Forty Years of Letters
by Mark Chmiel
Bill Morgan, I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg —1955-1997
I read a lot of Ferlinghetti in the 1980s, and loads of Ginsberg in the 1990s, and kept up with both in the new millennium. Of course, their relationship was cemented by City Lights’ publication of Howl and the subsequent obscenity trial in 1956.
This volume is not as soulful, funny, or intense as the joint Kerouac-Ginsberg collection; while they were poetic and political comrades, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg had a publisher-writer business relationship in the mix as well. Here are some of the recurring themes in the decades from the 50s to the 90s: Allen thinking all his friends’ every utterance ought to be published; the two talking contracts, money, the NY publishing behemoths; Allen alternately insecure and cocksure about his place in history; Larry wondering why Allen doesn’t give him feedback on his poems (“What am I here, chopped liver?” he must have oft wondered); ongoing melodramas involving enfant terrible, madman, and robber Gregory Corso; Larry having to put his publisher foot down; Allen kvetching about his money woes; Larry’s burnout on the San Francisco poetry backbiting scene; Allen’s enthused championing of Antler’s poetic merits; Larry’s regular reminders “send me MS”; and Allen’s role in The Great Naropa Poetry Wars.
Here’s a sample of their candor, criticism, and good cheer—
AG: I still admire your poetry in Pictures but I think you’re going too goofy political. Street poetry OK but what street boy sings of Ike and Senators? 77
LF: Would you point out to me a major poem by Creeley?
AG: I’m so overwhelmed with letters, people, and my own sort of gregariousness that I never seem to get much solitary work done.
AG [Your Castro poem] was deliberate statement with some sacrifice of Tinkle Poesy.
LF: The “Wales” poem is really beautiful, one of the greatest you have ever written.
AG: Yogis and holymen here tell me, “Poetry is your Sadhana” (sadhana is path, discipline, yoga) and “Take Blake for your Guru.”
LF: 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.
AG: Anyway—teaching here going fine—all the students feeling me up and me feeling them up and crying all over. I’ll write. Love Allen
LF: … some of your other greats leave me in doubt—for instance, e. e. cummings I think is a much greater poet than W. C. Williams, but where is he in your pantheon?
AG: I up to ears in work appointments telephones politics get no writing done, maybe another month of this.
LF: you are W-R-O-N-G to be defending an oriental despot [Trungpa Rinpoche], 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 [Kenneth] 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?) So — the sooner you get on the “right” side, the better!