What is the summary for A Coney Island of the Mind?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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A Cony Island of the Mind is a collection of poems from Beat movement poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. His second collection, A Cony Island of the Mind expresses Ferlingehtti's opinions on the social and political themes that form the focus of his poetry. With bachelor, master and doctoral degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Columbia University and France's Sorbonne, respectively, Ferlinghetti became known as political poet and flourished during the second half of the Beat movement of the 1950s, a movement that was led by poets and novelists Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti: A Brief Biography

As founder of City Lights Books publishing and the Pocket Poets Series imprint for poetry, Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg's controversial poem "Howl" and the collection Howl, and Other Poems (1956). Due to the explicit nature of the language and scenes in Howl, and Other Poems, both Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti were confronted with legal charges of obscenity, though they won their cases in the courts, with Ferlinghetti's judge, Judge Clayton Horn, calling “Howl” an “indictment of those elements of modern society destructive to the best qualities of human nature” and describing its ending as a “plea for holy living.”    

A Cony Island of the Mind shows clearly the influences of Ferlinghetti's early life and of the influences of his service in the U.S. Navy during World War II and of his exposure to the post-world-war intelligentsia gathered in Paris, France.

As an infant, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was abandoned due to his father's accidental death and his mother's inability to cope with the tragedy and a new-born. Adopted by a great aunt, he was raised by her in France for the first five years of his life before being sent to an orphanage in New York for seven months while she tried, though unsuccessfully, to sort out difficulties with her New Yorker husband. Then sent to live with a private tutor in a section of New York where gang activity flourished, he was later adopted by a wealthy family after his great-aunt vanished. Lawrence finished his education at an upscale private high school where he was introduced to author Thomas Wolfe of Look Homeward, Angel fame and where the way was paved for his postgraduate achievements.

During World War II, Ferlinghetti saw action during the Normandy invasion, then participated in the 1945 occupation of Japan, seeing for himself the horrific aftermath of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The devastation resonates and resounds throughout his poetry, which also echoes his struggle for identity, the destruction of gang conflicts, the angst of psychological breakdown, and the struggles of the intelligentsia of several continents, all congregated in Paris, to find sense, meaning or hope in the face of two world wars that not only were not wars to end all wars but were wars that ripped the earth, nations, groups of people and individual people apart.

A Cony Island of the Mind: A Summary

In the ninety-some pages of poetry in A Cony Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti expresses himself on the sociopolitical issues of his day that, as part of the international intelligentsia, gripped his consciousness and provided his poetic inspiration and through which we find "The poet's eye obscenely seeing." By summarizing the sociopolitical gist of one or two poems and by emphasizing the themes occupying Ferlinghetti's attention, we develop a micro-summary of the collection as a whole.

"Suffering humanity"

Ferlinghetti launches his protests, expressed with ironic bitterness and comic contradiction, with "In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see," the opening of which reads:

In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see
                    the people of the world
  exactly at the moment when
     they first attain the title of
                 'suffering humanity'
They writhe upon the page
             in a veritable rage
                            of adversity  

Ferlinghetti comes at this idea of suffering humanity again and again, often symbolizing the idea by the image of a "patch" on the seat of one's pants, as in "Johnny Nolan has a patch on his ass" and "Junkman's Obbligato." In "In Goya's greatest scenes," he equates suffering humanity with "freeways fifty lanes wide," a "concrete continent," "imbecile illusions of happiness" pictured on billboards, "cement skies," "groaning" babies and bayonets, a "landscape of blasted trees," and the devouring of America. These are the images and sentiments of American society that inform the poems throughout Ferlinghetti's collection and that were embedded in his psyche by his life experiences and that echo in his poetry again and again.

