LESS THAN FIVE PERCENT of Allen Ginsberg’s extant correspondence makes it into a recently published volume of his letters, yet it is more than enough. The Letters will doubtless serve a purpose for the many scholars and students of the Beat generation. As a “read,” though, it’s depressingly base. Whether or not you think Ginsberg’s poetry took flight, there’s no doubt that his prose stayed definitively earthbound. Whining, wheedling, on the make; defensive, accusatory, and sly—Ginsberg the letter-writer will exhaust and enervate you. He even knew something of this. The remark “oh well I’m complaining like Hitler” interrupts a sixteen-page screed to critic John Hollander. “Better shit it all out at once,” he added.
From the earliest scribbles, Ginsberg lays one deadening “intellectual orgasm” after another upon his recipients. His refusal to contain, check, or edit himself or to revise or censor his letters in any way lends each one an overblown quality. True, it’s not Ginsberg’s fault that most of the debates and discussions here have been cast off or superseded by events, deaths, or time. But most of us write with some cognizance of the probability of ephemerality—that is to say, with a suspicion that what possesses us now may soon pass.
There are moving interludes, especially those concerning Ginsberg’s mental imbalances and his suffering as an insecure gay man in a time of prejudice. It’s poignant, and tragic, to see him write in desperation to crackpot analyst Wilhelm Reich at the age of 21, sure of his sexuality but consequently fearful of his sanity. Even here, though, an unintentionally comic note intrudes when he tells “Dr Reich”: “From September 1945–June 1946 I underwent an informal, amateur psychoanalysis, attempted by a friend, who was I think trustworthy for that, as far as it went. The inevitable and unfortunate effect was that it left me washed up on the shore of my neuroses with a number of my defenses broken.” No wonder—the person he’d chosen as his shrink was William Burroughs!
In 1950, still unadjusted sexually, Ginsberg persuaded himself that he was essentially straight. He found a willing, not to say talented, female sexual partner called Helen, and wrote to tell Jack Kerouac “that all my queerness was a camp, unnecessary, morbid, so lacking in completion and sharing of love as to be almost as bad as impotence and celibacy.” The self-laceration lacks the rhetorical bravura of Wilde’s De profundis, but the sentiment is uncannily, and tragically, similar. Later, in 1958, railing against those who dismissed Beat writing, Ginsberg termed such people “enemies of culture and civilization and a bunch of perverted fairy amateurs,” proving that homophobic name-calling wasn’t just for homophobes.
Notwithstanding the occasional (and brief) moments of self-deception, Ginsberg was in all respects—sexual, personal, social—fundamentally drawn to strong, heterosexually-inclined men. His devotion to Neal Cassady is the volume’s most consistent and repeated theme. From 1947 on, the poet was—against the odds—seeking to affirm their “relationship” through epistles to Cassady that were, it seems (though we have none of the replies), truculently or abruptly answered. Invariably, Ginsberg uses that non-starter as a ploy—the appeal for pity or sympathy, telling Cassady: “I am only a child and have the mind of a child.” Elsewhere, though, elements of self-knowledge do seep into his address to the beloved. Ginsberg recognized from the outset that he was as much in love with the idea of being (desperately, desolately) in love with Cassady as he was actually in love with a real man. Hence he sounds understanding, and at times almost grateful, for Cassady’s ignoring him (“Are you too occupied to write?”) and for his indifference (“I blame you, yet I still ask for the whip”).
Being a helpless child didn’t always suit Ginsberg, and on another occasion, even as he proclaims the benefits of psychoanalysis, he refers to his analyst as “an inferior intelligence.” Mostly, what he recorded for Cassady, though, was his own abjection: “The glare of unknown love, human, unhad by me.” To Jack Kerouac in 1954, he acknowledged some bitterness as he witnessed from afar how Cassady’s future wife Carolyn stole Neal from him: “she’s a kind of death—she doesn’t dig new things. … She’s a hysteric type.” (Carolyn Cassady of Off the Road fame has, ironically, survived all who figure here.)
