Saturday, February 14, 2009

Book Review: The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder

This 2009 book published by Counterpoint Press is a collection of selected letters between beat generation founding father Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac friend/environmental writer Gary Snyder. As anyone reading this blog probably knows, Jack Kerouac wrote about Ginsberg and Snyder in his novels under fictitious names (to avoid libel). Ginsberg showed up frequently (source: Jack Kerouac Characters):

Big Sur - Irwin Garden
Book of Dreams - Irwin Garden
Desolation Angels - Irwin Garden
The Vanity of Duluoz - Irwin Garden
Visions of Cody - Irwin Garden
The Dharma Bums - Alvah Goldbrook
On the Road - Carlo Marx
The Subterraneans - Adam Moorad
The Town and the City - Leon Levinsky

Snyder appears less frequently, although in The Dharma Bums he is a major character:

Big Sur - Jarry Wagner
The Dharma Bums - Japhy Ryder

This collection of letters was edited by Bill Morgan, Ginsberg’s archivist and biographer for twenty years before the latter’s death in 1997. As Morgan states in the Editor’s Preface, “During the twentieth century, letters were a literary form that nearly everyone practiced. In today’s world of cell phones, text messaging and email, it all seems quaint and old-fashioned, but in the days before inexpensive long-distance telephone service became commonplace, the main avenue for communication was the written word” (p. v).

Ginsberg and Snyder met in 1955, and kept in touch by letter over the next 40 years. Their centrality to the beat literature movement is significant and unquestionable, making this book valuable to anyone with more than a passing interest in beat literature.

For Kerouac fans, don’t expect much mention of Jack. He is listed on 20 pages in the index. My own count is that Kerouac’s name is mentioned on 36 pages (of the 310 the letters take up) – a bit of a discrepancy – but in any event, the mentions are brief and not of much interest except for one: “Dreamt I saw Jack Kerouac last nite, told him he’d done enough work, he should take it easy and maybe write one book every 10 years and live to be 80 or 90 years old. I guess that’s advice to me” (p. 307). Ginsberg wrote this in January 1995 at the age of 68, and lived to be 70. I guess he had the dream a bit too late. Later in the same letter he says, “My heart’s still pumping but especially in travel I get out of breath easily, feel older and less energetic – so I guess the Kerouac dream applies” (p. 307).

In general, expect a lot of mundane correspondence. It is telling how often the two depended on letters to communicate about logistics (when they might see each other, real estate deals, schedules, business dealings, etc.). Letters often crossed in the mail, or one or the other, especially Ginsberg, would let them pile up while he traveled and get to them when he returned.

There are 16 pages of photographs of the two, ranging from 1955 to 1996. The only one that caught my attention was the one of Snyder standing on a mountain in the Glacier Peak Wilderness and “’pissing in the no-wind.’” Here’s a picture of my great friend Keith doing that off The Beehive in Acadia National Park this last August. I didn’t ask him if I could post this, but given that it’s an almost exact reproduction of the Snyder picture, I think he’d be honored.

I found the book interesting enough to read every letter straight through. I wish there had been more in the way of philosophy and critical dialogue, but that’s just not how the two used letters. Plus it was seldom a dialogue, given how long it sometimes took for one or the other to get around to answering a previous missive. They used letters more to stay in touch and handle logistics. The insight I took away was that these beat authors we lionize today were quite human, with faults and weaknesses and fears and the like, just as we mere mortals.

There are indeed a few in-depth philosophical musings (e.g., Snyder’s long 1962 letter explaining Buddhism in general and some specific visions he had on mescaline); and, there are plenty of one-liners of note, such as (from Ginsberg) “’hatred is not cured by hatred’” (p. 33), or “change is usually right” (p. 37), or “my roshi said when the word comes out in a flash it’s not a word, it’s your true mental state; when you search for the right word, it will never be the right word” (p. 37). Or from Snyder: “That is the simplest – and most difficult – way to get at suffering I guess, help out people who are suffering yourself. Ugh” (p. 65).

One of the strong threads of the letters centers around Kitkitdizze, Snyder’s home on the San Juan Ridge in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. Ginsberg had a house there, but seldom used it, eventually selling it to Snyder. Many letters detail the development of the land, rental arrangements, improving Ginsberg’s house, tax issues, etc. Another thread is the amount of traveling the two did (not together) to teach and give readings or talks. They were prolific in this regard.

In summary, unless you’re a beat aficionado, this book may not be of that much interest. On the other hand, if you want an inside look into the friendship between two central characters of the beat generation, I think you’ll find this book well worth investigating.

In Ginsberg’s last letter in the book, he says, “I keep writing – journals and poems, much about physical aging or obvious deterioration of the body – with 2/3 of my heart working I have less physical energy approaching age 70 – tho [sic] I feel like 16 emotionally ….” (pp. 312-313).

That youthful spirit seems to be instrumental in great artists and it comes through in both Ginsberg’s and Snyder’s letters. May we all keep it right up until the end.


Jonny Darko said...

An interesting review. Thanks for posting, and sharing those excerpts. I've been meaning to familiarize myself with more of Snyder's poetry besides the few bits I've read in various anthologies. What I've read it very good, succinct, image-driven. Also looking forward to getting a hold of Ginsberg's Collected Letters, whenever it comes out in softback. His journals, deep, self-analyzing, uncompromisingly confessional in tone, make for fascinating reading, especially the period covering his travels in Indian circa 1961.

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

Thanks and you're welcome. So much to read, so little time!