“Excuse me if I begin to sound like Allen Ginsberg.” — letter to Benson Soffer, childhood friend, 17 May 1943
The Letters of Allen Ginsberg is unlike a lot of literary letters collections in that it contains no new revelations about its subject. But that should hardly be surprising considering the fact that we are dealing with one of the most frequently naked people of the 20th Century.
Even at a young age, as the words written at age 18 and quoted above proves, Ginsberg was not only keenly perceptive of himself and his role within the overflowing social-cultural melting pot of the mid-20th Century, but he never thought to distinguish his life from the arguments, both poetic and political, that he was constantly taking on. Defending Rimbaud to his skeptical Columbia professor Lionel Trilling, the young Ginsberg writes, “more than any poet, I can understand the personality”. Later, at one of the readings following the momentous unveiling of Howl, Ginsberg responded to a heckler by stripping to his birthday suit. This was poetry, and life, undressed and unapologetically intimate.
Since Ginsberg’s death in 1997, there has been a whole procession of posthumous books released, most of them edited by Bill Morgan, the poet’s friend and archivist. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg follows two books of Ginsberg’s journals, a volume of letters between the poet and his father, and a compilation of interviews, all of which have already done much to illuminate the inner workings of Ginsberg’s famous poetic imagination. Morgan explains that the selections for the current book were dictated more by the merits of individual letters than by the contexts in which they were written or the intended recipients. Thus we are served the spectrum of Ginsberg’s many moods and interests and his who’s-who guide of a rolodex.
In addition to fellow Beat heroes Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso who, along with Ginsberg’s family members, received the majority of these letters, we also have Ginsberg corresponding with Robert Creeley, Jimmy Carter, and Norman Podhoretz. The drawback to this approach is that the reader often loses the biographical thread. The subject that consumes an August 1973 letter defending the recently arrested Abbie Hoffman to his lawyer Gerald Lefcourt is drastically different from that of the very next letter in the volume, a January 1974 missive on Buddhism, written to the French writer Jean Jacques Lebel. Morgan’s editorial introductions and the chronological arrangement are crucial to giving the book the semblance of a biographical arc.
“No kidding. You have no idea what a storm of lunatic-fringe activity I have stirred up.” — to father Louis Ginsberg, April 1956
There are probably no poets during the past hundred years, excluding perhaps T.S. Eliot and The Wasteland, who have been so defined by a single work as Ginsberg was by the seminal Howl. Little wonder, then, that the period surrounding Howl’s publication in 1955 provides for some of the best reading here. Ginsberg realized as he composed the poem that it would mark a new phase in the Beat movement even if he could hardly predict its explosive affect on the society at large.
We read as he submits an early draft of the poem to Kerouac, who greatly influenced its jazzy long lines, saying that it was “nearer to [Kerouac’s] style than anything”; to his brother Eugene, Ginsberg notes dryly that the work represents an “elegy for the generation, etc.” Also included is Ginsberg’s lengthy explanation of Howl to Richard Eberhart, a poet and critic who was at the time writing an article about the San Francisco literary scene for the New York Times. The Ginsberg that emerges in Eberhart’s letter — at different moment polite, pedantic, condescending, and humble — returns frequently throughout The Letters.
At some point Ginsberg became the unacknowledged spokesman for the Beat movement, and he took it upon himself whenever necessary to speak up and speak loudly in defense of Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Corso, Gary Snyder, and others. Ginsberg was hyperaware of the frequent charge that Beat poetry was little more than improvised mumbo jumbo baked from jazz records and marijuana smoke, and so he sought to establish its genealogical links to heroes of the American tradition such as Whitman and Hart Crane while at the same time proclaiming that Beat poetry was a passionate disavowal of traditional, normative, 1950s American society.
This was obviously a tight rope to walk, and he managed it for the most part with impressive grace. But it was also exhausting. The letters collected in the present volume represent less than five percent of Ginsberg’s total extant output — Morgan estimates that he has uncovered more than 7,500 total. Arguments persist over whether Ginsberg ever came close to matching Howl in his later work, but The Letters shows at least that as his celebrity increased, the time Ginsberg spent on poetry, and writing about and contemplating his own poetry, fell off.
Some of the letters from the early ’50s, pre-Howl, provide remarkable insight into the poems written around the same time. Just as Howl’s success radically changed the poet’s life, the reader is flung from intimate visions of Blake and the psychological traumas of Ginsberg’s mother to rapid-fire travelogues from Tangiers and drug-fueled recording sessions with Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney.
“I don’t in any case want to monopolize all your sex imagination and don’t fantasize monogamy for you or me.” — to Peter Orlovsky, 7 October 1967
What The Letters offers that previous editions of Ginsbergalia, including the two biographies that have come out recently, cannot is the raw glimpses into the poet’s love life. And what a love life it was, occurring as it did at the dawn of the free love movement and the flowering of the homosexual underground. The earliest relationship examined is Ginsberg’s on again, off again dalliance with Neal Cassady, the fast-talking ex-jailbird and railroad brakeman who served as the uber-ideal and mascot of the Beats.
A letter to Cassady from 1947, dripping with the pangs and pinings of confused, enraptured youth, has all the over-the-top sentiment (“I blame you, yet I still ask for the whip”) you would expect from a 21-year-old. It might be hard to read were it not that the players involved are some of the most important literary figures of the last century. It was not until 1954 that Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s longtime companion, entered the picture. The letter in which Ginsberg describes how Orlovsky shifted from a relationship with the painter Robert LaVigne to more substantive attraction to Ginsberg over the course of a ménage à trios is a revealing play of bohemian manners.
Although little of this will be new to anyone who has read Ginsberg’s poetry, and will be perhaps downright repetitious to anyone who’s read a Ginsberg biography, there’s not a small amount of value in reading these events committed to text so soon after the fact and with a minimum of artifice. Both Ginsberg the poet and Ginsberg the person continue to fascinate. Let the publication of his entire written archive continue unabated.