Culture & Criticism Since 2003
Most of us know that Allen Ginsberg was a brilliant poet with a searching mind and deft ear – one who could transcend the vacant syllables of some invisible whisper and then mold them into the glistening heart-shaped pyramid of a poem.
However, Ginsberg was also the consummate writer – at some primal level, he understood that communication is the key to enriching the mystery of life and he practiced his craft with absolute fervor. Simply, Ginsberg sought to embolden every line of every conversation with bloody emotion, striving to make each and every blind utterance meaningful.
In this new book from Da Capo, the art of Ginsberg’s letters is captured in stunning form, as editor Bill Morgan (the author of one of the best biographies on the bard, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg) finds the thread that transforms the random lines of Ginsberg’s life into a noble tapestry.
Sadly, one of the skills that’s lacking among many young writers these days is the ability to write a letter that says something. Many times (and this could be due in part to the fragmented form of email that rules the universe), young writers spew forth a disjointed hodge-podge of thoughts on a truncated sheet that fails to convey any real information (confounding rather than enlightening).
And it’s that very realization that brings us to the reason why this book of letters is indispensable to all serious students of literature: In sum, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg is a book that embraces the wonders of communication, each selection reveling in the sheer excitement of the connection. Here, the only idea is to talk, to share, reaching out across musty wounds of time and space, shaking the reader at their core with the silent impulse of breath.
Followers of the Beat Generation will find countless hours of enjoyment here, as Ginsberg’s letters to the likes of Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac and Bill Burroughs cement the timeline of the movement and record pieces of history that evaded previous media attention – the poet now at one with his friends and contemporaries, removed from the prying eye of the world, sharing himself and the holy meat of his mind on a personal naked level.
Oft times, collections of letters written by a famous person and then published posthumously can be the definition of boring – stilted and stagnate, lost in the idea of itself.
And that is just what The Letters of Allen Ginsberg is not.
Instead, Morgan has stitched these random letters into a well-rounded compilation of the poet’s correspondence that, in the end, serves as a mirrored reflection of Ginsberg’s true self – at once gentle and commanding as he continues forth on his earthly journey to share tears and blood with the living world.
For students of the Beat Generation Movement (which some 50 years later remains the last major literary pilgrimage to instigate lasting change), this marks an important release – a book much like the spirits of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac themselves, its sole mission to revive the consciousness of the reader while providing a succinct historical overview of the Beats’ connection with India.
As many already know, Ginsberg’s first trip to India in 1961 was a very important component to the collective growth of the writers who comprised the ‘Beat Movement.’
Initially, Ginsberg appeared like most other lost western intellectuals, a young man on a trip to reconnect with the idea of ‘God’ on these distant landscapes of the Eastern shore. However, in point of fact, this journey ended up being about much more than religion. Instead, it was about infinite doors and increasing the breadth of imagination, the poet honing his awareness of the world, sharpening the sweet process of voice.
In Blue Hand, Baker, a veteran of the biography genre and the resident American expert on India, intersperses intimate details of Ginsberg trek into India (accompanied by fellow poets Peter Orlovsky, Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger) with information on the Eastern culture in a deft style that effectively works like one of Ginsberg’s poems: This reportage of a spiritual pilgrimage, the displaced young poet now on a sudden quest to illuminate all students of literature while simultaneously bonding the communities of the Eastern and Western worlds.
And like Ginsberg himself, Blue Hand moves through time with confidence and certainty, teaching as it inspires, enlightening as it lectures. Insofar as the plethora of books on the Beats that have been released in the last few years, this is one of the most worthwhile, for it reviews an important aspect of the Ginsberg lore that has often been ignored.
Simply, Allen Ginsberg’s 1961 trip across the ocean to India was as vital as the famed “Six Gallery Reading” in 1956 San Francisco, kicking off the collective movement’s exploration into Eastern thought that still continues today.
Although the book’s jacket calls the text a gallery of “mini-biographies” chronicling the lives of twenty of the world’s greatest authors, it is Marías’ great gift to convey a depth of understanding of art and existence in a few sparse sentences that elevates this volume to its high level.
We note these sterling examples:
Of Kipling, Marías states: “He was admired and read, but perhaps not very loved, although no one ever said a word against him as a person.”
Of Madame Du Deffand, the early libertine (and later, the blind correspondent to both Voltaire and Walpole), Marías notes:
“She always liked to be liked, but this did not mean that she could remain silent in the presence of fools: one famous occasion, a cardinal was expressing his amazement that, following his martyrdom, St. Dionysius the Areopagite, had managed to walk with his head underneath his arm all the way from Montmartre to the church that bears his name, a distance of nine kilometres that left him, the cardinal, speechless. ‘But, sir,’ broke in Madame Du Deffand, ‘the distance does not matter, it is only the first step that is difficult. ’”
Of Rimbaud’s simmering violence and hatred for the culture which had given him birth, Marías recounts:
“[Rimbaud] deeply offended a certain Lepelletier by calling him ‘un salueur de morts’ ( a greeter of corpses) when he spotted him accompanying a funeral cortège. This would not have been quite so wounding were it not for the fact that Lepelletier had just lost his mother . . . One evening at a literary supper graced by the most important literary writers of the day, Rimbaud insisted on punctuating every line read by the great men with the word, ‘Merde!’ Carjat, the photographer, finally lost patience with him, and shook him roughly and threatened to hit him, but the prodigy, despite his rather frail build, was undaunted: he unsheathed his friend Verlaine’s sword-stick and nearly skewered that pioneer of a then still uncertain art.”
