Retro-Selfies

Iain Sinclair

  • I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955–97 edited by Bill Morgan
    City Lights, 284 pp, £11.83, July 2015, ISBN 978 0 87286 678 2
  • Writing across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, edited by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson
    Liveright, 464 pp, £22.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 63149 001 9

This was a 42-year marriage of convenience between forgiving but frequently exasperated business partners and poetry rivals. It was launched with a seize-the-day telegram, after a one-night, earth-shuddering, world-tilting performance in a jazzed-up garage. Before moving on to occasional meetings and decades of dutiful, near conjugal correspondence from all parts of the globe. Before diminishing, as status was confirmed and the early fire went out of the literary affair, into affectionate long-distance phone calls. Then, the death of one party, and a shared afterlife of warring biographies, resurrected backlists, found fragments (better left to obscurity), impertinent television documentaries, and the smothering embrace of reluctant academic acknowledgment.

The conjunction of opposites, charted throughout I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career, features none of the planetary collisions, the cheek-chewing grand guignol of the legend of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. There are no treaties with dark gods to be unpacked into conspiracy files and no shamanic visitations from crows and reeking foxes. Two ambitious young or youngish American men operating out of the same city, San Francisco, forge an alliance of mutual misunderstanding through a love of words and thirst for fame.

The celebrated episode that triggered the telegram took place on 7 October 1955 in the cramped confines of the Six Gallery, an auto-repair shop at Union and Fillmore in San Francisco. Five poets performed. Kenneth Rexroth, the consigliore of radicalism, was master of ceremonies. Jack Kerouac, too self-conscious to read, acted as cheerleader: ‘Go! Go! Go!’ He passed out slopping gallon jugs of Californian Burgundy. There had been poetry readings in the Bay Area before this and the Six Gallery was hardly virgin territory. The space had once been a community art venture called King Ubu, operated by the Black Mountain poet Robert Duncan and his collagist partner Jess Collins. Duncan, removing his clothes at the conclusion of his verse play Faust Foutu, in order to demonstrate the meaning of nakedness, anticipated by a decade or so the Ginsberg party trick that shocked John Lennon and George Harrison at the dawn of Swinging London.

When I interviewed one of the Six Gallery poets, Michael McClure, in 2011, he recalled earlier episodes of Dionysian frenzy with Gerd Stern and a thrash of ‘belly dancers and bongo drums’. Nights that were much closer to Ranald MacDougall’s Hollywood travesty of Kerouac’s San Francisco novella The Subterraneans than to the disciplined delivery of the Six Gallery poets: McClure, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. The change in the status of the performers after that night, the way the luckiest of them became marketable brands, spokesmen for ecology, wilderness politics and psychedelic communality, was mirrored in the upgrading of real estate in the district: from grease-pit garage to performance venue, to historic site, to desirable habitation for Bay Area commuters to Silicon Valley. Beat pads to hip pods. The former Six Gallery is now a retail outlet known as Silkroute International, dealing in handwoven rugs and inessential accessories from Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet. The owner, Abdul Ibrahimi, boasts that celebrities are eager to acquire ‘one-of-a-kind’ finds. Heading into ‘the bazaars of Bombay … the foothills of the Himalayas’, Ibrahimi is following in the footsteps of Ginsberg, a very determined journal-keeping, camera-wielding prospector for poetic experience. ‘Contemplation here I come.’ The questing traveller remained in regular airmail communication with his publisher and banker, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, back at City Lights Bookstore in North Beach. On 25 February 1962, Ginsberg thanked Ferlinghetti for a royalty cheque. He said that he had met up with Gary Snyder who looked ‘older and a little more domestic-acting … his face is more seamed and wrinkled’. Together, they’d plotted an expedition to the Himalayas, to stay in a ‘yoga forest school, talk to the dalai lama maybe, climb in snows’. Anticipating Ibrahimi, Ginsberg told his publisher: ‘If anyone wants to sell Tibetan cheap statuary rajput nice miniature paintings and Indian dancing statues, you can get crazy copies and originals here real cheap for export. Be a good business.’

It was always about business, poetry business; with the tall, balding Ferlinghetti, his French berets, Karakul hats, fedoras and Brecht caps, his cancelled smile, as the obliging facilitator for a shifting cast of Ginsberg’s peers, junk dependents and boyfriends. The publisher’s closest familiar was Homer, more bear than dog, a lolloping collie/schnauzer compromise with an apologetic bark. The Ferlinghetti beard seemed to get a little greyer in successive video clips. His ice-blue eyes shone out of a sea fret of put-upon benevolence. The tolerated witness, lurking in the background, is not part of the Six Gallery myth, but he is sharp enough to recognise, immediately, that Ginsberg’s apocalyptic regurgitated ‘Howl’ is the killer, the money shot. He had come across the poet before this, as one of the many hopefuls circulating around the newly established City Lights bookstore, but that incantatory performance, the long-breath rant with its doomsday imagery, its wild repetitions in the mode of Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, persuaded Ferlinghetti to send a telegram paraphrasing the note from Emerson to Whitman from the appendix to Leaves of Grass.I GREET YOU AT THE BEGINNING OF A GREAT CAREER. WHEN DO I GET MANUSCrIPT OF “HOWL”?’

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