A Lifetime of Letters

The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, edited by Bill Morgan (Da Capo Press, 2008)

I have a file titled “Noam Chomsky” that contains several letters from the linguist during the 1990s. I first began writing him while studying at the Maryknoll School, as I was doing research on his work on the Middle East. Back then, around 1990, word was that Chomsky spent twenty hours a week answering correspondence, which was in addition to his two full-time jobs as relentless critic of American power and influential linguist/philosopher.

While I don’t know how much time Allen Ginsberg spent writing letters, by quantity he must not be too far behind Chomsky.

Ginsberg archivist Bill Morgan’s task was to collect some representative fine letters out of the thousands Ginsberg wrote over many decades (the first is dated December 28, 1941 when he was fifteen years old).

Herein, we discover, or are reminded, that Ginsberg was an ardent champion of poetry, a patient explainer, and an advocate of first thought & free thought & fun thought. Throughout, I got a strong sense of Ginsberg’s legendary curiosity; his vast range of literary, political, and cultural interests; his spirited battles and anguished conflicts; and his tireless dedication to his friendships.

Among the recipients of Ginsberg’s epistolary intensity, whimsy, and love are his father Louis Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Lionel Trilling, Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder, Ed Koch, Bob Dylan, Norman Podhoretz, and Bill Clinton.

Each Ginsberg fan will surely find certain phrases and passages to delight him. To a poet who was badgering Ginsberg to give him money, he replied, “I’m not Ford Foundation.”

A countercultural icon, Ginsberg was often out in the streets protesting, but he added this Buddhist-inspired proviso: “Regarding politics, any action taken in hostile emotion or with aggression as motive leads to more hostility & aggression, & aggression in form of capital monopoly or psychic power monopoly is root of personal & social woe—aggression to maintain & reinforce illusion of separate egohood & its powers.”

In a letter to Kerouac during some difficult times in Ginsberg’s early twenties, he mentioned with appreciation famed art professor Meyer Shapiro at Columbia, “He told me to come over, and sat talking with me about the universe for 2 ½ hours; also told me about how he was in jail in Europe for being a stateless bum.”

To the young poet Antler, whose work Ginsberg championed, he offered the following advice, “You gotta find some way of intensifying the sentences without becoming gnomic arty or stiff-spoken—so as to keep the authentic talking to yourself style and its inspirational cheerful ease—at the same time not waterdown the density of poetical mind-speed or page gleam possible.”

In 1969 he wrote Treasury Secretary David Kennedy announcing his tax refusal: “I am not able to pay this money into our treasury to be expended in the present illegal and immoral effort to kill or subdue more Vietnamese people.”

Composing an idiosyncratic curriculum vitae to be considered for McArthur Foundation grant, Ginsberg included the following self-assessment: “Role model innovation in integrating persona of poet as spiritual meditative aesthetic private personage and public activist ‘generation leader’ democratic citizen, thus expanding possibilities of ‘public figure’ to be frank in public.”

There is something poignant in reading such a collection of the way it used to be, as technological breakthroughs have seemingly rendered prehistoric such reliance on the U.S. Postal Service. I imagine that if Allen Ginsberg were alive, healthy, and writing away today, his staff would be busy collecting his various emails, Facebook Wall postings, and Twitter compressed poetic snapshots.

The Letters of Allen Ginsberg gives vivid testimony to the poet’s conviction expressed in his “Cosmopolitan Greetings”: “Inside skull vast as outside skull.”

And, as Kerouac suggested, “Be in love with yr life.”

Allen Ginsberg

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