Finally, a few words by Marìas of Oscar Wilde’s final sad, poisoned days:
“He drank too much which further irritated the reddened skin of his face and body. He often had to scratch himself, for which he apologized. He wrote to a friend: ‘I am more like a great ape than ever; I hope you will give me a lunch and not a nut.’ Six years before his fall from grace, he had written this: ‘Life sells everything too dear and we buy the most wretched of its secrets at a monstrous, infinite price.’ He stopped paying that price on November 30, 1900, when he died in Paris at the age of forty-six after a death agony that lasted more than two months. The cause of his death was an ear infection which later spread and was vaguely syphilitic in origin…He lies in the Paris cemetery of Père Lachaise and on his grave presided over by a sphinx, there is never any shortage of the flowers due to all martyrs.”
As we glean from these passages, Marìas has the unique ability to capture the subconscious spirit of these master thinkers in crisp and clear detail, transporting us to places that have since turned to dust. For all who lust after information about the greatest writers of the world, Written Lives is a must-read book that moves with the stark-driven reality of an impressionist painting.
This text is recommended to all libraries in the public sector as a general reference title. Would further prove useful as a supporting class text in courses that survey the history of literature.
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Frank Aiello is an attorney who has practiced law in California since the 1970s, including criminal defense, civil and probate work. He holds a History degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Law degree from Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco; he has also studied Anthropology, Sociology and Political Science extensively. Reach him via The Electric Review.
Paul Hourihan’s book, Mysticism In American Literature: Thoreau’s Quest and Whitman’s Self, examines the role of spirituality in Henry David Thoreau ‘s “Walden” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
Hourihan’s is an interesting study, delving into the role of mysticism in poetry. Arguably all great poets have tapped into some power higher than themselves to produce their greatest work – John Keats, for example, in Ode To A Grecian Urn, came to realize that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
However, in “Walden” and “Song of Myself,” the authors explored a level of self-realization previously unknown. All artists and writers eventually reach that moment of self-definition when they feel the need to describe the wondrous creations that flow from the pen, the paintbrush, the ball of clay.
In his study, Hourihan argues that Thoreau found his definition in Transcendentalism, the mystic hybrid of what was gripping the Romantic poets in Europe a generation earlier. Hourihan’s premise is that Thoreau’s search for nature, for meaning in a seemingly existential world and the isolation he sought from the modern man was essentially an internal search for his own spiritual enlightenment. Just as Siddhartha fled his materialistic trappings for the meditative Bodhi tree, Thoreau plumbed his spirituality at Walden Pond.
In Mysticism, Hourihan describes a paradox in which Thoreau strives to transcend the mundaneness of literature and create an example of spiritual regeneration in himself, and instead “becomes embroiled in the endeavor and loses the glow and edge of his experiences, becomes a purveyor of them in the form of a book” (20). After the publication of Walden, Thoreau suffers a depression which Hourihan correlates to the tepid reception of the book (but which also is the result of Thoreau’s failed enlightenment); Hourihan writes:
“The depression is a symptom of his self-division, of his failure to be true to the Walden awakenings” (12).
In his analysis of Walt Whitman, Hourihan draws a similar comparison of the artist divided between the earthly delights of Brooklyn and the ethereal mysticism he captured, briefly, in “Song of Myself.” Here, Hourihan argues that Whitman’s empathy with the everyman – and more than empathy, his desire to be among them, first in the industrialized melting pot of Brooklyn and later Camden, New Jersey – prevented him from sustaining his true mystic vision; Hourihan writes:
“By accepting the everyday self in the way that he did, he came, in time, to think of it as his whole self – what we all will tend to do if we do not protect ourselves by study, discipline, and meditation” (90).
Likewise, the illnesses that both authors suffered from after their publications – Thoreau’s depression and Whitman’s stroke – were, according to Hourihan, a result of their transcendental inertia, of their unwillingness to delve further in their regenerative process. This is a controversial claim to be sure, but one that probably contains some validity (since both authors suffered from illness not long after the publication of their most acclaimed and mystical works while neither was prepared in the least for the throes of old age).
Hourihan’s studies of Thoreau and Whitman are written in an ephemeral and abstract style which can be somewhat distracting at times, but nonetheless compliments the mystic nature of his subjects well. In the end, those readers seeking yet another literary analysis of Walden and “Song of Myself” may find Mysticism in American Literature a bit too mystically-bent. Yet, others looking for an answer to what could have inspired such masterpieces that, in turn, inspired so many others, will find Hourihan’s book to be a welcome consideration.