Monday, 10 May 2010


When Allen Ginsberg died in 1997 the internet was rapidly moving away from the preserve of geeky computer nerds and popular social networking sites were looming on the horizon. How different and easier life would have been for the Beats had those things existed back in their day.

Most were compulsive and extensive letter writers, none more so than Allen Ginsberg, who corresponded with a vast network, offering encouragement and acting as unofficial, unpaid, self-appointed agent and conduit for poets and publishers around the globe. In a long 1958 letter to fellow Six Gallery poet and friend Gary Synder he mentions he is on his ninth letter (17 single-spaced pages) of the day and it’s obvious he can scarcely get the words down fast enough. The two men exchanged more than 850 letters between 1956 and 1995, zigzagging America, Japan, India, Europe and beyond, often impressively hitting a moving target as they hotfooted from place to place. A selection covering over 300 pages are featured here, edited by renowned Beat Generation scholar Bill Morgan.

And it is a volume aimed squarely (who you calling square?) at the scholar rather than the casual reader as they discuss the minutiae of their lives. Not a riveting read then, but little passages do add to the overall picture of both men. I’ve never been fully sold on Ginsberg; I find him interesting but his work (bar one of two notable exceptions) doesn’t do much for me, and he suffered from windbagitis, yet I liked him more here. His unwavering generosity with his time and energy is both inspiring and deeply commendable. He also seemed sweetly star struck, especially whenever Bob Dylan came into view. In one episode Allen poured all his money into a recording project where Dylan played a bit of guitar. When Bob refused to have his name credited no record company was interested (can’t blame them) which left Allen financially “ruined” yet he showed no resentment or bitterness.

As expected the more interesting (i.e. sex and drugs) letters occur during the earlier years – I’m a liberal kind of fellow but some of the sex stuff raised my eyebrows - before they adopt a more businesslike approach, albeit still a very warm and deeply respectful one. I bought this on impulse at my local bookshop (hello Broadway Bookshop, Broadway Market, Hackney) so a big tip of the hat to them for stocking such niche items; whether you’d invest goes depends how close your Beatness barometer touches the scholarly level.

The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Synder edited by Bill Morgan is published by Counterpoint Press, priced $16.95.

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