Book Review

Poets and Their Letters


I think sometime a very good course could be given on poets and their letters.
—Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell, 1970

In 1947, when Randall Jarrell introduced his friends Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop to each other at a New York dinner party, Lowell was twenty-nine, Bishop thirty-five. Her first book, North and South: A Cold Spring, had just won the Houghton Mifflin Prize; his second, Lord Weary’s Castle, would shortly be awarded a Pulitzer. Both were alcoholics; both were from Massachusetts; both had had difficult childhoods (his parents were distant and neglectful; she was raised by grandparents after her father died and her mother was committed to a mental institution); both lived on trust funds but relied on magazine sales (mainly to The New Yorker) and on grants and prizes to supplement their incomes. He’d attended Harvard and Kenyon and was a disciple of Allen Tate; she’d been to Vassar and was a protégée of Marianne Moore. When they met they were already great admirers of each other’s work, and that evening they were strongly drawn to each other personally. Their acquaintance would bloom into a deep friendship that ended only with Lowell’s death in 1977. Over the years they would spend time together in various places around the world: he would visit her in Brazil, where she lived from 1951 to 1966 with architect Lota de Macedo Soares, and she would stay at his summer home in Castine, Maine; on occasion their paths crossed in New York, Washington, Boston, and London. But mostly they were long-distance friends whose main contact was by mail. The letters they sent each other, some of which have previously appeared in Bishop’s One Art: Letters (1994) and The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005), have now been preserved in their entirety in Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell.[1]

For all their likenesses, Bishop and Lowell led, for the most part, very different lives. Her letters contain ardent descriptions of Brazilian flora and fauna, affectionate accounts of her humble neighbors in Petrópolis (where she and Lota had a house), and wry gossip about her upper-class social circle in Rio (where the two women kept an apartment); Lowell, for his part, updates her on his tumultuous life with wives #2 (Elizabeth Hardwick) and #3 (Caroline Blackwood) and on the stateside literary scene (John Crowe Ransom, at a party, on Jarrell: “That boy just doesn’t have a critical vocabulary”). Each extols the other’s work, though Lowell’s praise is more general and extreme (he repeatedly enthuses over her memoir “In the Village,” which influenced his “91 Revere Street”), while Bishop goes through his poems line by line, making criticisms and suggesting changes. Over the years, they recommend each other for awards and teaching jobs. He’s frank about his marital problems and the manic depression that keeps landing him in mental hospitals; she’s silent about her own depression and alcoholism and the growing strains in her relationship with Lota (who ultimately committed suicide). In his early letters, he makes a crack or two about “fairies”; after she settles down with Lota and he realizes she’s a lesbian, the “fairy” remarks stop and he treats her relationship respectfully, routinely asking her to give Lota his love. (In 1957, he recalls her saying to him years earlier: “When you write my epitaph, you must say I was the loneliest person who ever lived.” He adds: “Probably you forget [having said that], and anyway all that is mercifully changed and all has come right since you found Lota.”)

Naturally, they discuss literary enthusiasms and aversions. In 1962, Bishop mentions a new film critic in Partisan Review: “WHO wrote those idiotic movie reviews? I think she must be somebody’s mistress?” (The reviewer was Pauline Kael.) In the same year Bishop approves of Allen Tate’s new wife, Isabella Gardner, because unlike Tate she has “no crazy agrarian axe to grind!” Bishop shares Lowell’s admiration for Flannery O’Connor, but in 1960 confides: “I wish she could get away from religious fanatics for a while.” Their tastes often diverge: Bishop doesn’t care for Anne Sexton and W. D. Snodgrass, and indeed disapproves of all confessional poetry other than Lowell’s, writing to him in 1972 from Harvard, where she was then teaching, that “when you wrote LIFE STUDIES perhaps it was a necessary movement, and it helped make poetry more real, fresh and immediate. But now—ye gods—anything goes, and I am so sick of poems about the students’ mothers & fathers and sex-lives and so on.”

