I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg 1955–1997 Edited by Bill Morgan City Lights Books, 284 pp. (2015)
Ah, the joys of a good library. The Ferlinghetti-Ginsberg letters caught my eye as I browsed the poetry stacks at the Central Library in search of nothing in particular, much as at age seventeen at Richland County Public Library in Columbia, SC, with childhood comrade Phil Allen, I hit on a book with a wild cover and crazy title, Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I did not pick up Wolfe at the time, but the name stuck with me when I saw references in Rolling Stone, most likely in an article about Ken Kesey. When I did read Acid Test sometime around my freshman year in college, it led me to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and their pals in the beat circle, and from there to the European avant-garde of the 18th and 19th centuries, a tradition that would become my tradition as I developed a sense of myself as a poet, an incremental process that remains ongoing.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg are part of that tradition, important poets, distinguished bohemians, political dissidents, members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Ginsberg's fame, commercial success, and standing as a public figure make him an anomaly among American poets, who typically pass under the radar without receiving the recognition and respect accorded poets of comparable stature in other countries. With Ginsberg it was in some quarters as much notoriety as respect. His uninhibited accounts of sexuality and drug use, political activism as an opponent of the Vietnam war and critic of American capitalist, consumerist culture, advocacy for gay rights, enthusiasm for Buddhism and all manner of Eastern esoterica, &c., coupled with poems in tune with the time and talent for public performance brought a celebrity from which he did not shy away.
Ferlinghetti is the author of more than thirty books of poetry, eight plays, and two novels. He is also an artist whose paintings and drawings have been exhibited in San Francisco galleries. His greater contribution though may be as publisher of Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and other beats, Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, more established poets such as Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen, and a character out of LA named Charles Bukowski, all unknown or little known outside certain circles when City Lights took them on, alongside an array of Europeans, Antonin Artaud, Jacques Prévert (Paroles, translated by Ferlinghetti), Yevgeni Yevtushenko, and Andrei Voznesensky among others, bringing them to an American audience in inexpensive editions that even bohemians and students could afford at a time when works by writers such as these were not readily available.
Ginsberg was admitted to Columbia University on a scholarship after graduating from high school in 1939. There he met Kerouac and Burroughs. In 1945 after masturbating with a William Blake book on his lap, his eye idling over the page of "Ah! Sun-flower," he had what he took to be a mystical experience where he heard Blake's voice. (Beat Writers at Work, pp. 51–53). Ginsberg graduated from Columbia in 1948, served time in a mental institution after pleading insanity to avoid jail time as an accomplice in a robbery (he and Kerouac were attracted to any number of shady lowlife types during their undergrad years), and worked various jobs in New York before moving to San Francisco in 1954, where he showed up at Rexroth's door with a letter of introduction from William Carlos Williams. There he was employed at various times as a market researcher and merchant seaman.
Ferlinghetti settled in San Francisco after serving in the US Navy in World War II as a ship's commander and receiving a Master's degree from Columbia University (1947) and doctorate from the Sorbonne (1950). With Peter Martin he founded City Lights Bookstore in 1953 and launched the City Lights publishing venture in 1955. The San Francisco Renaissance was in full flower when he and Ginsberg made the scene. Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, Robin Blaser, Jack Spicer, and Michael McClure were central figures in this group of writers and artists that coalesced in the Bay area after World War II. As Ferlinghetti described it in a 1998 interview for The Paris Review:
When the Beat poets arrived in the fifties, Rexroth was a kind of paterfamilias, the father figure of us all. He had soirées every Friday night at his house. I didn't say a thing for the first year. I was too much in awe. He was a great polymath, a great essayist and critic with an anarchist point of view, and a great poet—the outstanding characteristic of Rexroth's poetry was its sublimity. It could be said that Gary Snyder's poetry is an echo of his.
Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti met sometime in 1954 or early 1955. Both kept journals but neither recorded the initial meeting. The two men went on to enjoy a relationship of mutual respect and regard as friends, fellow poets, and author and publisher for more than forty years, until Ginsberg's death in 1997.
Most of the letters in I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career are previously unpublished, with the exception of a few found in The Letters of Allen Ginsberg and excerpts from "a handful more" in Howl on Trial. Ferlinghetti, writes editor Bill Morgan, "has always been reluctant to publish his own correspondence.... It was only after repeated coaxing...that he agreed to allow their publication here."
Morgan opens the volume with Ferlinghetti's famous telegram to Ginsberg after his reading of "Howl" at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955:
I GREET YOU AT THE BEGINNING OF A GREAT CAREER [stop] WHEN DO I GET MANUSCRIPT OF "HOWL"? [stop] LAWRENCE (FERLINGHETTI) CITY LIGHTS BOOKSTORE
The telegram, paraphrasing Emerson's famous note to Walt Whitman, was something of a theatrical gesture, what with both men being in San Francisco at the time. The message could have been delivered easily enough in person over coffee at a North Beach café or maybe a beer at Vesuvio, across the alley from City Lights.
