By James Campbell
Published: January 7, 2009
The Letters of Allen Ginsberg Edited by Bill Morgan 468 pages. Da
Capo Press. $30.
The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder Edited by Bill
Morgan Illustrated. 321 pages. Counterpoint. $28.
In June 1958, Allen Ginsberg wrote to Jack Kerouac about a series of
catastrophes that had befallen members of their circle on the West
Coast. Neal Cassady was in the San Bruno county jail, awaiting trial
for having offered marijuana to a pair of undercover policemen. A
woman friend - "little doomed Connie" - had fallen in with "some evil
teaheads or something" and been strangled, according to an outside
source, "Tuesday AM by a ... seaman who confessed that PM." Al
Sublette, who features in Kerouac's novel "Big Sur" under the name
Mal Damlette, was also in prison - "I heard for a burglary."
All the news from out West, much of it conveyed by Cassady's
"haggard" wife Carolyn, with whom Ginsberg had been on unfriendly
terms since she disturbed him in bed with Neal, "sounds evil ...
except letters from Gary." In a note to Cassady himself two weeks
later, Ginsberg admitted being at a loss to offer practical help. "I
wrote Gary Snyder, he's the only one with a strong sense ... to ...
find what need be done."
The graph of Ginsberg's emotional life rose and fell alarmingly over
the years (he died in 1997, at 70). The early correspondence in "The
Letters of Allen Ginsberg" reflects a multifaceted distress: at his
mother's "severe nervous breakdowns," related fears for his own
mental health, and a comprehensive sexual anxiety. In 1949, having
fallen in with some petty criminals, he was arrested for harboring
stolen goods and subsequently committed to the New York State
Psychiatric Institute, where he met the future dedicatee of "Howl,"
Within a quarter-century, however, Ginsberg had become America's most
famous living poet, attracting a congregation in which common readers
mingled with political activists, students of oriental philosophy and
a variety of social casualties. Wordsworth's famous pronouncement -
"We poets in our youth begin in gladness;/But thereof comes in the
end despondency and madness" - appears to have been put into reverse
The open homosexual and Blake-inspired visionary took every
opportunity to demonstrate that candor triumphed over shame - by
taking off his clothes at a poetry reading, for example. Madness to
gladness was his determined course. If the world seemed reluctant to
follow, the solution was obvious: change the world.
Yet letters written in the late 1980s to his longtime partner, Peter
Orlovsky, and to his friend and fellow poet, Gregory Corso, suggest
that Ginsberg, a man of great geniality and natural generosity,
trailed the old discontents behind him. They turned up in the form of
other people's drug and alcohol addictions, pathological
self-centeredness and occasional violence. In June 1987, he issued an
ultimatum to Orlovsky, who had socked the psychiatrist R.D. Laing
during a get-together in Colorado, leaving Laing with "a big blue swollen lip."
Orlovsky's recollection of the event was dim, therefore Ginsberg felt
obliged to remind him:
"You poured milk and apple juice over the harmonium as well as R.D.
Laing. ... A teapot lid was broken, tiny fragments, no vacuum cleaner
yet and I was too injured to get thing straight till now. One
cigarette burn on rug, one on hallway linoleum. My shin got kicked
when you overturned the coffee table while I was sitting on the couch
watching you and Laing go at it.
"The violence had escalated so high after you bit Laing on the mouth
that, after knocking you down in anger myself, and you throwing a
chair at me .. . I finally called the police."
In a letter to Corso the following year, Ginsberg complained that it
was impossible to conduct a conversation with others in his own
apartment, while Corso demanded "complete separate attention, like
unhappy tantrum child. ... I think you're trying to trouble me. ...
Finally I resolve not to take it, 'Gregory I'll only see you when
you're sober."' He adds that while "drunk or on crack" the previous
evening, Orlovsky had threatened to kill him. Detained for the night,
Orlovsky was released the next morning. "God knows where this will
end." Another poet and friend, Anne Waldman, blamed Ginsberg for
"enabling" Orlovsky, and continually reactivating a mutual dependency.
Throughout the story unfolded by Bill Morgan, Ginsberg's biographer
and archivist, who has chosen 165 letters from more than 3,700 that
are known to exist, Ginsberg trains his gaze on the elusive
equilibrium. In 1968, he bought a farm in Cherry Valley, New York,
which held out the promise of rural tranquility. In a letter to
Snyder, he described the setup: "We have three goats (I now milk
goats), 1 cow 1 horse (chestnut mare for pleasure) 15 chickens 3
ducks 2 geese. ... More kibbutz than commune." Corso and Orlovsky
were also present, however, as well as Orlovsky's difficult brother
Julius. Signing off, Ginsberg told Snyder, "I keep straying on mental
anger warpaths, then come back to milking goats."