Their politics differed, too. While Lowell was very publicly protesting the Vietnam War, Bishop was socializing with Brazil’s leading conservative politicians. In his letters he makes sweepingly negative pronouncements about America (referring in 1963, for example, to “the desolate yellow wastes of our present civilization”); in hers, she fulminates over Brazilian anti-Americanism and advises Lowell, in 1962, to snub French culture secretary André Malraux at a White House event because “he said horrid things about the U.S. when he was here [in Brazil] . . . and said the U.S. would never have any ‘culture’ of its own.” While Lowell (who recounts his starring role in the October 1967 peace march in Washington) is becoming a hero of the hippies, Bishop (who offers a behind-the-scenes account of the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état) recoils at the social revolution that the hippies embody. As early as 1963 she writes to him that she is “appalled, bored, sickened, etc. by all the late VULGARITY”; in 1970 she reports that “A HUGE anthology just came for me…[entitled] SISTERHOOD IS POWERFUL. . . . Oh dear.” Yet both tactfully avoid debating politics, and remain fast friends.

They contrasted in other ways as well. Throughout the book Lowell’s ambition is very much in evidence; while Bishop tinkers with some poems for years before deciding that they’re ready for publication, he’s always impatient to bring out the next book. He runs around the world teaching and lecturing and socializing, and generally overdoing everything, and—unsurprisingly—keeps having manic episodes that land him in the psych ward; meanwhile Bishop sits at her desk in Brazil, quietly producing a remarkable corpus of disciplined, modestly scaled poems from which she herself is almost entirely absent. Though Lowell dutifully reports on his wives and children, he seems always to be very much at the center of his own world and powerfully aware of his public role; by contrast, she writes to him about her friends, neighbors, and servants in Petrópolis in a way that makes it clear that they matter to her greatly and that she sees their lives as no less important than her own. Though Lota’s involvement in Brazilian politics affords her close contact with that country’s movers and shakers, moreover, Bishop, far from thrusting herself into it all, sits back diffidently, meticulously observing and reporting. Lowell’s egocentrism—his fascination with his interior world—and his preoccupation with poetry almost to the exclusion of all else contrast dramatically with Bishop’s intense interest in art, music, nature, places, and people.

In some of his later poems he invades the privacy of his ex-wife, Hardwick, and their daughter, Harriet—and the most urgent pages in this book are the ones in which Bishop implores him, in 1972, not to print those poems, which include partly altered passages from Hardwick’s intimate letters to him. “[B]ecause I love you so much,” Bishop writes, “I can’t bear to have you publish something I regret and that you might live to regret, too.” Quoting Thomas Hardy on the “mischief” of “the mixing of fact and fiction in unknown proportions,” she laments that “you have changed her letters. That is ‘infinite mischief,’ I think . . . One can use one’s life as material—one does, anyway—but these letters—aren’t you violating a trust? IF you were given permission—IF you hadn’t changed them . . . etc. But art just isn’t worth that much. I keep remembering Hopkins’ marvelous letter to Bridges about the idea of a ‘gentleman’ being the highest thing ever conceived—higher than a ‘Christian’ even, certainly than a poet. It is not being ‘gentle’ to use personal, tragic, anguished letters that way—it’s cruel.” Alas, such thinking was alien to Lowell—for him, poetry excused all. Later, after his Hardwick poems did indeed cause a minor scandal and bring his ex-wife to the brink of suicide, a chastened Lowell feebly explained to Bishop: “I couldn’t bear to have my book (my life) wait inside me like a dead child.” He placed his book-child, in short, above his real-life ex-wife and child. All in all, he comes across here as a less than entirely sympathetic figure; by contrast, Bishop’s character shines forth.

In a 1974 letter to Sylvia Plath’s mother, Aurelia, about Letters Home, her collection of Sylvia’s letters to her, Sylvia’s widower, Ted Hughes, observes that “all these letters exist within a single relationship, and this entails, eventually . . . a feeling of monotony and narrowness.” The same is true, to an extent, of the Lowell-Bishop letters: the faces they presented to others are necessarily absent from a book like this, and diminish it. One wishes, moreover, that the editors, Thomas Travisano and Sandra Hamilton, had provided rather more context: though they footnote virtually every book and individual mentioned in the letters (however famous), and though the front matter includes an excellent introduction as well as a useful chronology of both poets’ lives, readers may nonetheless find themselves wondering, from time to time, exactly what Bishop and Lowell are talking about.

