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,” Carl Solomon.
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 by Ginsberg. 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 on the mouth 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, N.Y., 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.” Snyder, writing from Japan, recommends a newspaper which contains “my brief account of the Banyan Ashram of last summer. I still think you would find it a restful and creative thing to do this year — come over here and join us farming and fishing — no newspapermen, no literature.”
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 — “Dear Gary: Fine build 10’ x 11’ hut, sounds ideal” — 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, with a knack for good accounting. 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 ﬂ 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.