He never lost his zeal for provocation. “You are supposed to get more conservative as you get older,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1977. “I seem to be getting just the opposite.
His most successful collection, “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1958), attracted attention when one of the poems was called blasphemous by New York Congressman Steven B. Derounian, who called in inquiry was taught, saying that the poem ridiculed the crucifixion of Christ. The poem, “Sometimes during eternity …”, begins:
Sometimes for eternity
some guys show up
and one of them
who arrives very late
is a kind of carpenter
of a square type place
and he starts to cry
and pretending he’s plugged in
Despite the controversy it sparked – or perhaps, at least in part, because of it – “A Coney Island of the Mind” caused a stir. It has become one of the most successful American poetry books ever published. It has been translated into several languages; according to City Lights, over a million copies have been printed.
A life of provocateur would have been difficult to predict for Lawrence Monsanto Ferling, the youngest of five sons born in the peaceful outskirts of Yonkers, NY, on March 24, 1919, in the aftermath of World War I. His father, an immigrant Italian who had built a small real estate business, had shortened the last name; as an adult, Lawrence would change it.
His parents had met on Coney Island – a reunion he then imagined as taking place in bumper cars – but the veneer of normalcy quickly deteriorated. Her father, Charles, died before Lawrence was born and her mother, Clemence Mendes-Monsanto Ferling, was admitted to a public psychiatric hospital before the age of 2.
Lawrence was taken in by a relative – he called her his Aunt Emily, although the family bond was complicated – and she took him to Strasbourg, France, where he learned French, speaking it before English. When they returned to the United States, the difficulties also returned. He was briefly placed in an orphanage while Aunt Emily looked for work.