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)
It is only in recent years that I have discovered the pleasures of reading literary correspondence, first with the letters of John Keats, then Samuel Beckett, and the Allen Ginsberg-Gary Snyder exchanges. With that pleasure comes a slight twinge of voyeurism. The letters were after all written presumably for a private audience and thus bring with them the tantalizing prospect of unguarded accounts and revelations that would not make their way unexpurgated into what was written for public consumption, although it may be a safe wager that some scribblers have an eye to possible publication anytime they put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. With Ginsberg it is difficult to imagine that private correspondence might reveal anything more personal or explicit than what is already on public display in poems, journals, and interviews.
The Ferlinghetti-Ginsberg letters are a delight on all sorts of levels. The two are invariably open with each other, sometimes blunt, others tactful, always candid, cordial without mincing words. The professional relationship between publisher and author comes out and is treated seriously, but it is the personal connection between friends and fellow poets that always has primacy and can be genuinely touching. The letters are interesting because they offer glimpses into the minds, personalities, and lives of two interesting individuals who counted among their associates more than a few interesting people whose names pop up regularly, though never in tone or spirit of gossipmongering.
The letters also provide insight into challenges writers and publishers ran up against in an era in some respects quite different from our own though not that far removed in time. There were the obscenity charges leveled at Howl for language that is graphic and sometimes of dubious taste but fairly run of the mill by contemporary standards, and there were printers who refused to print certain words in Ginsberg's lexicon that however crude are unexceptional today.
Conversely I wonder how a young Ferlinghetti just starting out as a publisher might fare in today's environment of strait-laced political correctionism on one side and rigid, reactionary blowback on the other. Ferlinghetti's social and political inclinations were anarchist, bohemian, and humane, marked by a deep antipathy to the state. He was a strong free-speech guy willing to accept the consequences that go with standing on principle. I can see him digging in his heels against the dictates of those who set themselves up as arbiters of what language is acceptable and what is forbidden, but I might be projecting.
Some of Ferlinghetti's compatriots back in the freewheeling sixties dismissed him as a mere businessman, a shop owner, god forbid, a bourgeois, to which he did not always react with equanimity. He is touchy, even cranky, about Kerouac's less than flattering depiction of him in Big Sur and "putdowns from [Gregory] Corso, among others, not to mention earlier ones from most of the mob who consider me a businessman with a loose pen and very drooly...but am not mad at him [Kerouac] just shaking my head a little." Going on to note "draggy reviews and remarks of miscomprehension" about his book Starting from San Francisco, he declared himself "completely bugged with the whole petty 'poetry scene' in the U.S." (July 1, 1962)
Through the years Ginsberg was called on to defend Corso on more than a few occasions, but here he acknowledges that Corso is "a narcissistic put-down artist" who claims it as a right "to preserve his own independence." Corso did it to Kerouac and Burroughs and even Ginsberg, though rarely,
because I got him by the balls in some other way, like hold his head and dry his tears when he gets hysterical like when we all arrived on Tangier dock last year and his passport had expired and they wouldn't let him off the boat for forty-eight hours. (July 5, 1962)
Both men complain of sensationalistic association with beatnikism and journalists who focus on that sort thing when, for instance, Ginsberg just wants to talk about the poetry or read "Howl." Ferlinghetti's hassles with the printer for the City Lights Journal lead him to vent about the scene more generally:
Son-of-a-beach won't set and print the word Fuck or Fucking, much less no assholes or shits.... Not only that but the prices for anything on a press here are outrageous, considering the shitty aesthetic they work by and the soulless paper and cold type.... If it weren't for having that there City Light Book rack, Kirby and I would live out of the country permanently. We both have had enough of "the whole evil" government scene and of provincial back-biting San Francisco especially. A real hick town, North Beach flooded with tourists brought here by the Beats with the local Chamberpot of Commerce running ads in the New Yorker showing picturesque Beatnik leaning on Grant Avenue lamppost; while at the same time San Francisco fuzz and local press...spitting on same with sneers. (February 28, 1963)
Ginsberg's loyalty and devotion to his friends is a matter of record. There is the account of his last days that has him in bed, dying, pen and checkbook in hand, phoning people to ask if they needed money. He was tireless in promotion of writer pals, talking them up to his contacts, acting as informal agent, schlepping their manuscripts around to publishers, recommending them to Ferlinghetti, all of them geniuses in Ginsberg's estimation. His enthusiasms ran way beyond the usual suspects William Burroughs, Corso, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen to the likes of Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and the New York poets John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, and Kenneth Koch.
