Vision, Poetry, America and Sex
Bill Morgan (ed.)
The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder
There is a curious moment midway through the recent Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There (2007). Dylan is with the poet Allen Ginsberg, and they are both staring at a giant crucifix planted in the middle of a field. Bearded, incredulous and very possibly stoned, Ginsberg, played by actor David Cross as a sort of dancing hippie sage, shouts: “Son, you’d better get down off of that thing. You’re liable to get yourself killed.” Dylan—a sardonic Cate Blanchett, roll-up perched nonchalantly on her lips—hollers: “How does it feel?” It is a purely rhetorical question. But Ginsberg continues to stare, transfixed, thoughtful.
Ginsberg and his fellow writers of the “Beat generation”—Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder the better known among them—occupy a unique place in the cultural landscape of the 1960s, the decade of “How does it feel?” Given their bohemianism, drug use, sexual libertinism and eastern mysticism, an anti-Beat strain was quick to emerge, perhaps best exemplified by conservative thinker Norman Podhoretz’s 1958 broadside, in which he called the movement a “revolt of the spiritually underprivileged and the crippled of soul—young men who can’t think straight and so hate anyone who can”. So widespread was the discomfort in intellectual circles about the young men in question that even a sympathetic critic like Kenneth Rexroth, aghast at being called a Beat himself, was moved to remark that an “entomologist is not a bug”.
The distinction, with its neat division of labour—the bug doing the feeling, the entomologist doing the thinking—could never do justice to an Allen Ginsberg, driven as he was by a faith in the possibility of a countercultural intellectualism, in the idea of being both entomologist and bug at the same time. As he put it: “There are ‘Intellectuals’ and there are intellectuals.” It is a lower-case intellectual Ginsberg who appears in The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, offering a reflective side that his poetry alone does not reveal. This Ginsberg wants to know how it feels, but he is equally fascinated by the entomologist’s question, by thinking about how it feels. Indeed, it is this question that Gary Snyder broaches soon after their first meeting in 1955: “Listen man, if you feel up to it will you write me a concise statement of your theory of beatness and its relation to vision, poetry, and America? and to sex?”
The pair spent the next four decades, in effect, trying to do just that. The letters, thankfully, have little in common with the overwrought solemnity of poems like Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956), whose interminable hip-prophetic lines were probably more fun to write (stoned) in 1956 than they are to read (sober) today. The letters owe, rather, to the delicious humour of some lesser-known poems. Consider Ginsberg’s impatient query to the self-congratulatory capitalism of 1950s America: “When will you take off your clothes? / … When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?” Or Snyder’s injunction to those “threatened by advertising, air pollution, television, or the police” to “chant Smokey the Bear’s war spell” (it goes: “Drown their butts / Crush their butts”). In the letters, the men turn the humour at themselves, living their lives as Beat poets even while joking, relentlessly, seriously, revealingly, on what “Beatness” was all about.
As it happens, the biggest revelation of the letters might be how conventional the men turned out to be. Ginsberg died in 1997 the grand old man of American letters, his work securely canonical in spite, or perhaps because, of its centrality to our understanding of the 1960s counterculture. The still-living Snyder, while never as famous, managed a Pulitzer and an emeritus professorship at UC Davis. For all their non-conformism, neither poet could free himself entirely from the banalities of university chairs, fellowships, grants and royalties, and this is only one of the many tensions with which their letters bristle.
Snyder establishes himself early on as the voice of common sense. In the course of their extensive travels, he is always the practical one: “be careful moneychangers give you full count”, he writes, proceeding to note that “[t]he Buddha didn’t use money thank God”. Elsewhere, he bemusedly counsels his confirmed exhibitionist of a friend: “Don’t catch cold, taking your clothes off in public”.
Sometimes Ginsberg and Snyder travel together, with their partners in tow, and the letters offer many a tantalizing glimpse into their personalities. Snyder’s three marriages, each woman more interesting than the last, find frequent mention alongside Ginsberg’s life-long relationship with the poet Peter Orlovsky, whose descents into drug-fuelled psychoses are fully and painfully catalogued: “Peter Orlovsky now six months clean”; “Peter O. returns from Detox Hospital”; “Peter will inherit expensive E. 12 Street pad—if he can stay straight”.
The drugs, and there are many, remain to the end part of a spiritual journey undertaken in evident earnest. Their Buddhism is scholarly, thoughtful, sometimes playful, yet by all accounts serious. In striking contrast to the better-known “gurus” of the period, the spiritual mentors we hear about are more concerned with freethinking than with free sex. Again, it might be the very staidness of their religious practices (“attending breath out front of nostril disappearing”) that is most unexpected.
Given the seriousness with which the correspondents treat their metaphysical discussions, it is a pity that these sections are so poorly annotated, the editor Bill Morgan noting that he “relied heavily on dictionaries” of Asian terms. Footnotes are arbitrary, and missing at precisely those points when they are most needed. So much so that it might be helpful to have the better-edited companion volume The Letters of Allen Ginsberg (2008) at hand. For a volume that scholars are likely to consult, the index is criminally sparse, with important names (Dwight Eisenhower, George McGovern) left out and listings nowhere near exhaustive. In one place, we are given a mystifying entry for a “Ramanujan, K. Oe”, from a mention of the Indian translator A. K. Ramanujan and the Japanese Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe in the same sentence.
Nevertheless, the selections in the volume constitute a coherent and often fascinating narrative. For writers who may have done their most memorable work early in their careers, they show surprisingly little regret about the passing of the 1960s. The “middle-period” letters are full of ideas for new projects, some described at amusingly tedious length. Snyder turns out to be an early Mac partisan: “getting pretty good at it”, he tells Ginsberg, who endearingly admits failure: “PS I’m not yet computer literate so don’t email you.” The epistolary personalities of the men in 1995, when Ginsberg’s ill health finally forces the correspondence to end, are recognisably the same as those of the young men of 1955—just as earnest, just as silly, just as thoughtful and just as funny.
And, one hastens to add for fear of leaving out a crucial piece of the 1960s puzzle, just as political. Ginsberg and Snyder were both intensely political poets, but politics never overwhelms the correspondence, and crucially, never kills the jokes. Consider Snyder, responding to the Cuban Revolution, in a passage that unites everything that is winsome and admirable about the Beat generation:
I don’t trust the sentimental ex-Stalinist pro-Castro sentiments too much … [B]ugging the U.S. out of its head serves no revolutionary function. And the excessive retribution-violence makes bad karma—“hatred is not cured by hatred” as the Dhammapada sez. But. Let there be beards in politics.
If Ginsberg and Snyder managed successfully to resist the descent into self-parody that was to be the downfall of so many of their generation, it was because they never lost that sense of lower-case intellectual absurdity. In our clean-shaven decade, one reads the lighthearted seriousness of these lines with a goofy grin only so uniquely Beatnik a mixture of idealism and commonsense could inspire.
Nakul Krishna is reading for a second BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Exeter College, Oxford. He is Essays editor at the Oxonian Review.