He never lost his zeal for provocation. “You’re supposed to get more conservative the older you get,” 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 attacked as blasphemous by a New York congressman, Steven B. Derounian, who called for the investigation of a state college where it was being taught, saying the poem ridiculed the crucifixion of Christ. The poem, “Sometime During Eternity …,” begins:
Sometime during eternity
some guys show up
and one of them
who shows up real late
is a kind of carpenter
from some square-type place
and he starts wailing
and claiming he is hip
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 books of American poetry ever published. It has been translated into multiple languages; according to City Lights, more than a million copies have been printed.
A life as a provocateur would have been hard to predict for Lawrence Monsanto Ferling, the youngest of five sons born in the placid environs of Yonkers, N.Y., on March 24, 1919, in the wake of World War I. His father, an Italian immigrant who had built a small real estate business, had shortened the family name; as an adult, Lawrence would change it back.
His parents had met in Coney Island — a meeting he later fictionalized as happening in bumper cars — but the veneer of normalcy quickly deteriorated. His father, Charles, died before Lawrence was born, and his mother, Clemence Mendes-Monsanto Ferling, was admitted to a state mental hospital before he was 2.
Lawrence was taken in by a relative — he called her his Aunt Emily, though the family connection was complicated — and she took him to Strasbourg, France, where he learned French, speaking it before he did English. When they returned to the United States, hardships returned as well. He was briefly placed in an orphanage while Aunt Emily looked for work.