Ginsberg urged Ferlinghetti to publish Snyder and Whalen and even offered to finance the cost for publication of both out of his future royalties (January 23, 1959), notwithstanding the precarious state of his own finances. As of late March 1958 he had written from Paris after being turned down for a Guggenheim fellowship grant that he was "broke, dumb, writeless and nowhere," living off Burroughs. While asking Ferlinghetti to send royalties as soon as he could, he added "You had better hold back $50 from the royalties in case refund is necessary for Fantasy [Records] temporarily" due to his inability to record a satisfactory reading of "Howl."
Ginsberg could be practical and adept at using his fame to advance his causes and ends while strikingly indifferent to practicality in other matters, as when he proposed to donate the original manuscript of Kaddish to the Living Theater for a fundraiser, indisputably a fine gesture, for which Ferlinghetti told him he was crazy (March 16, 1961). He begged Ginsberg to donate another manuscript version of the book and save the final for himself.
What do you figure anarchists will have to eat in 1975? If you will please save this manuscript until at least ten years from now, you will eat off of it from 1975 to 2000.... Please do not throw away your shoes to walk barefoot thru India, because when you get back to U.S. you will need them shoes again..... You crazy goofball...
Ferlinghetti was convinced of Ginsberg's greatness as a poet. After reading "At Apollinaire's Grave" he fired off a telegram exclaiming, "You are hugest dark genius voice alive" (January 17, 1959). On another occasion (June 28, 1963, Ferlinghetti in Paris to Ginsberg in Kyoto, Japan), he wrote,
Sorry you were bugged by "greatest living American poet" but no one had yet said same straight, and I just thought I'd say it straight face to see who would say what about it. In as much as it's true. Naturally all the little cliques of friend poets would be upset or sneer over it...but you can help it if some publisher says square things about you...I wanted to say same for the record; will then keep silent; for who cares for "Great"?
This high regard for Ginsberg as poet did not extend to Ginsberg's critical acumen and assessment of all his genius pals, even some Ferlinghetti would go on to publish later as they developed and matured.
I read and reread...Gary's Myths and Texts. Yes, I still feel the same as to Gary's — I'm just not sent far enuf by it. I'll wait for later works by both of them [Corso and Snyder], for there's going to be much better things coming, great ones.... You're a movement in yourself, but you carry this little band of cohorts around with you like a prospectus for the Revolution as if their writing had very much in common with yours. Gregory's certainly does, and I'm not out to run a press of Poets That Write Like Allen Ginsberg, but Gary and Whalen couldn't be further from you, given a certain great type dharmabums base, and I certainly see nothing classical about either Gary or Phil except classic Northwest American sawmill Buddhism.... (even though I feel Gary is going to do great Zen work in the future...and I love Whalen's Berkeley poem...) (Ferlinghetti, February 5, 1959)
It seems that Corso took exception, no surprise there, as an editor's note states he wrote in the margin of the letter "Dat's a lie, a big dirty lie, I don't write like Allen Ginsberg – Gregory."
