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”?’

Howl and Other Poems, printed by Villiers Publications in London, became the fourth booklet published in the Pocket Poets Series by City Lights. The earlier titles, after Ferlinghetti’s own Pictures of the Gone World, were by Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen, and reflected the publisher’s taste for an older, European-influenced avant-garde, with anarcho-leftist inclinations. Howl, thanks to an obscenity trial presided over by Judge Clayton Horn, and a consequent raft of publicity, ran through numerous editions, establishing both poet and press. Thirty-six years later, City Lights Bookstore was selling a postcard by the photographer Gordon Ball showing a line of shaven-headed cadets at the Virginia Military Institute frowning over their copies of Howl, as if challenged to formulate tactics for understanding, and eradicating, the enemy within. The notion that god’s country could contain aliens ‘who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall’ was altogether too much to bear. This slender, black-on-white, slip-in-the-pocket City Lights reprint, gripped in the paws of the future military élite, looks like the all-American equivalent of The Little Red Book for the uniformed warriors of free-market capitalism. Are they being inoculated against the viruses of chemical addiction, homosexuality, madness and elective poverty? ‘Robot apartments! Invisible suburbs! … Granite cocks! Monstrous bombs!’ Or are these monkish warriors honouring the native tradition of converting outlaws, rustlers and genocidal maniacs into neutralised and exploitable brands? First you beat them, incarcerate them, execute them, then you produce the box set, sell the jeans and collect all the surviving scraps of paper for a million-dollar pitch to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, or some other well-endowed coldstore vault.

Not many living poets become streets. Nor should they. Ferlinghetti, international performer, painter and publisher, was so honoured, along with a catalogue of deceased luminaries: Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Isadora Duncan, Dashiell Hammett, Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Kerouac. Via Ferlinghetti, formerly known as Price Row, is a dead-end off Union Street in San Francisco. It was dedicated on 24 April 1994 in a ceremony attended by Michael McClure and Philip Whalen. Ginsberg, in absentia, sent a poem. Unlike some of the other street-branded notables, mere passerines, Ferlinghetti was a man of the place. He pointed out that his alley had been a hangout for bootleggers and undertakers. And that he felt right at home. The conversion of Kerouac into a strip of pavement between City Lights Bookstore and the Vesuvio bar, where he took the first drink of his lost weekend in the terrible isolation of Ferlinghetti’s Bixby Canyon cabin, as recorded in Big Sur, marked the moment when Kerouac stopped being a writer, ignored, over-acclaimed and then forgotten, and became public property. A poster on the wall. A backdrop for retro-selfies. Before crossing the road to the Beat Museum.

With the aura of a benign upstairs spectre, the uncle in the attic, Ferlinghetti, who was born in 1919, still calls in at the City Lights offices for paper business and soft-spoken interviews, during which his gaze drifts away, perhaps searching for another ‘rooftop rigged with clotheslines’ or the ‘reachless seascape spaces’ of the opening poem from Pictures of the Gone World. The first of the Pocket Poet Series positions its author at a high window above North Beach, letting a flicker of notations play out in a painterly seizure. Broken sentences stutter across the page in affectionate acknowledgment to E.E. Cummings or the calligrams of Apollinaire.

Ferlinghetti’s origins and upbringing were complicated: immigrant, emigrant, returnee. He was born in Bronxville, New York in 1919. His mother, who had the exotic Proustian name of Albertine Mendes-Monsanto, was of French/Portuguese/Sephardic heritage. His father, Carlo Ferlinghetti, came to the United States from Italy in 1894. But when Ginsberg summarised his colleague’s life and career for Photographs, a book of portraits published in 1990, he characterised Ferlinghetti as an ‘orphan’, a hitchhiker in Mexico, and a lieutenant commander, US navy. Father dead six months before he was born, mother committed to an asylum (like Naomi Ginsberg) soon after his birth, the infant Ferlinghetti was given into the care of his aunt Emily, a French citizen, who took him back to Strasbourg, where they lived for five years. French was Ferlinghetti’s first language, and France was the culture to which, in later years, he aspired. On their return to the US, Emily placed her nephew in an orphanage in Chappaqua, a hamlet in northern Westchester County, New York. John Cheever territory. The sort of hallucinated commuter retreat where you expect Burt Lancaster to perform the Australian crawl across your pool before loping off into the trees. In 1966, a detoxing trust-fund native called Conrad Rooks made an expensive vanity feature about addiction, Swiss clinics and ghost dances. He acquired the services of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Jean-Louis Barrault, Robert Frank, Ornette Coleman and Ravi Shankar. And he called his film Chappaqua.

