Saturday, 1 November 2008

The poet's eye obscenely seeing

This year marks 50 years since the publication of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind, possibly my favourite book of poetry. Ferlinghetti is a poet associated with the beat writers. His bookshop in San Francisco, City Lights, was a hangout for them in the 50s, and still today represents a radical, alternative hub in the city.

I first visited City Lights in late 2002. The outside walls of its building at Columbus and Broadway were hung with banners proclaiming opposition to the imminent war on Iraq. Its shelves feature an extensive literature section, books on radical politics and social sciences, and unsurprisingly a large beat writer collection upstairs. It instantly became, and remains, by favourite bookstore.

Ferlinghetti himself has long been associated with anarchist and anti-authoritarian politics, and more recently has opposed the gentrification of San Francisco. Some of his poems in A Coney Island of the Mind also have a political edge, though this is no didactic tract. Rather it gathers together fragments of America's post-war reality and presents them in critical juxtopostion.

The second part of the book, 'Oral messages', is seven pieces written to accompany jazz. The first, 'I am waiting', in particular recalls for me the later rhythms of Gil Scott-Heron's proto hip-hop.

Anyway, here's an entirely unauthorised reproduction of the third, untitled, poem in the book. A 50th anniversary edition has just been published, which I recommend you buy from your local independent bookshop, or get your library to order or something nice and non-consumerist like that...

The poets eye obscenely seeing
sees the surface of the round world
with its drunk rooftops
and wooden oiseaux on clothesliens
and its clay males and females
with hot legs and rosebud breasts
in roll away beds
and its trees full of mysteries
and its Sunday parks and speechless statues
and its America
with its ghost towns and empty Ellis Islands
and it's surrealist landscape of
mindless prairies
supermarket suburbs
steamheated cemeteries
cinerama holy days
and protesting cathedrals
a kissproof world of plastic toiletseats tampax and taxis
drugged store cowboys and las vegas virgins
disowned indians and cinemad matrons
unroman senators and conscientious non-objectors
and all other fatal shorn-up fragments
of the immigrant's dream come too true
and mislaid
among the sunbathers

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