An Evening with Gary Snyder
Reed College, 5:15 p.m., Vollum Lecture Hall
The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder
ed. by Bill Morgan
Counterpoint, 2009, 321 pp.
Recently while in Powell’s passing time before a dinner rendezvous, in search of nothing in particular, I happened on The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. The correspondence of literary figures tends to be a mixed bag, running from quotidian to exotic, tedious to enchanting, with more than a few stops in between, which I suppose makes it not much different from most other things human. This collection has some of all of that. Spanning forty years in five different decades, from 1956–1995, the letters of Ginsberg and Snyder offer glimpses into the minds and lives of two literary and cultural figures who have mattered to me for as long as I have thought of myself as a poet, going back to youthful encounter with Beat Generation texts that stirred my spirit. Their significance lies not much if at all in direct influence on the writing, but rather for the example of holding to a vision of oneself as poet and literary figure, in it for the duration.
Ginsberg enthusiastically proclaimed his own genius and that of his friends, unabashedly taking on the mantle of poet and visionary, maybe too enthusiastically and too easily. Does that matter? Maybe not. Snyder strikes me as more disciplined but equally sure of the ground on which he stood. There is not much expression of self-doubt in these letters.
The quest for authenticity and rejection of mainstream cultural norms and expectations went hand in hand. They were grad school dropouts and hipsters with freewheeling attitudes about drugs and sex, lifelong students of Western and Eastern canons as well as esoteric traditions. The letters contain routine mention of what books are being read, who is being studied. What was genuine scholarship engaged with intellectual rigor and what only dilettantism might be debated, with where one comes down on it colored by the degree of sympathy—or antipathy—felt toward the principals.
Much of the correspondence deals with practical affairs, Ginsberg relating his difficulties trying to get from Europe to on India to join Snyder and Joanne Kyger who were traveling there in 1961-62, Snyder offering Ginsberg tips on how to travel cheaply in India and what to see when he arrived, assorted other travel, of which they did a lot, poetry readings, lecture and teaching gigs, and land-management matters around a bit of property Snyder, Ginsberg, and a number of California countercultural types purchased jointly in the 1970s, with Snyder on site advising Ginsberg of disputes and resolutions and looking after his place on the property, arranging for upkeep, upgrades, and rentals.
The first letter in the collection, a brief note by Snyder about a poetry reading he and Ginsberg are planning, closes with a postscript: “Any time you could send monies, a few bucks, most appreciated.” (24 February 1956). Ginsberg responds the following month, “Sorry to be so slow. This should stave off the wolf till the 5th (April)—and will send you more then.” Ginsberg goes on to say that he just got paid, $10. Now $10 went considerably further in 1956 than it does today. Even so, ’twas no great sum. Here on display is the instinctive generosity Ginsberg exhibited throughout his life. The letters are peppered with instances of this kind of behavior on the part of both men, all related quite matter of factly, no great fuss made about it, simply what one does.
In poetry and in life they were politically engaged and socially committed. Theirs is a poetry of local eco-systems and the urban demimonde, hip communes and Zen monasteries, with intensely personal subjects taken up alongside the topical and the visionary. In youth they earned money in a variety of roustabout ways, seaman, logger, forest lookout, market research consultant. From the 1960s on they were sufficiently celebrated that they could make money on the lecture and poetry reading circuits, a quite honorable tradition in American letters, dating at least to the 19th century with Emerson and others. Eventually they found places for themselves in the academy, having established satisfactory bona fides as poets to be let in, Snyder as professor at University of California at Davis in 1985, Ginsberg more hither and yon.
The following give a feel for the two lifelong friends, their lives and work, and the culture they helped shape.
Young Snyder on politics
Nobody can straighten American politics out because the people won’t stand for it—how can internal economics be put in order when everybody wants everything? Any sane monetary policy or farm policy doomed to ruin. Ditto by extension foreign policy. Bread and Circuses. (Snyder, Kyoto, 10 August 1960)
I don’t trust the sentimental ex-Stalinist pro-Castro sentiment too much. God knows they needed a revolution there, but there are kids and there are men in this revolution business; I think Castro must be the former. Like, let him get aid from Russia and China if he likes, but be cool about it until his position is solid; bugging the U.S. out of its head serves no useful revolutionary function. (Snyder, Kyoto, 12 December 1960)
As sixties move into full swing
Allen Watts is in Japan and is very turned on by it—he has been taking lots of LSD and has a Shakti [female counterpart of a male deity], having left his own true wife. He says the future society will have to be one where there is total sexual freedom with tantric practices—children raised in groups, and people use LSD, mushrooms, etc.
All my Kyoto buddies have turned into hemp farmers.
There do seem to be two things going:
1. The individual working out his path by lonely self-enquiry and meditation.
2. A kind of social-sexual communal breakthrough, aided by dance, drugs, music, (meditation), etc. Now if we can reconcile these two and use them we can remake society utterly. (Snyder, Kyoto, 30 May 1962.
…the really great scene here’s been in MOVIES, a gang of homemade young cats from Lower East Side making films orgies street scenes in lofts… (Ginsberg, NY, 15 March 1964)
Things are exciting here; there is friction in some quarters…but most of the scene is a big flower. I wear Spanish boots, a gold ear-ring, dance the twist with young girls all the time, and roar about on my big red motorcycle. To say nothing of secretly planning student riots… (Snyder, SF, 17 October 1964)
Got drunk with Yevtushenko and waiting for Voznesensky to get back to town tomorrow…. I feel like Zeus walking through Red Square. (Ginsberg, Moscow, USSR, 1 April 1965)
Ginsberg on Gregory Corso
Gregory Corso here outrageous shithead borrowing money from students calling Trungpa [Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Ginberg's Buddhist teacher] a “dumb asshole” in midst of all sangha assembled speech, SHUT UP! vajra coice from Trungpa’s chair—and then they had tea the next day, and we all taught a poetry class together… (Ginsberg, Boulder Colorado, 11 July 1975)
I think it’s good to give Gregory grant for several reasons… Students [at Naropa] found him the most live or inspiring teacher…and sanghic community found him workable enough to want him back all next summer as a regular lecturer, as difficult as he is. In San Francisco he’s written a number of interesting texts—prefaces, newspaper pieces—which in a decade’s time will seem very sharp…I sent formal letter…re-recommending consideration of Gregory [as member of National Institute of Arts and Letters]. Reasoning (1) despite appearances he’s creating actively, (2) despite appearances he’s socially useful, (3) his situation is an old one, Van Gogh, Crane, etc. i.e. really difficult, oft half mad, but still spirit of genius is there working, producing artifacts which enrich others later in gross and fine ways both. (Ginsberg, NY, 11 November 1977)
I’m broke…so I’ve got to go out do readings… (Ginsberg, NY, 14 December 1976)
Snyder on land-management issues with the jointly owned property
They all agreed to meet at 3 P.M. the following Friday (May 7) and walk out their own land-boundaries, and begin to formulate some land-use policies in accord with the agreement. I couldn’t go, but at 3 P.M. my right-hand man, Zac Reisner, went up there to join the walk with them. Nobody was there at 3. Zac rounded them up, a few, and ‘Jaya,’ who claimed to know where the corners were, said he would join them later, but never showed up. No one had a compass, so Zac showed them what a compass was, and how you walk a line with it. Nobody had ever seen a map of the area before, or had heard of the geodetic survey quads, it seems. On walking the line, they noticed that the boundary on the north is only three feet from the corner of the craft-shop, and runs rights through somebody’s geodesic dome. A large permanent tipi is well over in BLM [Bureau of Land Managment]. (copy of Snyder letter to Dick Baker, passed on to Ginsberg, May 1971)
Listen man if you feel up to it will you write me a concise statement of your theory of beatness and its relation to vision, poetry, and America? and sex? I am seeing new angles to this rough Zen-discipline shot; perhaps by reducing one’s life to essentials of eating (barely enough) and sleeping (barely enough) and working (hard) and subjecting you to constant psychological pressure of meditation and interviews they are, within a controlled situation, making you thoroughly beat (Rinzai is the sect of the big stick whack) and aware of what is samsara [cycle of birth, suffering, death, and rebirth] and what one’s body-self really craves, like food sex and sleep—and then makes that beatness flower into real insight…(3 June 1956, Kyoto, Japan)
When I said you needed discipline—which was quite possibly all wrong—I didn’t mean quit masturbating or anything like that. I was thinking of a more systematic intellectual and meditational approach toward understanding your own natural and astonishing illuminations that shine through poems, and not falling into Demon and Angel traps… (Snyder, Kyoto, 20 August 1956)
I am reading thru Shakespeare on board, beginning to end chronologically. (Ginsberg, 19 June 1956, aboard Military Sea Transporation Service ship)
I tend to organize my poetry thoughts for teaching and read more—like Paradise Lost and Wordsworth—to check up my rusty opinions. (Ginsberg, Cherry Valley, NY, 15 Sept 1976)
David :: Feb.04.2014 ::
House Red: Literary and Intellectual ::
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