Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg + Gary Snyder": Review

Having finished "The Gary Snyder Reader" last month, I wondered how this collection might illuminate some of the contexts as Snyder's wanderings across Beat San Francisco, early-'60s Japan, and back to settle in first Marin County and then the Sierras connect with Ginsberg's New York (city and then upstate) and West Coast residences. Both, furthermore, roam far as they become countercultural spokesmen. Early on, both found success, Ginsberg in the spotlight of course, and then, after his Asian travels, Snyder's poetry finding more recognition.

While Ginsberg's reputation earned him the headline role, Snyder's influence as this series 1956-1991 documents reveals him as the guide. Ginsberg's attraction to Buddhism appears more gradual, as Snyder had preceded him and nearly every other young (non-Asian or a few academics excepted) American. I looked for a pivotal shift to acceptance of Buddhism by Ginsberg in the letters, but it's occluded. Perhaps an early-'60s trip to Asia and extended visit with Snyder in Japan can be credited.

Yet the pull of the possibilities that expanded consciousness exerted on these eager seekers tugs early. 8/10/60, Snyder expresses disgust with American politics and foreign policy. "Bread and Circuses. No longer a problem of helping out American workers, but of giving up for the whole world welfare...will America ever choose to be a bodhisattva? and wear blue jeans and sandals before the world and give up her property? The 'orgy' has political and metaphysical significance." (31) I guess he got the fashion trend right, at least. Anticipating often this decade the inevitable triumph of socialism if not communism, Snyder fears its "one pair of glasses" as well as the capitalist insanity, and expresses nascent fears of climate collapse and economic inequality.

From Kyoto, writing to Allen and Peter Orlovsky in Calcutta 5/30/62, Gary notes that his Japanese buddies have turned hemp farmers. His future neighbor and rival for Sierra land control, Don Allen (soon to be Swami Kriyananda) appears: "Extremely interested in Buddhism" and the interest starts to spread among their circles. Snyder notes "two things going: 1. The individual working out his path by lonely self-enquiry and meditation. 2. A kind of social-sexual communal breakthrough, aided by drugs, dance, music, (meditation), etc. Now if we can reconcile these two and use them we can remake society utterly. (Cosmo-political project #1)" (55)

How close did these comrades come? By 4/29/66, Snyder maps out four steps to a "bodhisatva path": Zen's samadhi power to apply to love (-making) and turning energy into art as "one's work or craft" and through that into "Action politically" to make "the social happen, correcting and reforming, revolution, so that people will be good to each other and to nature, and come to have enough stock of good-humor, curiosity, faith, and bodhi to try" Zen. (80) It's as simple--or complex--as that.

On 1/7/73, Snyder--worried about the carpet-bombing of North Vietnam--quotes from a Chinese text to Ginsberg, by now trying to go back to the land himself near Cherry Valley in upstate New York: "After Niu-t'ou heard the teaching of Zen he gave up sitting all day in his cave and carried 300 bushels of rice to feed people thru a famine." (148-149). The engagements of both Snyder and Ginsberg with activism remain more as undercurrent, as they roam the milieu where campuses, writers' or monastic retreats, awards ceremonies, and media appearances especially for Ginsberg take precedence. There's a guardedness about some of this period, as with Ginsberg's asides more than details debates over Trungpa and also Tim Leary's 1970s activities. Between confidants, it's odd to me that there's not more to reveal here. The 70s on find both men settled into teaching and traveling.

I expected much more herein about Buddhism as a radical force for transformation, given the prominence of both men in the literary and cultural realms. Ginsberg does betray at one point midway a sense of weariness with lineages, lamas, and the Naropa disembodied poetics scene in the 1970s. Yet, despite the publisher's claim that this volume, edited by Ginsberg's archivist and chosen biographer Bill Morgan, it's much more filled with asides about such as controversial lama Chogyam Trungpa, lots of itineraries as both poets flew around the world to give lectures, attend conferences, and hob-nob with A-listers. Increasingly, the pages by the 70s demonstrate a telling alteration. The spiritual issues fade, and while Ginsberg does three times over the decades weigh in with critiques about Snyder's verse drafts, poetry itself occupies not much space. Instead, we follow disputes with the Swami, the building of the zendo, like-minded neighbors coming in to join Snyder, tax concerns over what became the Ring of Bone in the San Juan Ridge of the Sierras, and the more mundane negotiations of the two writers as they bought property and as Snyder established a "village-temple."

The "real work" as Snyder sums up this stage marks change. Ideas and fantasies took root in concrete and a community. While I continue to wonder why the two and their allies did not buy an old summer camp and convert that rather than move themselves (and this leads to hundreds more as the Swami's foundation and the zendo both drew more to settle in the region) into unoccupied space, Kitkitdizze does represent the fruition of their hopes for (one hopes a small-scale) return to nature and renewal.

The collection closes suddenly in 1995; no idea why the correspondence ceases nearly two years before Ginsberg's death. Morgan provides no editorial conclusion; his footnotes tend to be sporadic, explaining some concepts and people referred to but leaving a few misspellings of proper names in the letters and a few references stay too vague for a likely reader. The editor's light touch lets Ginsberg and especially Snyder converse without much interference; there's an index of those named.

Snyder and Ginsberg met in the "strong but reticent Bay Area poetic culture" in the fall of 1955. They, along with Jack Kerouac, managed to move that scene "into public light, with a deliberate intention for some sort of transformation, first literary and then social." In over 350 letters, it's intriguing to find how much of a legacy both young men, dropping out of grad school, left over the next half-century. Snyder typically sums up in his prefatory note their relationship of "mutual respect": "I made him walk more and he made me talk more." (ix) (Amazon US 5-16-13)

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