Of Burroughs Ferlinghetti said flatly, "...most of the time I find his writing isn't worth the cruddy language and imagery he uses — that is, the content of the writing, what it is saying in the end, isn't great enough to warrant the general puss of junk." (December 1, 1958)
Ferlinghetti thought Corso more orignal but Ginsberg the more important poet, while Ginsberg attested to Corso's influence on his own work:
Our writing is similar, tho his line is shorter; but he has influenced me in the last two years — "Ignu" for instance; the Vachel Linsdey poem imitates his shorts in Gasoline (elliptical jump) — and other things in the mad phrasing I try to learn from him.... I see him as having a rich Shakespearean line.... Like, I think he's a more imaginative poet than I am, in his phrasing, more free, and that's why I study him, and that's loosened my own phrasing." (February 17, 1959)
The two poets were forthright when speaking of each other's work. Ginsberg advised Ferlinghetti to lay off politics in his poems, charging him with "going too goofy political." Ginsberg's criticism on this count is a little rich given his own poems a few years later taking on the war in Vietnam and sundry social and political themes. He goes on to write, "Street poetry okay but what street boy sings of Ike and Senators? Rather hear song about combs and razors and shoelaces on the street" (October 23, 1958), a call for "discrete particulars" that becomes an aesthetic mantra.
The poems in Ferlinghetti's Starting from San Francisco are "too loose." Ginsberg wants concrete, visual detail. "It's editorial prose...lines that aren't dense enough despite their goodwill." Fair enough. Also fair is Ginsberg's acknowledgement that he too often writes like this himself; however, the tactic he presents to address this flaw is no more than a mechanical resort to technique:
One way out of that trap, what I am doing now, is blue penciling the fat, prosaic, articles, prepositions, and so forths, and superimposing the different thin lines on one another so the key words at least make a poetry — i.e. "His dream was a mouthful of white prick that trembled in his head" is superimposed to "dream mouthfuls of white prick trembling in his head" and that's more Shakespearian. Kerouackian, too.
The second line may indeed be better, but to my mind it takes more than a mechanical removal of certain parts of speech to get there.
When Ginsberg suggested specific revisions to Ferlinghetti's poem "Old Italians Dying," Ferlinghetti's observation that Ginsberg "made that passage into a good poem in your own voice" rings true with my meager experience with writing critique groups. Poets have a tendency when critiquing someone else's poem to revise it into a poem they would have written and miss what the person writing the poem was going for. Even with the best of intentions it is easy to fall into transposing a text being edited into one's own voice and sensibility when the aim is make a better poem in the voice and sensibility of the one who wrote it, no easy task.
For his part Ferlinghetti was measured with editorial advice. He suggested that Ginsberg might prune back narrative repetition in "Kaddish" and called for more "compression and clarity" in Section II of the poem, remarking that he knows "there are dear phrases which are like pulling teeth to take out" (October 10, 1960). I know that feeling myself of having a line or phrase that I like, that I know is good, but the poem is not better for it. Sometimes it just has to go. On another occasion, referring to the "Long Poem," Ferlinghetti tells Ginsberg,
I hear your voice sounding in every line, and when I do that, every line and every poem makes it...It would take an editor who had never heard your actual voice to make any suggestions for omissions...but then his criteria would be artibitrary too...So in the end it's your voice sounding through every syllable which is the only thing that counts and your "mind" or consciousness itself... (July 6, 1972)
Ginsberg might be a great poet, but he was not, in Ferlinghetti's opinion, necessarily a good model or influence for other poets, a point he makes in the letter just cited and elsewhere.
...when imitators of your style — or others who follow the 'graph of consciousness' formula for a poem — try the same thing, they fall flat — or theirs is just not interesting great poetry — because their minds and consciousnesses are just not so interesting — their "graphs of consciousness" may put me to sleep half the time — Never yours
Two occasions stand out where the Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg were at odds about scandalous episodes involving others in their circle. The first was a notorious 1975 incident where poet W.S. Merwin and his girlfriend Dana Naone were forcibly stripped naked at a seminary associated with Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Ginsberg was a disciple of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the institute's founder, and a teacher at the Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which he co-founded with Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima. The school attracted a number of prominent writers of the time, including John Ashbery, William Burroughs, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan, who tended to be friends of Ginsberg rather than devotees of Trungpa.
