Title: The Letters of Allen Ginsberg
Author: Allen Ginsberg
Page Count/Review Word Count: 468
It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Allen Ginsberg and beat writers in general, but this book was a little heavy even for me – as with most collections of letters, it’s better suited to scholars and researchers, who can dip in and out to source references for their essays. Reading it from cover to cover took a lot of time, and I’ll confess that I had to do it over the course of a year, reading only one or two letters at a time.
Ginsberg and his pals often wrote in a sort of code, a bizarre dialect which was populated with obscure references and in-jokes that only the recipients of the letters could really understand – even with hefty annotations, it’s often a struggle to understand what’s being talked about, which was probably precisely what the great poet intended. You really feel like an interloper, as if you’ve dug the letters out of someone’s drawer when they weren’t looking – you feel like you don’t belong, and it’s a weird feeling to have when you’re trying to read a book.
That said, there are some fascinating insights here that you won’t find anywhere else, and Ginsberg writes to such notable beat figures as William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Lucien Carr, as well as his long-term lover Peter Orlovsky. In a way, it’s sad to think that his generation was one of the last to use letters to their fullest – will the equivalent become a book of e-mails in the future, or even worse, instant messaging logs?
I wouldn’t bother picking this up if you’re only a casual reader of Ginsberg – it’s far too much, and you won’t enjoy it. If you’ve read literally all of his other books, though, then I guess you have no choice – you’ve read enough to have graduated to his letters, and you’ll understand them much more when they’re placed in the context of his wider body of work.
Credit is due, however, to Bill Morgan, the book’s editor – he’s done all of the research so you don’t have to, and without his footnotes and observations, you’d really struggle to understand what’s happening. Morgan was Ginsberg’s literary archivist for many years and has even written a biography called I Celebrate Myself, so he knows what he’s doing – this isn’t his first work on a collection of letters, either. He also worked on the Selected Letters of Gregory Corso, and so editing together the thoughts of crazy writers isn’t new to him.
There’s not much left to say, but I’d be interested to know what you think if you read it – tweet me and let me know.