Pacific Rim Review of Books

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The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder

Review by Joseph Blake

The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Ed. Bill Morgan, Counterpoint Press

Bill Morgan was Allen Ginsberg’s archivist and bibliographer for two decades before the poet’s death in 1997. Morgan has written many books about the Beat Generation including I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg. In this recently published collection of letters, he has produced a book that sheds light upon a great friendship between two of the world’s most important poets.

Beginning in 1956 and continuing through 1995, the two friends exchanged more than 850 letters. In a note that he wrote for the page preceding the chronologically arranged letters, Snyder writes, “A lot of the time we were just working out the details, trail routes, land-management plans—and that’s what the “real work” is. His apartment on the lower East Side, my hand-built house at the end of a long dirt road in the far far west, were our hermitages, base-camps, and testing grounds. It was all just dust in the wind, but also, the changes were real.”

The changes that these four decades of correspondence represent mark our lives. Snyder and Ginsberg have been visionary world leaders in environmental thought, spiritual thought, political thought, and most importantly, poetry. The correspondence between these two friends, from their first meeting in the Berkeley hills and their first west coast readings to the last years of their long friendship, provides both a poet’s eye on history and an intimate, tender portrait of two literary heroes.

“Living in different parts of the world as we did for most of the later years,” Snyder writes in the book’s introductory note, “we stayed in touch the old way, with letters. Allen was remarkable for his transgressive sanity. I swung between extremes of Buddhist scholar and hermit nerdiness and tanker-seaman craziness at bars and parties. I sense reading these letters again, that our mutual respect continued to grow.”

When Ginsberg came out to the Bay Area in the mid-50’s and helped inspire the Beat poetic explosion, Snyder was getting ready to hop a freighter for Japan and Zen study. He introduced Ginsberg to Buddhism and the back country. They were both central to the gathering of the tribes at the first Human Be-In at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, where Ginsberg told me that he once studied the giant Buddha statue to learn how to sit meditation. After travels around Asia together, they bought communal land in California’s Sierra Mountains in the late-60’s, but Ginsberg seldom visited.

Many of Snyder’s letters describe the evolving communal lifestyle, imploring Ginsberg to come to San Juan Ridge. Both poets’ letters portray lives lived on a shoestring. It’s amazing to read accounts of their economic arrangements. They both eventually make good money for their writing, reading and teaching, but it comes late in life. Despite living on nothing for years, the poets traveled widely, read even more widely, and wrote about recent discoveries and the lives of common friends. As much as I love and respect Ginsberg and Snyder, I found the number of letters trying to organize meetings during and between their travels wearing. I longed for more assertive editing from Morgan.

The last era of letter writing that these decades of correspondence represent (alas) was a very different time from our email/cheap long distance phone message present. Letters passed each other in the mail. Letters followed only days later explaining snail mail-induced confusion. The latest poems, magazine clippings, and enthusiasms for newly discovered authors and books share envelopes with legal issues, relationship problems, and health complaints. It’s fascinating, often inspiring, and occasionally heartbreaking.

Snyder’s letters are concise, reflective, businesslike, often insightful, sometimes surprising. His 1962 report on mescaline trip/Buddhist rumination is one of the book’s highpoints. In one of the collection’s longest letters Snyder concludes that “mescaline is a real consciousness expander, and shows one the CONTENT of consciousness, but it doesn’t (as I say, for me anyhow) show the GROUND of consciousness, the content-less stuff of mind, self, which I know you CAN get a good sight of through Zen meditation. (I haven’t found mescaline able to throw the least glimmer of light on koan.)”

A year later, Ginsberg writes Snyder in Kyoto from the U.S. “You must have given me some kind of permanent blessing because I seem to have come down into my body (belly) ever since Japan and been wandering around in a happy rapture ever since. The sensation of eternity of my Blake visions turns out to be actualized through the feelings of this body present—but feelings—mainly the result of naturalization of belly breathing. I don’t sit and meditate much tho…”

The image of Ginsberg that emerges from his letters is the same giving, open-hearted, sweet searcher I met at Naropa. He was a great teacher who enthused about the writing of Kerouac, Dylan, Burroughs, William Carlos Williams, and those passions are in evidence in these letters too. Ginsberg, in particular, led a frenetic life with lots of complications, familial and otherwise, and Snyder’s letters describe three of his marriages, children, subsistence hunting and gathering, and duties as an academic and community leader on the local and state level. Despite their busy, productive lives, both men found time to write each other often and with deep feeling. Reading the letters in this book might inspire you to live life more fully and possibly to write your friends. There’s lots of inspiration here.

Joseph Blake is PRRB’s music correspondent extraordinaire.