This is, fortunately, not a problem with Letters of Ted Hughes, a disturbing yet richly absorbing collection whose editor, the poet Christopher Reid, has done a splendid job of making the book reader- friendly, prefacing or following each letter with a sentence or more explaining any potentially unclear references therein and introducing each year with a brief summary of its main events.[2] It is interesting to note that for Hughes, whose letters tend to be rather more eloquently written than one expects even a good poet’s letters to be, his friendship with Lowell—whom he met in 1958, when he and Plath were living in Massachusetts, and whom he described at the time as “easily the best of all the American [poets] under fifty”—was one of the bright spots of a period that was otherwise not easy for him. America, or at least the small corner of it with which he was familiar, was quite simply too sanitary, sterile, and synthetic for Hughes, a Yorkshire country boy who, as he explains in a 1992 letter, was possessed from “first consciousness to age nine” by “a peculiar, obsessive relationship to wild creatures—simply their near presence. . . . It’s a physical reaction: like a kind of ecstasy.”

Hence his reaction to the America of the 1950s: “Everything is in cellophane. . . . My natural instinct is to practise little private filthiness—I spit, pea [sic] on shrubbery, etc., and have a strong desire to sleep on the floor—just to keep in contact with a world that isn’t quite so glazed as this one.” Aside from Lowell, who dominated postwar poetry in America in much the same way that Hughes dominated it in Britain, America’s few pluses, for Hughes, include his discovery of Emily Dickinson, “America’s greatest poet, without a doubt,” and Louis Simpson, whose “new poems . . . are [a] knock out.” Then again, Hughes is no fan of England either, describing “the English intelligentsia,” in typically earthy and vigorous fashion, as “damply steaming compost of bile, saliva, & disintegrated copies of Penguin New Writing—the pustulence of their own canker, the fungi that sits & swells & sweats & stinks wherever English literature is gathered together.”

Hughes’s “ecstasy” over wild things was at the core of his art: it instilled in him, at an early age, a “mania” for folklore, and drove him to study “the mythic and metaphysical systems of all the old civilizations.” Which, in turn, led him to Kipling, then Yeats—“folklore made into poems.” Out of which sprang his obsession with literature—and a precocious, self-assured disdain for any and all poetry that struck him as being disconnected from the world’s wild reality, from nature red in tooth and claw, from life. In two 1956 letters he decries “the meanness and deadness of almost all modern English verse—with which I feel not the slightest affinity,” and sneeringly describes the Romantic poets as “glorif[ying] wild Nature as seen from over a silk cravatte.” He frequently reports encounters with animals: he’s sitting in a valley reading when a wildcat comes along and starts “to stare me out—very offensive”; he’s walking across a field when he sees a “beautiful cow” alienating the affections of a calf from a jealous horse. And he recounts, and attempts to analyze, one elaborate, often violent animal dream after another.

For many readers, of course, the most interesting letters here will be those to and about Plath. In 1956 Hughes informs his sister, Olwyn: “I have met a first-rate American poetess. . . . Her main enthusiasm at present is me.” Shortly thereafter he writes to Sylvia: “One excellent thing I predict about you is that you will be famous and another is that you will come into vast fortunes and happiness by marriage to an amazing strange provider of these.” But things turn sour: Hughes cheats on Sylvia with a German woman named Assia Wevill; in due course he and Plath separate; then, one day in February 1963, his friends Daniel and Helga Huws receive the following news: “Sylvia killed herself on Monday morning. . . . I was the one who could have helped her, and the only one that couldn’t see that she really needed it this time. No doubt where the blame lies.” A few weeks later, Hughes tells Sylvia’s mother:

I shall never get over the shock and I don’t particularly want to. . . . The particular conditions of our marriage, the marriage of two people so openly under the control of deep psychic abnormalities as both of us were, meant that we finally reduced each other to a state where our actions and normal states of mind were like madness. . . .