Ferlinghetti’s Aunt Emily removed him from the orphanage when she was taken on as French governess to the daughter of Presley Eugene Bisland, whose father-in-law founded Sarah Lawrence College. When Emily took off again, seven-year-old Lawrence was abandoned to the care of her employers. This brief history, which contains all the potential prompts for the fiction of a life – orphanage to suburban comfort, college to lobster fishing, to convoy escort duty – set the City Lights publisher apart from the poets he would, sometimes reluctantly, patronise. He was a little older than most of them, but younger than Burroughs. And if he wasn’t older, he seemed to be: more serious, more conservative in his anarchism. Ferlinghetti never claimed or wanted affiliation to the Beat Generation legend. He was marked in a very different way by the experience of war. Most of the founding texts of the Beats – Howl, Burroughs feeling ‘the heat closing in’, detectives and pickpockets on the subway for the opening routine of Naked Lunch; Neal Cassady careering around the parking-lot as Dean Moriarty in On the Road – germinated in the conflicts and confusions of New York City in wartime, and immediately afterwards. Ferlinghetti was not a figure in that boho-survivalist scene. Kerouac made one voyage, as an ordinary seaman on the George Weems, bound for Liverpool, a merchant vessel carrying a cargo of 500-pound bombs. Burroughs worked his way through Proust and stared at the Mississippi while waiting for an honourable discharge from the army. Ferlinghetti saw action at the Normandy landings, commanding a submarine chaser. Transferred to the Pacific, as navigator on USS Selinur, he took shore leave and inspected the blackened ruins of Nagasaki.

In the travel journals, Writing across the Landscape, Ferlinghetti begins with a memory flash of Strasbourg ‘in the early 1920s’. He is waving at a parade. ‘Whose parade is it and what army is parading, I have no idea.’ There are white mountains ‘in the far distance, beyond the city’. The significance for the author is that this recovered episode is his ‘first time abroad’. And abroad in a world where he never quite settled. He watched and he waited. He sat in afternoon bars. ‘I once started out/to walk around the world,’ he says in the poem ‘Autobiography’, ‘but ended up in Brooklyn.’ Even in San Francisco, where a tight alley would carry his name, he was twitchy, looking out of the window at the bay, thinking about catching a bus to Mexico.

The second journal entry is ‘Normandy Invasion, June 6, 1944’. ‘Utah and Omaha Beaches still shrouded in darkness, and then the distant explosions on the coast becoming a roar in darkness, as we stood at our stations.’ After that, civilian travel feels like a neurosis of compensation. Journeys are downbeat tourism. ‘There’s no longer any “away” … My soul in various pieces and I am attempting to reassemble it.’ Notations are post-traumatic, a little dazed: another peasant landscape framed in the window of the train; a solitary evening walk across a strange city, an indifferent hotel. Human encounters are few, literary festivals a necessary nuisance. The show can be underwritten by a Marxist culture front or a covert outreach of the military-industrial state he ridicules and challenges, with such practised charm, from the podium.

The international letters from Ginsberg come with a hotter pitch of excitement, and with requests for bundles of books, royalty payments. There are never enough copies of Howl in the shops he visits. And there are half-spoken grudges that fester for years without developing into a final rift between the two men. Ferlinghetti, quietly, persistently, wants Ginsberg’s opinion, his good opinion, of the stream of work he produces. That good word, the blessing, is not forthcoming. Never a hero-outlaw of sexual fascination for the New York poetry hustler, Ferlinghetti is fobbed off with faint praise and unyielding criticism. The City Lights publisher doesn’t want to be seen as a father figure, a wise uncle in a big hat, the money man. Ginsberg, well aware of his own tendency to allow journal entries, the collateral damage of constant travel, to spill out as the near-poetry his editors and hungry readers require, was sharp with Ferlinghetti:

What occurs to me is that you’re more perfect as a poet when you’re nearer the bone pessimistic, than when you are being wiggy and hopeful and social-anarchist-revolutionary-lyrical-optimistic. So maybe you should write some strictly private and anti-social poems. Anyway that always struck me as your natural vein.

