On Madness, Love, Writing, and Rimbaud
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On Madness, Love, Writing, and Rimbaud

Excerpts from The Letters of Allen Ginsberg

On Madness, Love, Writing, and Rimbaud
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

"Your letter of May 5 speaks of preparing a manuscript in part. Send it up, and enclose please if not too much trouble the 1 page prospectus of the whole book. They always ask for those and I never know what to say. It makes them feel securer to believe the writer knows what he is doing."

For me, the end of the semester means 30 hours in plane after plane and airport terminals to get back home. Among other distractions, it also means the perfect time to get cracking on a book I’ve held off for so long. The Letters of Allen Ginsberg is a collection of 165 of over 3,700 of Ginsberg’s letters from his youth up until his death. I’m only a quarter of the way through with this beast of a book, plowing hungrily through it, but I thought I might collate some of my favorite sections so far and share them here. They stand testament to how writing was such an integral part of the way Ginsberg processed - be it poetry, journaling, essays - and these letters, unplanned, unedited by Ginsberg, seem to serve as response in its rawest form.

From the Bughouse

In 1949, Ginsberg was admitted to the New York State Psychiatric Institute. Throughout his time there, he would continue to correspond with friends. In this one, he writes to Kerouac about a fellow patient he’d befriended - Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg later dedicated his epic Howl to - and describes vividly the realities of the institution.

"[Solomon] is also responsible for the line: “There are no intellectuals in madhouses.” [...] Jumped ship and spent months wandering through Paris - finally at the age of consent he decided to commit suicide (on his 21st birthday) and committed himself to this place (entering a madhouse is the same thing as suicide he says - madhouse humor) - presented himself practically at the front door demanding a lobotomy. He apparently was full of great mad gestures when he first came in (with a copy of Nightwood) threatening to smear the walls with excrement if he didn’t get a seclusion (private) room so that he could finish his book in peace. Also threatened the nurses, “If I ever hear anyone saying to me: ‘Mr. Solomon you’re raving,’ I’ll turn over the ping pong table,” that happened almost immediately. There is a perfect opportunity here for existentialist absurdity - he is quiet now- speaks in a sinister tone to me of how the doctors are driving him sane by shock therapy “Making me say ‘momma!’” I tell him I want to be made to say momma and he says “of course (we do).” You can see what a weird sinister atmosphere here it is, Kafkian [Kerouac], because the doctors are in control and have the means to persuade over the most recalcitrant. [...] Here the abysses are real; people explode daily and the doctors! the doctors! my god, the doctors! They are fiends, I tell you, absolute Ghouls of Mediocrity. Horrible! They have the truth! They are right! They are all thin, pale lipped, four eyed gawky, ungainly psychology majors from the colleges! All the seer-sucker liberals, dressed in the same suits, always with vapid, half embarrassed, polite smile on their faces. “What? Mr. Solomon doesn’t eat today? Send him down to shock!”

Allen In Love

The letters were often painful to read. For years, Ginsberg struggled to coming to terms with his sexuality. But for a period of time, he found himself able to love women.

"She is very great, every way - at last, a beautiful, intelligent woman who has been around and bears the scars of every type of knowledge and yet struggles with the serpent knowing full well the loneliness of being left with the apple of knowledge and the snake only. We talk and talk, I entertain her in grand manner with my best groomed Hungarian manner, and i play Levinsky-on-the-trollycar, or mad hipster with cosmic vibrations, and then, O wonder, I am like myself, and we talk on seriously and intimately without irony about all sorts of subjects, from the most obscure metaphysical through a gamut to the natural self; then we screw, and I am a man full of love, and then we smoke and talk some more, and sleep, and get up and eat, etc."

"The first days after I lost my cherry [...] I wandered around in the most benign and courteous stupor of delight at the perfection of nature; I felt the ease and relief of knowledge that all the maddening walls of Heaven were finally down, that all my olden awking corridors were traveled out of, that all my queerness was a camp, unnecessary, morbid, so lacking in completion and sharing of love as to be almost as bad as impotence and celibacy, which it practically was, anyway. And the fantasies I began having about all sorts of girls, for the first time freely and with the knowledge that they were satisfiable."

"Ah, Jack, I always said that I would be a great lover some day. I am, I am at last."

Writing Tips

As an agent to his friends, Ginsberg would often encourage their writing by critiquing their work. This is in response to one from Neal Cassady.

"One thing: whenever you blow “alliteratively,” by repetition of letters, hardy herman, hamstrung herman tit tom tight tom: beauty of music lies not in an insistent repetition of letters h or t (whatever being use) not in repetition of rhymed syllables (tantalized tippers trooping to triumphant trash), but in rhapsodic (not nervous) fluid combination of vowel as well as first letter sounds, in contrast as well as repletion. Too much insistent beat is only nervous, not musical.

I don’t write a poem

Take ten triumphant temples

Teetering on Toad town,

Snickering snakily so slow,

Aping abbots along alleys.

There is such alliterative poetry (Piers Ploughman):

and with his mouth so meekly mercy on them besought

and pity on the people who pain on him had brought.

Here may you find example by God himself may’st see

how he was meek though and mercy granted free

might and hanged him high on tree.

to those his heart who pierced thy heart may teach it thee.