Merwin showed up at Naropa in the summer of 1975, and Ginsberg suggested that he attend a session of intensive meditation and study at the seminary in the fall. Merwin and Naone had an interest in Buddhism but had not undergone the several years of preparatory training required for attendance at the seminary. Merwin was insistent and eventually got the okay to attend, but Trungpa, who had a reputation as a womanizer, was said to be an alcoholic, and comes off as a petty tyrant, was not pleased. Once there Merwin and Naone further irritated Trungpa when they had the temerity to question him about the inclusion of certain Buddhist texts that they found violent.
Things came to a head at Halloween. Trungpa dictated that instead of donning costumes they would celebrate by removing costumes. Merwin and Naone declined to participate, retreating to their room where they barricaded themselves. Trungpa dispatched his security team to bring them back to the main gathering. The security team broke into the room. Merwin defended himself and Naone with a broken beer bottle. Blood was shed but no serious injury was suffered. They were returned against their will to the Halloween party and forcibly stripped while Naone screamed for someone to call the police. The next day the parties reached some sort of bizarre accommodation with Merwin and Naone remaining at Naropa for several days more to attend the remaining lectures.
Over time word got around and battle lines were drawn. In February 1979 an article about the incident was published in Harper's (Peter Marin, “Spiritual Obedience, the transcendental game of follow the leader”). Then Tom Clark wrote a book about the incident and its aftermath, The Great Naropa Poetry Wars, published in 1981. Kenneth Rexroth and some poets denounced Trungpa, while other poets and members of the Boulder Buddhist community stood by him. It was a bad scene all around.
Ginsberg, who had not been present at the Halloween party, tried to de-escalate things, but he could not bring himself to come down on his teacher. Ferlinghetti would have none of it.
...your letter to [W.S.] Merwin...is masterly — as are all your other ripostes to attacks at Boulder. However, basically, from my Herbert Read-Rexroth-anarchist point of view, you-are-on-the-wrong-fuckin-side! No matter how great a casuist and master of eloquence you are, you are W-R-O-N-G to be defending an oriental despot, in the great aristocratic monarchic tradition of oriental despots — I agree with Merwin, I agree with Peter Marin, I agree with Gary [Snyder], I agree with Rexroth — what are you doing defending this petty dictator, and who needs experiments in monarchy at this point in the U.S.? (Isn't that what Nixon was?) (February 24, 1980)
Ginsberg responded with a reasonably nuanced explication of his position though he was not above throwing out terms like "yellow peril" with its implication of racism and paranoia. Ferlinghetti thanked him for the detailed explanation "which I really don't need," then straightforwardly laid out his own take on the situation:
You know I'm just against the whole idea of subjugation...of one's mind and will and body to anyone who is considered to be on a higher level of authority or consciousness or whatever.... The anarchist in me just isn't interested! in fact, views it with aversion...
So you're following Dylan: "You got to serve someone." Poor Dylan, I think he has lost his brains on this latest record of his (Slow Train Coming). Fer Christ's sake! I don't gotta serve nobody... (April 7, 1980)
Ginsberg was quite intelligent but not the deepest of thinkers nor possessed of the most critical of intellects. His pack-rat mind noticed and recalled all manner of disparate details and intriguing oddities, which he diligently recorded in journals and put to good use in poems. However, he was attracted to all manner of crackpot esoterica that he seemed to accept at face value. He was also an unabashed enthusiast for shortcuts to enlightenment via drugs, as in a letter of September 15, 1958:
I went to the dentist, had laughing gas, and it changed my life.... Now I'm a Buddhist. Kerouac, Snyder, and Whalen are all correct as far as I can see: the whole fabric of existence is illusion. If you can get that kind of explicit Nirvana through meditation as you can thru nitrous oxide, contemplation here I come.
