He never lost his zeal by provocation. “You’re supposed to get more conservative as you get older,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 1977. “It seems like I’m getting the opposite.”
His most successful collection, “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1958), drew attention when one of the poems was attacked as blasphemous by a New York congressman, Steven B. Derounian, who called for a state university investigation where he was being taught, saying that the poem ridiculed the crucifixion of Christ. The poem, “Sometime in Eternity …”, begins:
Sometime in eternity
some guys appear
and one of them
who is very late
he is a kind of carpenter
from somewhere square type
and starts to cry
and claiming it’s modern
Despite the controversy it generated, or perhaps at least in part because of it, “A Coney Island of the Mind” was a sensation. It became one of the most successful American poetry books ever published. It has been translated into several languages; according to City Lights, more than a million copies have been printed.
A life as a provocateur would have been difficult to predict for Lawrence Monsanto Ferling, the youngest of five children born in the quiet surroundings of Yonkers, NY, on March 24, 1919, following World War I. His father, an Italian immigrant who had built a small real estate business, had shortened his last name; as an adult, Lawrence would change it again.
His parents had met on Coney Island, a reunion he later imagined to have happened in bumper cars, but the semblance of normalcy quickly deteriorated. His father, Charles, died before Lawrence was born, and his mother, Clemence Mendes-Monsanto Ferling, was admitted to a state psychiatric hospital before he was 2 years old.
Lawrence was taken in by a relative (her aunt Emily called her, though the family connection 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 was looking for work.