The early letters provide glimpses of Ginsberg as a young poet more uncertain about the quality of his work than I would have thought. Later after he became famous, something of a pop icon, he could be a bit full of himself and given to pontification on aesthetic and other matters. Upon receiving the first proofs for Howl, he tells Ferlinghetti the justification needs to be corrected. The beginning of a poetic line was to be justified on the left margin and continued with indentations when it ran longer than a single line on a page, as many lines do. The typesetter had found Ginsberg's instructions confusing and got it wrong. Ginsberg was apologetic for any trouble this would cause and said he would pay the cost of resetting type, anxious that Ferlinghetti not incur any expense for this. Concern for fairness in financial and business matters was typical of both men. He explained to Ferlinghetti why it must be done:
The reason for my being particular is that the poems are actually sloppy enough written, without sloppiness made worse by typographical arrangement. The one element of order and prearrangement I did pay care to was arrangement into prose-paragraph strophes: each one definite unified long line. So any doubt about the irregularity of right hand margin will be sure to confuse critical reader about intention of the prosody. Therefore I've got to change it so it's right. (July 3, 1956, Ginsberg on board USNS Sgt. Jack J. Pendleton)
He goes on to say, "This will be sure to delay things longer but the more I look at it the worse it seems.... I mean you can't tell what I'm doing, it looks like primitive random scribblings...I had not intended the prosody to be that arbitrary."
A year later, Ginsberg laments that he has written little, and
...what long writing I've done is more or less unpublishable laterly — some autobiographical sexual history — send us all to jail. Burroughs influence has been to open up even more extreme areas and much more questionable taste, as far as subject...God knows where I'll end up, elegies in the asshole of some Istanbul hermaphrodite, odes to cocaine... (Tangier, Morocco, June 10, 1957)
In a letter dated January 15, 1957, we have Ginsberg distraught as he writes of the necessity for a last-minute correction with Howl now at the printer. The book was dedicated to Lucian Carr, a Columbia University pal of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs. While at Columbia Carr was pursued by an older man named David Kammerer who had fallen in love with him when Carr was in prep school in St. Louis and Kammerer a scout leader. On an August night in 1944 Carr fatally stabbed Kammerer, who had followed him to New York, with a boy scout knife after Kammerer's sexual advances became threatening. (An obituary of Carr published in the The Guardian, February 8, 2005, questions this account of the incident, "crafted by Carr's legal defence team, supported by close friends, and recycled in every obituary"). Carr served two years for manslaughter. By 1956 he was married and pursuing a career as assistant managing editor for national news at United Press. He remained on friendly terms with Ginsberg and Kerouac but did not want his name associated with theirs. As a sidelight, it was through Carr that Kerouac was introduced to Ginsberg and through Kammerer that he was introduced to Burroughs.
Ginsberg's intent was to honor his friend. It had not occurred to him to ask Carr's permission. "It's my fuck up," he wrote, "but I have to straighten it out." Carr's name must be removed, no matter the cost. Ginsberg would pay. As it turned out, the book was at a stage in the printing and binding process where the change was a minor matter and the cost minimal, although Ginsberg had no way to know that. He was prepared to somehow scrape up whatever funds were needed.
A few years later as Ginsberg morphed into a celebrity figure with the rise of the 1960s counterculture, he received overtures from major publishers but remained loyal to Ferlinghetti and City Lights for taking him on at the beginning and sticking with him when Howl was brought up on obscenity charges that got Ferlinghetti and City Lights Bookstore manager Shig Murao briefly arrested before being released on bond for selling the book and a publication called Miscellaneous Man. Some years later Ferlinghetti would support and advise Ginsberg when the time came to sign on with a New York publisher that could offer more than City Lights in terms of advances, distribution, and promotion. This was typical of Ferlinghetti's attitude about his role and relationship with authors he published, which he articulated in the introduction to City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology:
The function of the independent press (besides being dissident) is still to discover, to find the new voices and give voice to them — and then let the big publishers have at them — which is what has happened in our case — many authors we first printed now being published by the biggest houses in the world. ... From the beginning the aim was to publish across the board, avoiding the provincial and the academic, and not publishing (that pitfall of the little press) just 'our gang.' I had in mind rather an international, dissident, insurgent ferment.
Beat Writers at Work: The Paris Review, ed. by George Plimpton: Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1998), pp. 332–347; Allen Ginsberg (1966), pp. 31–68. The Modern Library (1999)
A Brief Biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti (City Lights Books)
City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology, ed. by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights Books (1995)
San Francisco Renaissance (Poetry Foundation)