Ferlinghetti the Beat is given the Boot


Lawrence Ferlinghetti pic

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died a few months ago aged 101 was a hero to many in the fifties — as publisher, spokesman, and owner of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookshop, he became the eminence griseof the Beat generation. He was also a best-selling poet with his second collection, A Coney Island of the Mind(1958). It is less well known that in the UK this collection was received far less enthusiastically, to say the least. In fact it was pummelled by fellow poet and critic Al Alvarez, who reviewed regularly for the Observer, where this review appeared in 1958.


Alvarez, like Geoffrey Grigson, who despised him for promoting the ‘ confessional school ‘ and for approving suicide, among other things, had a reputation for physical and mental toughness. A rock-climber and poker-player, who published books on both subjects, he despised Romanticism in poetry, and the genteel perspective of poets like Larkin and Betjeman, preferring the gritty world view of writers such as Lowell and Berryman. And like any tough guy Alvarez spoke his mind. If a poem didn’t measure up he said so without equivocation. And in his view, Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mindwas bad. In fact it was ‘extraordinary bad’.  Alvarez’s review is worth reading, not only for what he says about Ferlinghetti:


Mr Ferlinghetti’s reputation largely depends on his extra-literary activities; he has stage- managed many of the San Francisco Beatniks; he owns the City Lights Bookshop where they sometimes meet; from it he has published some of their verse. He has also fooled around with that latest sub- literary form of publicity, poetry and jazz…’ 


 But also how he saw the Beatnik movement.


‘ The Beatnik’s pose is one of rejection and eccentricity; they say ‘ no’ to society, daddy and sense, and ‘yea ‘ (Whitman’s word) to the great exploited body of Mother America and to what Jung, had he seen them, might have called ‘ the collective inertness. ‘ None of this, of course, makes up a literary revolution. It is simply a minor revolt, another scrabbling for fame and rewards with different slogans. And Mr Ferlinghetti is, at least, less belligerent than his colleagues. At heart he is nice, sentimental, rather old-fashioned writer who, he admits, ‘ fell in love with unreality’ early and has since developed a penchant for words like ‘ stilly’, ‘shy’, ‘sad’, ‘ mad’, and ‘ ah’. He also has a pleasant little talent for verbal whimsy—‘ eager eagles’, ‘ the cat with future feet ‘, ‘foolybears’ and the like—which no invoking of the usual private parts will change from low-level Edward Lear into tough surrealism.


And then there are the poems themselves:


What is odd is that these mild vapourings should be taken, as the blurb says, as ‘ true mirror-images of our era’s tormented face.’ I had never realised our era’s tormented face was quite so literary. By that I don’t mean Mr Ferlinghetti’s references—though if you want to know the OK Beat reading, this is the book. I mean his plagiarism. There is scarcely a poem that is not based, more or less directly, on someone else’s:–


Cast up/the heart flops over/gasping ’Love’ //a foolish fish which tries to draw/its breath from flesh of air/And no one there to hear its death/among the sad bushes/where the world rushes by /in a blather of asphalt and delay


This comes from Yeats’s famous epigram:-


Shakespearean fish swam the sea, far away from land;

Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand;

What are all those fish that lie gasping on the strand?


All Mr Ferlinghetti has done is to remove the irony and intelligence and replace them with self-pity. Perhaps this is what makes him so appealing; he is not a poet who has thought and felt painfully for himself; he is a sensitive who has been upset by badly digested reading and lets you know it. So you pity him but you don’t take him seriously. 


Trust Alvarez to identify this piece of blatant plagiarism, but then he did have a first in English from Oxford. Needless to say it is unlikely that many ( if any) fans of A Coney Island of theMind, either back then or now, would  willingly acknowledge Ferlinghetti’s offence, but even if they did, it probably wouldn’t matter to them. For all its faults, the book has sold more than a million copies so far, placing it with that other Beat bible, Howl,as arguably one of the twentieth century’s best-selling books of poetry in the English speaking world, though it was also translated into 9 languages ( perhaps this fact boosted the figures).

  1. M. Healey

2 thoughts on “Ferlinghetti the Beat is given the Boot

  1. Roger Allen

    I don’t think much of Ferlinghetti’s poem, but what made Alvarez think there was any “self-pity” there – sentimentality, yes, but they aren’t the same thing – or that it was plagiarised from Yeats? The fish gasping on land is a common trope, to put it politely, and many others have used it,.
    Nor is there much “irony or intelligence” to Yeats’s poem. How were “Shakespearean fish … far away from land”? Shakespeare was very definitely a popular writer out to please the public in the pond of the theatre, not swimming out to sea. Just which “Romantic fish swam in nets coming to the hand”? Doesn’t sound like Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Byron… And just which poetic movement is “gasping on the strand”? It sounds more like Yeats’s Rhymers’ Club than anything else, but the poem wasn’t published til the 1930s (?), and it isn’t much like Eliot/Pound-style modernism or MacSpaunday, the possible candidates then – just a vague rhyme with no precise targets.

  2. wilma

    Excellent reply RA. Alvarez and LF were two of a kind and would probably have had a shouting matchif they met. Clash of the Titans. Literary titans more famous for their lives and activities than their work. Not so Yeats…


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *