I wrote Ginsberg and Snyder: hipsters, poets, scholars… in precipitous haste because I wanted to post it before Gary Snyder’s appearance at Reed College on 7 February. Following are a few additional comments and observations.
The relationship between the life and the work of any artist is a tricky business. If memory serves, Gregory Corso said that if the poet is interesting, the poem will be interesting. I am unable to locate the source, which I thought was either the Unmuzzled Ox interview from the early 1980s or maybe Neeli Cherkovski’s Whitman’s Wild Children but found it in neither when I skimmed through them. If not Corso, someone must have said it. Be that as it may, the proposition does not bear scrutiny. It is not uncommon to come across interesting people, and nice people, decent, upstanding, intelligent people, whose poems are of little interest. Turn the statement around, though, and it may be more generally accurate. If the poems are interesting, the poet is interesting. The ways in which the poet is interesting are as varied as poems and people. John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Emily Dickinson led quite different kinds of lives and may be interesting in quite different ways, though with the common ground that their thoughts, intellectual and spiritual, as always in a broad sense of that term, and their sense of themselves and their poems is always an aspect of what is of interest.
This topic can hardly be taken up today without getting into the matter of character. To be able look on the artist and the work with equally high regard is a wonderful thing. It is also a luxury. Artists are as flawed as the rest of us. We could start with Corso, who means much to me as a poet, but if you had him over for dinner you might be well advised to strip search him before he left. As poet John Berryman, no moral avatar himself, put it, Rilke is a jerk. We need not go into Shelley and Byron; that could occupy volumes. The uncomfortable fact of the matter is that if we reject the work of artists whose lives are less than exemplary, we deprive ourselves of much art that matters to us greatly.
We read biographies and letters of poets for much the same reasons we read poems, criticism, philosophy, history, and much else, because we want to know, not because we are looking for role models. If we find a life inspirational, so much the better, but ’tis almost a happy accident, not in the nature of things. As the saying goes, nothing human is foreign to us. The shadow of Keats’ life hovers in the background when I read “…in spite of all / Some shape of beauty moves away the pall / From our dark spirits”; as does Emily Brontë’s in the lines “I’ll walk where my own nature would be leading / It vexes me to choose another guide.” With other poets and other poems, the life may illumine not so much.
Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder are poets of engagement. Theirs is not a poetry of ivory tower or enchanted vale, nor of libraries and lecture halls, though I think it fair to surmise they must have felt at ease in these places, for they read and studied widely. Concerns and themes that animate their work as poets crop up time and again in the letters. Poetry and the life are an integrated whole as they take on the project that occupies us all, making a place for ourselves in the world and being accountable for it. What is it to live a good and fully human life? How am I to go about it in a world of human values mangled by inhuman economic and political systems in thrall to wealth and power, in face of all too human fear, ignorance, weakness, and greed, amid dizzying extremes of wealth and want? What am I to make of this human creature I find myself to be? And what of this community of which I am bound to be part? What am I to stand for and how do I stand for it? What is to be done?
We do not turn to poets for answers to these questions. Nor, I think, do we turn to them as role models except perhaps insofar as their striving is our striving, their falling short our falling short. Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder continue to matter because in their lives and in their words they bear witness to the spark that is human spirit, this thirsting, questing, aching, ever unfinished creature that each of us is.
There is what Snyder refers to in the preface to the selected letters and elsewhere as the real work, “working out the details, trail routes, land-management plans—and that’s what the ‘real work’ is.” What is to be done is to do as best we can, without false hope or illusion, yet never submissively resigned to fate. Says Snyder, looking back, “It was all just dust in the wind, but also, the changes were real.”