I don’t want ever to be forgiven . . . if there is an eternity, I am damned in it. Sylvia was one of the greatest truest spirits alive, and in her last months she became a great poet . . .

He begs Aurelia not to come visit her grandchildren in England, fearing that her anxiety will be emotionally damaging for them. Meanwhile he’s begging Assia to leave her husband and move in with him.

Within weeks of Sylvia’s death, he’s already aware of the challenge posed by her posthumous fame: “We have to create a life which will not succumb backwards into Sylvia’s Magnetism . . . we must be allowed to live without supervision from curators of the past.” He will spend the rest of his life at war with Plath devotees who believe that her legacy belongs to them and that he is her murderer. He will also persist in maintaining that, as he writes to Aurelia, “Sylvia was not a poet of the Lowell/Sexton self-therapy, or even national therapy, school, but a mystical poet of an altogether higher—in fact of the very highest—tradition.” (A December 1966 letter to a ticked-off Lowell finds him trying to explain his way out of an essay in which he made this same argument: “To say I apologise just seems to be inadequate. Please write to me soon.”)

After Assia begins to cohabit with Hughes part time, he starts cheating on her as he did on Sylvia. Then, in April 1969, after an argument, she kills herself and her young daughter (who may or may not have been Hughes’s) in precisely the way Plath did: by shutting the kitchen door and turning on the gas. Hughes’s letters about her suicide read like carbon copies of his postmortems on Sylvia: “I know if I had only moved—if I had only given her hope in slightly more emphatic words in that last phone conversation, she would have been O.K.” All of which makes it disconcerting to read a letter written a few months later in which, after thanking his brother for a gift of kangaroo skins (which “adorn my chairs”) and a leopard skin hat, he reports: “I found another dead badger the other day—skin no good, but I’m getting its teeth for my rosary. Also, other bones for sundry operations, anklets, drumsticks etc.” Still later he finds a dead badger and stows it “in the back of the car, intending to get his teeth & bones if not his skin,” and a dead fox, “too badly smashed to skin, but head perfect.”

What, if anything, is one to make of the fact that this man who lost two women to suicide was an obsessive collector of animal hides, bones, skulls, and teeth? Other questions press themselves upon the reader. Did Hughes, as many observers have argued, drive Sylvia and Assia to their deaths? Or was there an inherent self-destructiveness in both of them that drew them to his dark, death-drenched poetic vision? Or did he, sensing a death-drive in these two brittle young women, experience an attraction to them that was related, in some primal way, to his urge to accumulate animal remains? In any event, a letter written to Yehuda and Hana Amichai in 1970—the same year he remarried, put his children in boarding school, and resolved to make a new start in life—suggests that Assia’s suicide was the direct result of his “Crow” poems: “I was writing a long serious of poems about a Crow being, a sort of saga that puts this Crow through all sorts of extremes. At the absolute nadir it dragged me into a great depression, and Assia with me, and then the thing happened.” Poetry, then, would appear to have been a high-risk profession not only for Hughes but also for his loved ones. “The inmost spirit of poetry,” he tells a bishop in 1982, “is at bottom . . . the voice of pain.”

By 1971, writing to his and Plath’s sometime friend, A. Alvarez, Hughes is no longer flaying himself for her death: having read extracts in the Observer from Alvarez’s forthcoming book, The Savage God, which was largely about Sylvia’s suicide, Hughes begs him to cease writing and lecturing about her: Alvarez’s work, he insists, is “an intrusion on the present and future of her family . . . Whatever Sylvia may be for your readers & for you, for her mother & me & her children she is something different, she is an atmosphere we breathe . . . However you regard it, Sylvia’s writings were considerable treachery against her mother, and together with her suicide they were maybe something worse against her children—but critics use the incidental poetry to convert all this into a general licence for ransacking the lives of her family—and for no purpose whatsoever, it enlightens nobody, it does nothing finally but entertain in a sophisticated fashion, it is higher entertainment . . .” Just as Bishop told Lowell that “art isn’t worth that much,” Hughes reminds Alvarez that “there are quite a few things more important than literature—more important even than great poetry, let alone memoirs.” Alvarez was not moved to alter his course.