And tis a natural knowledge

See how much less straight-laced and relaxed that is compared to your insistence (hallucinatory while screwing letters) that everything seem the same, so nervous. Be care for inside of word, vowel (aeiou) combinations

if money mellowed in the bowel (un ell owe owl)

the hunger beyond hunger’s pain (ung yon ung ane)

or money made the mind more sane (un ade ind ane)

or money choked the mortal growl (un oak ort owl)

or made the groaner grin again (ade oan inn ain)

"Look for rhapsody rather than repetition."

Allen In His Youth

Written in 1943, Ginsberg would have been about 17 when he wrote this letter to a childhood friend. Even in his youth, we see his knack for debate forming; the pair would write each other regularly, discussing philosophy and challenging each other.

"My own tentative philosophy is this, that man is a superior animal, this his superiority lies in self-consciousness and self-knowledge. This self-knowledge includes a realization of a purpose and meaning of life (whether an affirmative, negative, or neuter meaning) and the ability to use natural force to achieve fulfillment of that meaning. What that purpose is, other than freedom from physical limitation, and freedom from intellectual limitation, I do not know. We have invented the machine in order to realize freedom from physical limitation, and we will perfect this machine. Ethics and philosophy involve the search for freedom from intellectual limitation. History - the development of civilization - is the development of the slow evolutionary search for this [...] physical and intellectual freedom. History is a river of development - slow and sluggish, pushing relentlessly onward [...] toward the ultimate goal of human perfection: the two freedoms, there is a main current of history, and this current streams inexorably onward, there are eddies and side-streams, rapids and whirlpools, in which human progress in interrupted temporarily, but the main current pours onward in steady flux, (here I simply must be poetic) draining finally into the fathomless oceans of eternity. [...] Now this is all abstract theorizing. [...] The use, the application, lies in the utilization of such a philosophy of history in determining perspectives on the roles of figures of history - in other times, and in our own. We can now comprehend truer meanings of “reactionary, “conservative,”” “liberal,” “radical.” We can understand the role of a Hitler as a force of a reaction. He is the embodiment of one of the side waters, the back-eddies of history - the reactionary war in the real sense wishes to turn back the clock, to pull humanity back, to dam the flood of onrushing civilization (i.e. progress) to replace the goodness of our age with the primitive perversion of principle and undevelopment of principle of ages we have long since left behind. He uses physical freedom to deny intellectual freedom, instead of helping develop intellectual freedom."

Philosophies: God is Love

Ginsberg would continue this habit of extended philosophical and political debate over letters with Kerouac throughout his adulthood. Here, he responds to a letter from Kerouac, bits of which have been identified in quotations. This discussion has ensued from an oft-repeated phrase by Kerouac, “God is love.”

“None of us understand what we’re doing” but we do beautiful things anyway. The something else that we are doing is always recognized by us one way or other. I want to know what I am doing / I want to recognize this. This can be recognized. That is what psychoanalysis, religion, poetry, all teaches us, that it can by its nature be recognized, sin is not recognizing. [...] It is one thing to accept it as such and wander around like in a dreamland struck with uncomprehending wonder of the mystery of the beauty. But if anyone throws back a direct shock of communication - not mysterious, but direct, - [...] it would be frightening to me and you because it would disrupt the whole dream of ambiguously intended beauty. [...] “It appears that only god must know.” What if we really did and were just hiding it? [...] What did you really mean when you told me to stop peering into your soul? I was just understanding too much. Understanding sensations and feelings of gibbering idiocy that you had that you didn’t want spoken of, much less enacted. [...] “Realize Allen, that if all the world were green, there would be no such thing as the color green. Similarly, men cannot know what it is to be together without otherwise knowing what it is to be apart. If all the world were love, then how could love exist!” This is the root of your dishonesty and in a similar way mine. [...] The point is that all thought is inexistence and unreality, the only reality is green, love. Don’t you see that it is just the whole point of life not to be self conscious? That it must be all green? All love? Would the world then seem incomprehensible? That is an error. The world would seem incomprehensible to the rational faculty which keeps trying to keep us from the living in green, which fragments and makes every thing seem ambiguous and mysterious and many colors. The world and we are green. We are inexistent until we make an absolute decision to close the circle of individual thought entirely and begin to exist in god with absolute unqualified and unconscious understanding of green, love and nothing but love, until a car, money, people, work, things are love, motion is love, thought is love, sex is love. Everything is love. [...] You don’t realize that your only personality not merely your true personality, which other people see, and even you see, as you, as your only personality, is not that which you set up for yourself and others to see, your individual self enclosed rebellious, egoistic mental system, your childishness. Your personality has nothing to do with you, what you want it to be like in your deception. It is what you are which you don’t admit that I actually see you as.

On Rimbaud

After leaving Columbia, Ginsberg kept in touch with professors, updating them on his journey as a writer and discussing poetry and literature in general. Here he defends his admiration of Rimbaud’s work who, at this point, had not been taken seriously by academia.

"I think that he pursued this orphic wonder, experience for art’s sake, the unsocializing of the animal, more effectively than any modern writer - probably because of his youth. At the same time I sense in him an ability to make contact with his culture personally, to actively live in it and be of it - and this in an artist has completed the circle of absolute artistic depersonalization, paradox or not. [...] I admire Rimbaud not as the poet maudit, the decadent, but the representative hero., the sociologically concerned, and in the highest manner politically minded poet. [...] Season in Hell seems to me the most individually expressive poetry I have run across - more than any poet, I can understand the personality - half childish, half sardonic, somewhat sentimental, furious, jealously personal and strikingly dispassionate - from the poetry. I mean, is is so compressed and flexible that it contains whole visions in a single line."

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