Eventually Ginsberg meets Peter Orlovsky, the closest he would ever come to a regular partner. But the match isn’t immediate or mutually acknowledged, and Orlovsky’s troublesome behavior, serial addictiveness, and dependency come out all too miserably. With respect to Orlovsky, Ginsberg had love—or pity—in spades. But at heart the relationship feels like willing mutual exploitation. While staying in Paris, Ginsberg writes to Orlovsky in New York: “I missed you (jacked off even).” He comes to the point! In 1961 Ginsberg wrote Orlovsky from Athens, Greece: “Made it with a few boys here but cost money a little and they weren’t so interested but I dig the cock.”
In the literary realm, it was Kerouac he adored and defended against all accusers. Ginsberg’s generosity in advertising the talents of his peers is palpable—though even as a young, would-be poet, he was also self-consciously constructing his own mythos at the tail end of a tradition of American poetry whose leading lights included Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound. The 25-year-old Ginsberg’s first direct appeal to Pound included long examples of his own verse, packed with hesitant self-criticism, and open requests for an incipient dialogue. Still, Ginsberg never altered his disarmingly informal idiolect in such cases. The letter opens: “Dear Pound, Don’t know if it’s any good writing you.” In a rambling reference to Hart Crane, Ginsberg also—as early as 1951—summarized what would, from the sensational Howl on, prove his subject matter. In fact, one sentence more or less summarized that as-yet-unimagined work: “This generation (mine) has seen enough really wild personalities immolated in the subways to understand [Crane’s suicide]. … (I mean, I knew a great shining cat who jumped out of a subway window last year).” Whatever Pound made of this letter, he didn’t reply. Undeterred, Ginsberg continued the epistolary door-stepping, finally turning up at Pound’s place in Venice, and playing Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Donovan records to the somewhat deaf 81-year-old.
Amid the personal material, there’s a good body of “public” letters. Ginsberg liked to update The New York Times concerning his political views, their journalistic shortcomings, the “State of the Nation,” and the like. He also wrote directly to several presidents and politicians, usually in anger, though to President Carter Ginsberg simply asked that a poet be appointed to the National Council on the Arts, since “poetry is like the central nervous system of the body politic, [and]poetic projection of image has a compelling role in the history of human actions.” Here, as so often, Ginsberg invoked Shelley. But it’s striking how uninterested he was throughout his career in the poetics of poetry. This statement makes its case by contradicting Auden and insisting upon the effect of poetry on people’s everyday lives.
This is not to say that Ginsberg on all occasions displayed political savvy. He traded in ideals and expected others to do likewise. He was readily hoodwinked by the Czech authorities in Prague, where he seems to have equated individual freedom with one’s willingness to have gay sex (especially with him). Eventually he would be forcibly deposed as the students’ chosen “May King,” gay-bashed, and persecuted by the State Police. Predictably, once he has left Czechoslovakia, the official Czech youth newspaper “had big article attacking me as dope fiend homosexual monster who’d abused Prague hospitality.” On Vietnam, he compares his father’s tacit support of the war to the Third Reich: “You’re just like the Germans under Hitler,” an especially calculated comment, given Allen’s pride in his Jewishness.
Later on, Ginsberg didn’t even bother to write the “public” correspondence himself. Instead, he would get others to write it, and then—in the words of this book’s editor—to “Ginsbergize” it. But perhaps the most pitiful and oddest inclusion here is the last, to President Clinton, which presumably he did write himself, days before his death in 1997: “Enclosed some recent political poems. I have untreatable liver cancer and have 2-5 months to live. If you have some sort of award or medal for service in art or poetry, please send one along unless it’s politically inadvisable or inexpedient.” Talk about getting to the point! Ginsberg then adds, considerately: “I don’t want to bait the right wing for you. Maybe Gingrich might or might not mind.” The grubbing for favor is unappetizing enough, though admittedly it would have been worse if Ginsberg had not put out consistently for others.
He could blow his own horn, of course, as when summarizing his career while asking for a Mac-Arthur Foundation grant, he wrote: “I’m considered by some people in U.S. and Europe to be the greatest poet in the world; by others to be the most famous or celebrated, one model of what poet should be as aesthetic innovator and also public personage.” Even more hubristically: “I really am a National Treasure, probably more so than anyone recently given awards.” And finally: “In sum, it is probable that I am the best known and most widely read living American poet, in this country and abroad.” Ginsberg could afford to defer to the dead poets, naturally, as they didn’t apply for awards. His seventeenth achievement, according to this screed, was: “Introduction of the word ‘Fuck’ into college textbooks as integral literary word in poems.” But it’s the end of this miserable letter that so appalls: “P.P.S. I might also want to get married and have children, had I sufficient means.” Yeah, right! Ginsberg was 56 years old. He hadn’t dated a girl in decades. But he knew what selectors wanted, or thought he knew: the application was turned down.