Yet twenty-seven years later, Hughes was. To many readers’ astonishment, after a lifetime of disparaging confessional poetry (except Sylvia’s) and nearly four decades of being reviled by, and in turn despising, the cult of Plath, Hughes, by now Britain’s Poet Laureate, published Birthday Letters—a collection of poems about his life with Sylvia which he had composed over several decades. In a letter to Seamus Heaney, he seems almost sheepish about making the poems public: “I always had the idea that the real accounting for my dealings with Sylvia would have to emerge inadvertently, in some oblique fashion, through some piece only symbolically related to it—the authentic creative way. But there they are.” Like Lowell with his poems about Hardwick, Hughes feels compelled “to rid myself of the whole log-jam pile-up.” Explaining Birthday Letters to his son Nicholas, now thirty-six, he repeats the log-jam metaphor, explaining that “my only chance of getting past 1963 was to blow up that log-jam, and assemble whatever I had written about your mother and me, and simply make it public—like a confession.” But having expected “your mother’s Academic armies of support [to] demolish me,” he is instead “getting the surprise of my life. What I’ve been hiding all my life, from myself and everybody else, is not terrible at all.” Indeed, not only was Birthday Letters a bestseller, it softened Hughes’s image in the eyes of many Plath devotees. Of the many ironies surrounding this surprising consummation, not the least was the conversion of Britain’s leading anti-confessional poet into a confessional poet in the very mold of his long-deceased wife. Within a year Hughes was dead.[3]

Last—and, alas, least—let us turn to a couple of items of Ginsbergiana. In a 1959 letter to Bishop, Lowell describes a visit paid to him by Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky: “They are phony in [a] way because they have made a lot of publicity out of very little talent. But in another way, they are pathetic and doomed. How can you make a go for long by reciting so-so verse to half-jeering swarms of college students?” To which Bishop replies: “Oh dear, your ‘Beat’ guests do sound awful. I have read some of the poetry and find it hopeless—and yet I sympathize with them. The trouble is mostly ignorance, don’t you think—and lack of education, as well as talent. (I guess that takes care of them!)”

Unfortunately, that didn’t take care of them at all. As the whole world knows, the Beats would make a go of it for decades to come; today the market for new books by and about Ginsberg & Co. would appear to be bigger than ever. Bill Morgan, who worked for Ginsberg as an archivist, has himself written or edited more than a dozen such volumes, including the Ginsberg biography I Celebrate Myself and compilations of the master’s essays and journals. Now he has put together a selection of the letters between Ginsberg, who died in 1997, and the poet Gary Snyder, who met Ginsberg in 1955 and was his friend for four decades.[4] Morgan, in his preface, writes that the two poets shared “a friendship that helped shape American literature, environmental concern, and spiritual discovery in the second half of the twentieth century”; citing their role in popularizing “Eastern spirituality and Buddhism” in the West and their hosting of “the first San Francisco Human Be-In of 1967,” which “heralded the ‘Summer of Love’ that changed midcentury popular culture forever,” Morgan asks: “Without them, would the sixties have unfolded in the same way?” As it happens, his estimation of the two poets echoes their own: from the beginning, Ginsberg and Snyder saw themselves and their Beat cronies as leading a dark world into the light. In 1956, pronouncing Ginsberg “the Candide of the hipster world,” Snyder observes that “in America all that’s really sweet and creative now is coming out of the beat ones,” whose aim is “not to do away with suffering . . . but to make suffering flower into insight and beauty.”

