Earlier in the year, following the announcement of the death of City Lights Books founding father, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, I made a point of seeking out his seemingly most revered work, A Coney Island Of The Mind, and it was surprisingly hard to track down.
Having done so though I’ve finally given it a proper read and it was certainly worth the effort to get hold of.
The collection I have, the New Directions Paperback edition, also includes, along with the titular collection, a collection of Oral Messages and excerpts from Ferlinghetti’s first published collection Pictures Of The Gone World.
The main collection though is the highlight here and feels like a stream of consciousness, in the way of much of the best Beat Generation work, but with an underlying structure to lead you through the set that feels like an exploration of the true kind of Americana that really only existed for that short time in the wake of the Second World War, and was certainly gone by the time the 1960s counter culture came of age if not earlier.
So, here Ferlinghetti gives us his view of the American dream and its collapse, snapshots of scenes of life in his adopted home city San Francisco, explorations of emotional and physical love, both in the finding and the losing, and, laced through it, explorations of the nature of poetry and art.
A Coney Island Of The Mind then is a triumph of capturing a branch of Americana that may have been short lived, and elements of which may only really have existed in a small bookstore on Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, but that many have tried to replicate ever since while also feeling personal in the way only poetry of this sort can.
Oral Messages then feels like a bonus section and is comprised of a series of apparently semi-spontaneous works originally performed with a jazz band.
They fit well here as they deal with similar themes and subjects to the preceding collection and are highlighted by Autobiography which is, at first glance what the title suggests, but as it goes on raising the question as to whether it may be as much about America, and The Long Street which is more an expressionistic exploration of life.
The Pictures Of The Gone World section then feels a little disjointed being a series of poems taken from the original City Lights Pocket Poets edition but remains, as the title suggests, snapshots of the world inhabited by Ferlinghetti and his compatriots.
While maybe slightly more naive and simplistic than the rest of the work here they remain highly evocative with 11 and 12 (25 and 26 in the 1995 Pocket Poets new edition) particularly standing out.
While the extra sections are more varied the main collection of A Coney Island Of The Mind more than lives up to its reputation and is a must for anyone with an interest in mid century Americana and the beat poets of the time, while clearly being something of a half pace away from the excesses of Kerouac, Ginsberg, et al, which in a way makes it all the more fascinating.