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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008

Ginsberg’s Life in Letters

Book Review

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A few years ago, I had occasion to discuss the early development of The Letters of Allen Ginsberg (Da Capo) with its editor, Bill Morgan. We were having dinner in Manhattan's East Village, and I was curious about how Morgan was faring in the yeoman task of sorting through the mountains of Ginsberg's correspondence. As the poet's bibliographer, Morgan had spent more than a decade sorting through and cataloging Ginsberg's correspondence. He'd gone on to write I Celebrate Myself, an excellent biography of Ginsberg, and researching that book gave him the chance to revisit the massive collection of letters.

Morgan wondered how I, as a fellow Ginsberg biographer, might approach the chore of choosing selections from a lifetime of letters to such literary and cultural luminaries as Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and too many others to mention here. Like most literary figures, Ginsberg, over the course of a lengthy career, managed to fashion a correspondence that was both an informal autobiography and an explanation of his work. The problem in compiling a book of this nature was sheer volume: If he was lucky, Morgan might have been able to include about 10% of Ginsberg's letters.

I told Morgan that I thought his job would be much easier if all of Ginsberg's previously gathered and published correspondence was in print. This would include his letters to Neal Cassady (As Ever), Peter Orlovsky (Straight Hearts' Delight) and his father, Louis Ginsberg (Family Business), as well as the edited but still unpublished exchanges with Kerouac. If these books were available, I told Morgan, the job of compiling a volume of correspondence would be that much easier: An editor wouldn't feel as compelled to include every little scrap written to Kerouac or Cassady, mainly because they'd be available elsewhere.

Anybody who's seen Ginsberg's correspondence knows that the poet had a habit of sitting down and writing a handful of letters on the same day. He'd write, say, Kerouac, Burroughs, his father, Lucien Carr (one of his oldest friends and a catalyst in the founding of the Beat Generation) and a couple of others. More often than not, he'd be saying essentially the same thing in all of the letters, with a personal touch or aside added here and there. This, to someone in Morgan's position, could be a nightmare. The best letter might have been the one to Carr, but readers would want to see the one to Kerouac.

I didn't envy Morgan his task, and I told him so. I knew he'd wind up cutting some of the gems for space considerations, others because he simply had to be judicious as an editor. I'd been down this path when I was editing Family Business, and I was only dealing with the exchange between two people. What he was doing was exponentially more difficult.

Happily-and not at all surprisingly, given the editor's talents-Morgan was up to the task. I might have a quibble with an inclusion or exclusion, but to find a way to pack so much into a 446-page volume is, in my mind, a feat of magic. The chatty letters between friends, the political bickering with his father, the (sometimes testy, and often lengthy) missives to critics and journalists, even a letter written in the form of a long poem-every imaginable type of letter on every imaginable topic makes an appearance. Much of what Ginsberg has to say is predictable, of course, mainly because the biographers of Beat Generation figures have already been over this turf, but there are exquisite surprises, such as a June 16, 1949, letter to novelist John Clellon Holmes, in which Ginsberg reveals, in astonishing depth and detail, the evolution of his early poetry and the state of his fragile psyche. Or the pointed and sarcastic Feb. 24, 1953, letter to Kerouac, in which Ginsberg chides his friend for refusing to allow his name to be associated with the publication of Burroughs' classic autobiographical novel, Junkie. Or the Nov. 13, 1957, letter, also to Kerouac, in which he describes the writing of an early draft of "Kaddish." Or the very funny April 1, 1997, letter written to President Bill Clinton, in which Ginsberg reveals that he is dying and could use one last award, if the president felt so inclined to issue one. (It was the last letter Ginsberg wrote, and it somehow seems both sad and appropriate.)

The list could go on and on. I'd read most of the letters when I was researching Dharma Lion, and while the material was nothing new, I was nevertheless reinvigorated by these letters, by the sheer energy in Ginsberg's words. Ginsberg believed in the power of poetry; of the necessity of promoting the work of his friends and other poets (a letter to Milwaukee poet Antler is included); of the urgency of staying in touch, with others and his own mind. Bill Morgan has plucked the essentials from a treasure trove of Ginsberg letters, and within a single volume he has managed the difficult task of capturing the essence of the man-his mind and spirit and work-in a way that should lead readers back to the poetry of one of the 20th century's masters.