"Patriotic maidens" of "demi-democracy"

The second poem in the collection, "Sailing thru the straits of Demos," immediately focuses attention away from "blasted" social disaster to the "wailing" of political disasters of what Ferlinghetti finds to be lies and frauds.

   while eager eagles hovered
               and elephants in bathtubs
floated out to sea
[...]
    dying donkeys on high hills
                           sang low songs
                 

In a strong allusion to the journey of Odysseus as recorded by Homer, Ferlinghetti uses common political symbols (eagles, elephants, donkeys etc) to comically ridicule and disparage the political promise of "that great American / demi-democracy" that he has seen producing--and helping others to produce--horrors across the world and that he has seen keep its own citizens in a turmoil of fake freedom: "from Lost Angeles to Heaven / and promising Free Elections." This image of American democracy and freedom as being disappointing and fraudulent is expressed throughout the collected poems, as in "Junkman's Obbligato," "I Am Waiting" and "This life is not a circus."

Themes to be found throughout

Ferlinghetti struggled to find his true identity, to overcome the destruction seen through his experience with gang conflict, to reconcile the angst of his mother's psychological breakdown, and to advance the struggles of the intelligentsia to find sense, meaning or hope in life. This collection expresses how he has come to terms with these quests, and the answers he found are represented by antagonism to the established social and political order. In a tone of comic ironic disparagement and in sometimes bitter ironic contradiction of his own seemingly optimistic words, as in "This life is not a circus," Ferlinghetti rejects government, social order, self that is separate from others (i.e., he expresses self-hood in terms of unity with others as in "Let us arise and go now / to the Isle of Manisfree," in "This life is not a circus"), dystopia and utopia, technology, true freedom and true happiness, both of which he qualifies with bitter ironic contradiction. In summary, the expression in Ferlinghetti's poetry is:

  • bitter
  • anti-government
  • disillusioned
  • anti-technology
  • overwhelmed by a vision of dystopian society
  • compelled by a vision of what society might
  • driven to self-contradiction

Importance of A Cony Island of the Mind

One of the attractions at New York's Coney Island is the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, and the collection A Coney Island of the Mind, published in 1958, is described by the publisher as "a kind of Coney Island of the mind, a kind of circus of the soul." We might interpret this as meaning that Ferlinghetti is exploring the exotic, extreme, dangerous, even nightmarish ideas and abstractions of his mind and soul that--like the seemingly disjointed free verse of his poems--stir within him in haunting visions of his past and daunting visions of the future.

His poetic sociopolitical expressions are important because of the freedom from social norms and from political expectancy with which he expresses the horrors, contradictions and ironic tragicomedies he sees around him. This collection is also important because he stirred up and awakened within those who read it (for example, American author Alan Shapiro) the discontent with materialist capitalistic "demi-democracy" that was fomenting after World War II and the Korean war (1950-1953).

Another reason the collection is important is that it embedded Ferlinghetti's experimental free-form verse in American literary tradition. Some of the characteristics of the structure of his poetry are:

  • usually a-typical line arrangement
  • set but variable rhythm such as iambic or trochaic feet
  • variable meter within a poem
  • variable rhyme schemes
  • end-rhyme
  • assonance/assonant rhyme
  • consonance/consonant rhyme
  • internal rhyme
  • variations in punctuation, including no punctuation
  • variations in capitalization, including no capitalization
  • allusions
  • classical allusion
  • musical allusion
  • historical allusion

An example of scansion of the first lines of "In Goya's greatest scenes we seem to see" shows some of these characteristics (accented stress shown by a single /'/ stroke).

In Go' / -ya's great' / -est scenes' / we seem' / to see' : 5 feet of iambic rhythm

the peo' / -ple of' / the world' : 3 feet of iambic rhythm

ex- act' / -ly at' / the mo' / -ment when' : 4 iambic feet

they first' / at -tain' / the ti' / -tle of' : 4 iambic feet

'suf' -fer / -ing' hu / -man' -i / ty' : 3 trochaic feet with a hypercatalectic (feminine) ending (i.e., an unfinished foot)

They writhe' / up -on' / the page' : 3 iambic feet

in' a / ver' -i / -ta' -ble / rage' : 3 trochaic feet with a hypercatalectic ending

of' ad / -ver' -si / -ty' : 2 trochaic feet with a hypercatalectic ending

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