There are some startling vignettes among the more pedestrian grumblings. In a response to his father’s objections to the poem “Kaddish,” Ginsberg ingeniously reveals his new substance of choice, LSD, and suggests that his dad try some. I was intrigued by the reference to being “quite boorishly behaved with Montgomery Clift.” And it was fascinating to learn of the encounter with an emerging English artist in Tangier in 1957: “Very strange nature, looks like 35 or so [Francis Bacon was 47], rather fat boy but tough … rather spoiled tragic face like [Dylan] Thomas—and quite a sport.”
When Ginsberg grew animated, he could recollect people and places with clarity and character. But too often his accounts of his travels are perfunctory, even clichéd. El Greco’s The Burial of the Count of Orgaz Ginsberg refers to as “big orgasmic explosion of a last judgment” (which it isn’t). Pamplona is dismissed as a “Hemingway backwater.” In Barcelona, he tells Kerouac, he spent “another day goofing around, ate huge paella meal, saw more painting museums [etc.].”
To Gary Snyder, he summarizes a long European jaunt as follows:
took off with Peter thru Spain and toured all great monuments mosques [sic]of Cordoba and Alhambra and Toledo Madrid Barcelona then to Venice. … more museums and more cooking, then trip with Peter to Florence and Rome and Assisi, slept on grass and bugged the monks hand in hand begging food and conversation, then back to Venice and trip alone back to Rome and Naples and Capri and Ischia. … then with Peter again thru Vienna so to see Brueghel paintings, then a few days in Munich, then here in Paris got a room with cookstove gas and went sightseeing.
Robert Byron, Bruce Chatwin, or Patrick Leigh Fermor this isn’t. We are nearer National Lampoon’s Vacation, or the rampant text-messaging of an adolescent.
Nor does Ginsberg improve. To Robert Creeley in 1967, he wrote of Rome: “saw Vatican and a lot of statues.” And if the accounts of Europe are inaccurate, perfunctory, or uninspired, those from India in 1962 are even more disappointing. Ginsberg tells Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “India has everything Mexico has, poverty and dead dogs.” And Aztec temples? Ginsberg recalls sleeping inside the Taj Mahal, “a sublime joint, like being inside a perfect symmetrical 3-D DeChirico canvas, you get that particular infinity sensation around it, like a time machine.” Ah yes—like that.
The truth is that through this consistent inability to observe other things and people, Ginsberg reveals that he was fundamentally uninterested in anything outside or beyond himself. For someone of such an impressionistic mind, he could be weirdly pedantic, too—as when the worst of his rows with Orlovsky is summarized in a 1987 reproach to his lover: “I’ve had the walls washed to get rid of streaks of apple and grapefruit juice left over when you threw juice bottles at the wall.” In the later years, Ginsberg could be censorious, too, telling one critic sharply: “And don’t blame me or Rimbaud for your idiotic bouts with coke or overuse of grass. Nobody told you to derange your senses.” The times, they were a-changin’.
In 1975, Ginsberg writes his father about a moving trip to Kerouac’s grave with Bob Dylan, but quotes the epitaph incorrectly. The stone reads, “He honored life”; Ginsberg renders it, “He honors the world,” a quite different proposition. His own analysis of meter and verse is repeatedly unpersuasive. He just couldn’t be bothered, really, with consistent arguments or ideas, telling one aspiring poet: “You have the advantage of absolutely natural real Milwaukee speech extended lines.” Howl’s method he described as “a surreal speedup … to give lines individual poetry.”
The critics who didn’t admire him understandably got a lashing from Ginsberg. Oddly, though, he could be just as upset by misguided praise, telling Al Aronowitz: “Why don’t you just write common spoken English, not exaggerated hip talk?” (Pot to kettle?) And: “I haven’t changed my mind about the fathead awkward dishonesty of your prose where you center the attention on yourself—it’s embarrassing.” That’s Ginsberg to Aronowitz. The reader of these letters might have written just these words to their conceited, bombastic author.