Most of the letters here are almost purely factual in content: Ginsberg and Snyder are constantly on the road, telling each other where they are, where they’ve just come from, and where they’re headed. In the early years, both of them are at once spiritual pilgrims and sex tourists, bopping around the Far East in search of enlightenment, bedmates, and hallucinogenic drugs; later they both tour the U.S. giving readings, attending poetry conferences, teaching poetry workshops, and seducing groupies. Morgan, it must be said, does an excellent job of footnoting puzzling references and providing context; indeed, the best and most interesting writing in the book is in his preface. Both Snyder and Ginsberg, for their part, tend to write telegraphically. (Snyder: “Sorry I’ve been a poky correspondent but now trying to make up.” Ginsberg: “Back in New York after couple weeks Boulder teaching.”) Year after year, the letters fly from Athens to Kyoto, from Calcutta to Mombasa, from Bombay to Delhi, from Washington to NevadaCity, from Uppsala to New York, filled with vocables like “man” and “hip” and “cool.” It’s not clear from the letters exactly how the poets financed their exotic travels: though both complain from time to time about being broke or ask for small loans, the jet-setting never seems to stop.

Nor do the incoherent would-be profundities. (Snyder to Ginsberg in 1960: “How can Death get at the Unborn, go back before birth and look at death. Or look at death though a coffeecup or sharpen your pencil on it, protect the chair against it, don’t destroy the chance of a boulder to life.”) There’s little here in the way of serious literary conversation, and the political commentary is superficial, predictable, entirely divorced from reality, and often outright asinine. (Snyder in 1960: “Nobody can straighten American politics out because the people won’t stand for it . . . will America ever choose to be a bodhisattva? And wear blue jeans and sandals before the world and give away her property?”) We learn from Snyder that so-and-so is “one of the meanest cats in Japan” and that “Teaching is a groove, I have total freedom, and my poetry class is full of interesting hip young minds,” one of whom “served in San Quentin for armed robbery.” Ginsberg, in New York in 1964, reports on “a really interesting utopian group here developing the last months . . . they had a series of pads and storefronts and everybody was naked and making it, little girls and 15-year-old boys and happy teaheads and paranoid ex-amphetamine types. . . . Then bam last week they all (18 at once) got busted on dope and immorality charges . . . I been helping them find lawyers.”

Throughout this tome we see narcissism, self-indulgence, idle wandering, drug-taking, and child molestation disguised as spiritual discovery and courageous social experiment, and half-literate crackpots, potheads, and jailbirds hailed as philosophers and intellectual pioneers. One loses track of all the dubious-sounding projects, festivals, seminars, cooperatives, contemplative conferences, and meditation groups, and of the immense supporting cast of swamis, shamans, lamas, spiritual directors, yoga practitioners, and astrologers, all of them supposedly in the service of the cause of world enlightenment. While Lowell and Bishop wisely steered clear of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whom Bishop recognized as “a bad poet,” we find Ginsberg embracing this self-promoting four-flusher as a fellow evolved spirit. (Ginsberg in Moscow in 1965: “Everybody real here, it’s absolutely amazing.”) The general air of stupidity and intellectual sloth in this volume is stupendous.

Beat fans who aren’t sated by the Ginsberg-Snyder correspondence will also want to purchase, or steal, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, also edited by Morgan.[5] In it, you can see the teenage Allen shooting off long, opinionated, mutually contradictory letters about World War II to the New York Times, and a dense, introspective, surprisingly well written missive to his Columbia professor Lionel Trilling about Rimbaud, Shelley, the Satyricon, and Thomas Mann. In 1946, now in the merchant marine, Ginsberg seeks to shock Trilling with his new bohemian milieu of “‘hepcats’ and dope addicts”; at twenty he writes to Wilhelm Reich requesting therapy: “My main psychic difficulty . . . is the usual oedipal entanglement . . . I have been homosexual for as long as I can remember.” (Reich agreed to see Ginsberg but dropped him when he refused to stop smoking pot.) A billet doux to Neal Cassady is despondent, pathetic: “I am lonely, Neal, alone, and always I am frightened. I need someone to love me and kiss me and sleep with me; I am only a child and have the mind of a child. . . . It is pure pity that I beg now, not comradeship or love or sympathy.” And a letter to Kerouac reads like a late-night dorm bull session about the meaning of life.

In these early letters Ginsberg seems still to have one foot in Trilling’s refined academic milieu and the other in the nascent Beat underworld. Gradually, however, as his mature poetics (to use both words loosely) take form, Ginsberg yields to the “hip” style of his letters to Snyder. 1955: “I’m reading Whitman, who seems to me now a great personal Colossus of American poetry . . . everything now is mealy-mouthed, meaningless, abstract, tight, controlled, tight-assed, scared, academic, uninventive, attitudinized, afraid to show feeling, too ‘Cool.’” Writing to Richard Eberhart in 1956 in what Morgan calls “Ginsberg’s most famous letter,” he seeks to “explain the construction of Howl”: “overturning any notion of propriety, moral ‘value,’ superficial ‘maturity,’ Trilling-esque sense of ‘civilization,’ and exposing my true feelings—of sympathy and identification with the rejected, mystical, individual even ‘mad.’” By now, indeed, Ginsberg (whose mother had severe psychiatric problems and ended up being lobotomized) has entirely abandoned “Trillingesque” sanity and come to exalt its opposite: about Carl Solomon, whom he met in a mental hospital and to whom he dedicated Howl, Ginsberg writes that “his madness basically is rebellion against Moloch and I am with him.”

In the Ginsberg-Snyder letters, the proliferation of Buddhist and Hindu terms like zazan, Shakti, Mumonkan, sutra, satori, kensho, satyagraha, sunyatta, Samadhi, and sanzen (all of them dutifully defined in Morgan’s footnotes) suggests that both men are motivated by high Eastern spiritual principles; in 1966 Snyder outlines “the four-phase bodhisattva path” leading to “revolution, so that people will be good to each other.” Yet for all the rhetoric about kindness and gentleness, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg finds A.G. spewing out gallons of bile at a veritable army of foes, real or imagined: the universities, which don’t appreciate his genius (soon enough, of course, America’s English departments would bow in unison before him); the Luce magazines (“you are an instrument of the Devil,” he informs the editors of Time); literary tradition (“THEY CAN TAKE THEIR FUCKING literary tradition AND SHOVE IT UP THEIR ASS”); The Hudson Review (“[Frederick] Morgan at Hudson etc. etc. and all those people are ENEMIES of culture and civilization . . . and will get theirs anyway when the universe collapses on them”); Louis Simpson (who had penned a brilliant parody of Howl); the New Yorker and Poetry (which published “packaged verse”). Only Ginsberg and his buddies, one gathers, are pure and holy, struggling for a “breakthrough into the more natural universe of Self” via “experiments with alterations of consciousness catalyzed by drugs”; all others who purport to serve the Muse are corrupt, money-mad mediocrities. In a furious letter to his fellow members of the National Book Award committee, Ginsberg assails at epic length their decision to award a prize to Mona Van Duyn rather than Gregory Corso: “Are you all mad? . . . There is nothing wrong with Van Duyn’s book except that it is not the work of Genius, and there is nothing right about Corso’s book except that it is the work of genius.”

So it goes: in one repetitious, meandering, ungrammatical, stream-of-consciousness missive after another, Ginsberg does little but complain, demand, and insist; while ranting tirelessly about others’ lust for power and money, he is plainly blind to his own. His true self-estimation comes across in a letter begging for a MacArthur grant: “in U.S.A. I may be more poet than anyone else. . . . I really am a National Treasure. . . .” And in his very last letter, written four days before his death, this man who spent his career posing as an enemy of the Establishment asks President Clinton to give him a medal. To read Ginsberg’s letters is to encounter Elizabeth Bishop’s direct opposite: a minuscule talent with an immense ego.


[1] WORDS IN AIR: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, ed. by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $45.00.

[2] LETTERS OF TED HUGHES, selected and edited by Christopher Reid. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $45.00.

[3] As this issue was going to press, it was reported that Nicholas Hughes had committed suicide at his home in Alaska.

[4] THE SELECTED LETTERS OF ALLEN GINSBERG AND GARY SNYDER, ed. by Bill Morgan. Counterpoint. $28.00.

[5] THE LETTERS OF ALLEN GINSBERG, ed. by Bill Morgan. Da Capo Press. $30.00.