"The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder," also edited
by Morgan, is much taken up with discussions of meditation and
Oriental studies, on which Snyder appears as the master, Ginsberg the
willing disciple. The two men met in Berkeley in 1955 and took part
in the famous Six Gallery poetry reading at which Ginsberg gave the
first notable reading of "Howl." After the event, which served as an
informal coming-out reception for the Beat Generation in San
Francisco, he published "Howl and Other Poems," which became the
subject of an obscenity prosecution, then moved to Europe to join
forces with William Burroughs. Meanwhile, Snyder entered a Japanese
Zen monastery, embarking on a course of study that would last until
his return to the United States permanently in 1969.
Their separate paths are marked throughout the correspondence. In
July 1967, Ginsberg writes, "Been in London - arrested for reading
'Who Be Kind To' in Spoleto. ... Evening with Paul McCartney." Early
in the new year, back in the United States, he reports that he has
been in court for taking part in a sit-in and is experiencing "the
sense of a real authoritarian threat from government already
established, and lack of any alternatives but black power urban
violence or withdrawal to Neolithic countries."
As the Cherry Valley experiment sank under the weight of indiscipline
- "The farm never became the escape from addictions that Ginsberg had
hoped," Morgan writes in one of the helpful notes that run throughout
"The Letters of Allen Ginsberg" but are absent from the companion
volume - Ginsberg attached himself to Snyder in a material sense, by
building a small house on the 100-acre estate Snyder had purchased
together with like-minded settlers in the foothills of the Sierra
Nevada, where he still lives. The plans for the cabin, the harnessing
of expertise for its construction and the subsequent arrangements for
use when Ginsberg was absent (most of the time) form the ground of
the "Selected Letters." Snyder is revealed as a man of practical as
much as mystical wisdom. Mutual respect is the dominant note.
Readers hoping for exchanges of constructive literary criticism are
likely to be disappointed, which is a pity since, when they do occur,
they are to the point. Making a selection of Snyder's poetry for a
teaching course in 1976, Ginsberg writes: "I went thru last book" -
"Turtle Island" - "looking for examples of hard-line riprap solidity
and noticed you were getting as bad as me into psychopolitical
generalization which violated 'no ideas but in things' rule." Some
years later, having read Snyder's collection "Axe Handles," Ginsberg
pinpoints a strength that his friend was apt to neglect: "I liked
best the poems where you have a definite narrative structure."
The artists Ginsberg looks up to most, on this evidence, are not
poets but singers. Visiting Pound in 1967, he brings records by
"Beatles and Dylan and Donovan" as gifts. Pound "sat thru ¾ hour of
loud rock smiling" but remained otherwise silent. When he calls on
John Lennon in 1976, the former Beatle admits to difficulties with
the written word but tells Ginsberg he heard "Howl" on the radio one
night, and "suddenly realized what I was doing and dug it."
To his future biographer Barry Miles, Ginsberg writes: "It sure was
nice hearing Lennon close that gap, complete that circle and treat me
like a fellow artist as he walked me to the door goodbye."
There is a vast quantity of documentary material available on
Ginsberg: journals, interviews, biographies, a variorum edition of
"Howl" edited by Miles (perhaps the best book to read about
Ginsberg's poetry), and now these volumes of letters edited with
devotion by Bill Morgan. Yet the reader retains the sense that, for
all his explorations of sexual possibility, inner space, Zen "mind,"
and the world's continents, Ginsberg, who repeatedly (and apparently
seriously) ranked Corso with Keats, was willing to cover but a small
patch of contemporary literary geography.
A letter to Thom Gunn, author of an illuminating essay on Ginsberg's
poetry, shows how appreciative he was of criticism that reached
beyond accustomed cultish adoration: "I was moved - almost to tears -
by your sympathetic perceptions." Gunn took special delight in poetry
of the 16th century but knew how to read Ginsberg with pleasure; if
Ginsberg ever returned the compliment, to Gunn or to other writers
outside the Beat and Black Mountain circles, there is no sign of it here.
James Campbell is the author of "This Is the Beat Generation." A
collection of his essays," Syncopations," was published in 2008.