Maybe I am being a little unfair to Ginsberg here. Maybe he was speaking at least somewhat humorously with tongue in cheek.
The other episode took place in 1979 and involved Gregory Corso. On April 25 Ferlinghetti wrote that Corso had broken into City Lights and stolen about $400, with at least three witnesses who saw him do it. Almost $3,000 disappeared during the previous year, $300 to $400 every few weeks, attributed to Corso. The police had fingerprints on top of the witnesses. Ferlinghetti advised Corso "he'd better get out of town fast before one of his enemies squeals on him and gets him busted." Ferlinghetti goes on to report that City Lights was in "terrible financial shape, partly on account of the robberies." Nancy Peters, managing director and co-owner of the bookstore, had to cut her salary in half. (Peters was also a poet and editor, married to poet Philip Lamantia.)
Ginsberg responded from New York about three weeks later that Corso was there in New York, admitted to breaking the window and took responsibility for the money stolen but denied taking it himself. Ginsberg took Corso at his word. Ferlinghetti replied almost immediately, "I'm glad you're so fair-minded about Gregory, though I can't resist straightening you out on the facts of what actually happened," affirming that there was no doubt that Corso took the money and had behaved abominably in other respects:
You have no idea how Gregory upset the people working at City Lights or the store in general...over the past six months or so. And it wasn't just the missing money.... He browbeat everyone who worked there — or at least those he dared to — and you can't imagine the language he used on Nancy and other women — etc. — a stone drag, to say the least. (May 19, 1979)
Ferlinghetti published Corso's book Gasoline and a broadside of his poem "Bomb." Now he was done with him, as he concluded, "It's a good thing I hate cops or he would be behind bars right now.... A fine friend he turned out to be after all these years," his last mention of Corso in these letters. Ginsberg remained loyal, writing a few years later that Corso's new book Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit, published by New Directions, "is brilliant and his best" and in 1989 expressing dissatisfaction with biographer Barry Miles's "denigration of Kerouac's persona and Corso's." (Sept 7)
My take on Ginsberg is mixed. He seems to me as significant as any poet of his era, with "Howl" and "Kaddish" generally considered his two major works. "Howl" is powerful, I quite like "America" and "A Supermarket in California," and I find parts of "Kaddish" moving, but nothing is transcendent. Even the best of Ginsberg does not move me to take up the pen. And Ferlinghetti is right that Ginsberg's influence on younger writers who imitate his style is almost invariably not so good. If Nietzsche philosophized with a hammer, as he has it in Twilight of the Idols, Ginsberg poeticized with a sledgehammer, to powerful effect in the best of his poems, but with repetition and tedium in many that are less than his best.
I leave to others to wrangle over where Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti rank among poets of their era. That they are up there seems to me without question. It is Ferlinghetti though whose poems are more apt to move me to put pen to paper as do Keats and Dickinson and, yes, the wayward, problematic Corso. The best of his poems are marked by a quiet nobility and humaneness of spirit. I think here of poems like "I Am Waiting" and "Baseball Canto," where he evokes Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, and Tito Fuentes as readily as in other poems he evokes Ezra Pound, Bob Dylan, Kenneth Patchen, Gustave Klimt. Ferlinghetti wears his learning lightly and leavens his observations of the human condition with gentle humor, as in "The World Is a Beautiful Place...":
The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don't mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don't sing
all the time
or closing lines of "I Am Waiting":
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and I am waiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder
In the end Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg stand in a grand tradition that finds in poetry a noble calling. Their letters bear witness that they kept faith with that calling. No less, the letters attest to a lifelong, beautiful friendship. Neither is a small thing in this world.
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)
Accounts of the Great Naropa Poetry War
Dinitia Smith, A Poet of Their Own, The New York Times, February 19, 1995
Levi Asher, When Hippies Battle: the Great W. S. Merwin/Allen Ginsberg Beef of 1975, Literary Kicks, November 17, 2005