Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of those well-known people whom few people know well. To some extent that's because Ferlinghetti--poet, publisher, bookseller, novelist--is a private man; although he cooperated with Barry Silesky, himself a poet, on this volume, he clearly dislikes having his beliefs and motivations looked into.
More significant is the fact that Ferlinghetti's poetry has never received much critical attention; it tends toward the transparent, the everyday, seeing much but revealing little. It's a surprise, consequently, to learn that his most noted collection, "A Coney Island of the Mind" (New Directions, 1958), has more than a million copies in print worldwide--more than any book by any other living poet, and almost twice as many as Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"--which Ferlinghetti published two years earlier through his own press, City Lights.
Silesky provides a mild, workmanlike account of Ferlinghetti's life to date, and though drawing few conclusions, makes it easy to guess at the origins of Ferlinghetti's sensibility. Dropped off at an orphanage at age 6 because his mother was hospitalized for emotional problems and his great aunt couldn't afford to rear him, Ferlinghetti ended up the ward of a wealthy, elderly couple in a New York suburb.
The Dickensian echoes don't end there; in his teens, he was arrested for shoplifting the same month he made Eagle Scout, and, after college, went to sea--joining the Navy, where he captained an escort boat during the D-day invasion of France. Ferlinghetti would return there in 1948, enrolling as a graduate student in the Sorbonne and intending to be a writer of some kind . . . a writer, one projects after reading this book, who took transience for granted, who found the notion of authorial "depth" a luxury.