythms, but Ferlinghetti’s achievement in these poems was very impressive to me.

Whatever difficulty I had with the rhythms, I did love most of the content of the poems. We are still with the same poet and the same message of pounding social criticism. This day as I’m reading him again is the so-called Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when people seem to lose their minds racing out to begin their Christmas shopping. Ferlinghetti offers a bitter and, I think, extremely successful criticism of the commercialism of Christmas.


Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no gilded Christmas trees
and no tinsel Christmas trees
and no tinfoil Christmas trees
and no pink plastic Christmas trees
and no gold Christmas trees
and no black Christmas trees
and no powderblue Christmas trees
hung with electric candles
and encircled by tin electric trains
and clever cornball relatives

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no intrepid Bible salesmen
covered the territory
in two-tone cadillacs
and where no Sears Roebuck crèches
complete with plastic babe in manger
arrived by parcel post
the babe by special delivery
and where no televised Wise Men
praised the Lord Calvert Whiskey

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no fat handshaking stranger
in a red flannel suit
and a fake white beard
went around passing himself off
as some sort of North Pole saint
crossing the desert to Bethlehem
in a Volkswagen sled
drawn by rollicking Adirondack reindeer
with German names
and bearing sacks of Humble Gifts
from Saks Fifth Avenue
for everybody’s imagined Christ child

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
no Bing Crosby carolers
groaned of a tight Christmas
and where no Radio City angels
iceskated wingless
thru a winter wonderland
into a jinglebell heaven
daily at 8:30
with Midnight Mass matinees

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings

The final set of 13 poems are from his first book. My guess would be that the book had not sold very many copies, and now that he was better known, he may have wanted to call attention to some of the poems he liked best from that collection. As the title of that collection suggests – PICTURES OF THE GONE WORLD – there is a good deal about death in these poems. Given that I am in my later years, I was particularly moved by his poem the about the aged, and their coming death. However, while he must have been in his late 30s when he wrote the poem, he seems to not be aware of the spryness of some of us in our later years!

         Just as I used to say
                           love comes harder to the aged
because they’ve been running
                                  on the same old rails too long
and then when the sly switch comes along
                                        they miss the turn
      and burn up the wrong rail while
                           the gay caboose goes flying
      and the steamengine driver don’t recognize
                                        them new electric horns
and the aged run Out on the rusty spur
                                        which ends up in
                          the dead grass where
       the rusty tincans and bedsprings and old razor
                          blades and moldy mattresses
     and the rail breaks off dead
                          right there
     though the ties go on awhile
                                       and the aged
say to themselves
                   this must be the place
                          we were supposed to lie down
And they do
     while the bright saloon careens along away
    on a high
          its windows full of bluesky and lovers
        with flowers
             their long hair streaming
                          and all of them laughing
          and waving and
                          whispering to each other
and looking out and
                          wondering what that graveyard
      where the rails end

Finally, in this last section I was rather surprised to find a rather beautiful nostalgic poem about bathing in the waters of the fire hoses in the hot summer day in Brooklyn:

                          has its cookies to give out
which is a good thing
                           since its been a long time since
           that summer in Brooklyn
        when they closed off the street
             one hot day
           and the

                                                FIRE MEN
                                       turned on their hoses
          and all the kids ran out in it
              in the middle of the street
         and there were
                          maybe a couple dozen of us
                                       out there
with the water squirting up
                    to the
                                                 and all over
             there was maybe only six of us
                                                           kids altogether
        running around in our
                                        barefeet and birthday
    and I remember Molly but then
           the firemen stopped squirting their hoses
             all of a sudden and went
                  back in
                      their firehouse
              started playing pinochle again
just as if nothing
                                               had ever
while I remember Molly
                      looked at me and
        ran in
because I guess really we were the only ones there

It was a delight to return to this volume. I’m not in the same place in spirit as I was in 1959, so the poems were not quite as meaningful to me as they were then, but it does seem to me voices crying out in vehement protest to the thoughtlessness and meaninglessness and harmfulness of much of our current culture is certainly needed. It would take new voices in new forms, no doubt. But the need is there.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu