Beating the keyboard to get the word out

New book offers a look at chaotic intellect of Allen Ginsberg

The overwhelming use of electronic communication has all but destroyed the art of crafting a well-made letter. Writing an e-mail isn’t nearly as romantic as the notion of late nights spent hunched over a typewriter madly typing away by candlelight while trying to find the perfect synonym to express one’s point succinctly. Look at Allen Ginsberg. The controversial beat generation poet corresponded with world leaders such as Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter creative geniuses such as Bob Dylan and even literary giants including friend and fellow writer William S. Burroughs. Editor Bill Morgan Ginsberg’s longtime archivist has collected these missives into the 432-page tome The Letters of Allen Ginsberg . The book features letters from Ginsberg’s youth all the way to his last letter to Clinton addressed four days before Ginsberg’s death in 1997.

The book offers a historical framework in which we see both Ginsberg’s intellectual development and his rise to literary fame. Morgan makes only a few surgical cuts here and there forgoing heavy editing and adding only a few contextual footnotes. He lets the famed beat poet’s verbiage howl at the reader.

From the very start these letters betray Ginsberg’s fierce intellectualism an arrogant belief in himself and — in Ginsberg’s mind — his infallible logic. The first letter sets the tone of the book. As a 15-year-old Ginsberg reprimands the New York Times about how the isolationist stances held by certain congressional leaders in the late ’30s and early ’40s led to the bombing of Pearl Harbour. The famous Vietnam War protestor shows a surprising hawkishness as he articulates how the war against Hitler’s Germany is obviously just. Later on in the collection this intense liberalism leads to rhetorical clashes with his father Louis. He writes an angry screed against the Vietnam War blasting his father for supporting it. “This is a disgusting letter to write you. At least it’s better than the napalm you’re paying for and approving and justifying to your son.” It is a stark contrast to his youthful dalliances with hawkish politics.

This style of discourse at times overwrought is one of the most remarkable things about Ginsberg’s epistolary pursuits. He’s a pompous letter-writer berating people endlessly for not seeing eye to eye with him. Later on as he becomes more obsessed with his own celebrity and the accolades it brings he becomes more conceited in his writings. In his last letter addressed to Clinton on April 1 1997 he writes that he has an incurable form of liver cancer and asks for the highest medal in art or poetry unless it’s “politically inadvisable or inexpedient.” He died four days later.

Even in the last throes of his life Ginsberg’s wry wit and boundless enthusiasm for both politics and credibility shines through in his letters. It is a personal account of the man’s entire personal development. That’s the great achievement of The Letters of Allen Ginsberg — a look into the mind of a creative genius and the building of his strange queer intellect.