‘Thanks for the insults to my book Her,’ Ferlinghetti replied to Ginsberg in 1962, ‘but I am used to same as any Edward Dahlberg … having recently received worse put-downs from Corso, among others, not to mention earlier ones from most of the mob who consider me a business man with a loose pen and very drooly. I am also put down very subtly in Jack’s new Big Sur.’

It wasn’t just Ginsberg, other hardcore poets in the Bay Area took a rather patronising view of Ferlinghetti as a writer: he sold well, he was a reliable performer with a nice sense of timing, but he was not, at base, one of us. He was too fortunate, with his North Beach property, his ocean cottage under the bridge at Bixby Canyon (where Kerouac and Ginsberg wrote books). Then there was the famous bookstore (managed by others day to day) and the independent press with the beautifully simple, perfectly calculated Pocket Poets series. Any poetry bum with a shopping bag of cosmic jottings, hitting town for the first time, felt free to turn up at City Lights. ‘Where’s Ferlinghetti?’

Ginsberg was remorseless: publish Burroughs, publish Kerouac, publish Snyder, publish Whalen. Publish my friends and lovers. The airmail letters rained in. Ferlinghetti was unyielding in his polite refusals. He didn’t get it. (Eventually, when those writers were established, successful, he took on lesser works.) At first, when it mattered, Burroughs was impossible. Snyder and Whalen were caught up in Buddhism. Ferlinghetti refused Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, in spite of heartfelt pleas from Ginsberg and McClure. He cooled on Corso. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever changed my mind about a manuscript – You know how stubborn I am (and, as McClure would say, stupid!).’ He declined Ginsberg’s offer to put up the cash for the publication of one of his late enthusiasms. Black Mountain poets, relocating to San Francisco, had small appeal. ‘Would you point out to me a major poem by Creeley? … Never could find the poetry … which lived up to the man.’

The only time Ferlinghetti appears in Ginsberg’s book of portraits, Photographs, is when he is caught, leaning on a parking meter, on the periphery of a straggle of poets and local faces on the pavement outside City Lights. Ginsberg is at the centre of things, arms around Neal Cassady and the painter Robert LaVigne. It looks like a snapshot of the proprietor asking panhandlers to move on, in the nicest way. ‘Howl first printing hadn’t arrived from England yet, Peter Orlovsky held camera in the street, we were just hanging around,’ Ginsberg scribbles beneath the photograph. Hanging around was a career choice for some of the poets who feature, more intimately, in Ginsberg’s collection. Corso, in particular, tried Ferlinghetti’s patience. He used the till at City Lights as a private bank for unreturnable loans, usually scooped up when the bars were closing.

‘Dear Allen,’ Ferlinghetti wrote from San Francisco, on 25 April 1979,

Gregory has broken into City Lights at night and stolen about $400 – At least three witnesses saw him do it – We think he has a set of keys to the store, and we had changed locks – Hence, he broke in this time – Almost $3000 has disappeared during the past year – $300 or $400 every few weeks – Always at night after the store was closed. I am not reporting him to police, and I am not bringing charges against him, but the police have the goods on him – witnesses and fingerprints – and I advised him today that he’d better get out of town fast before one of his enemies squeals on him and gets him busted.

The period in an orphanage, a qualification Ferlinghetti shared with Corso, was a badge of honour. Making light of it as an exploitable literary condition, Ferlinghetti moved through the decades, as we witness in the exchange of letters with Ginsberg, and the quieter revelations of Writing across the Landscape, in the grip of managed melancholy; a detached and watchful sympathy for the world and its follies. Corso, as I discovered, on a trip across America made for a radio programme in November 1995, was a master of the pitch: child of the streets and last pure poet owed a living by an ungrateful age. In a cramped flat, sponsored by bookstore patrons, Corso fizzed with challenge and borrowed energy. He paced, he rapped, he quoted. Every new meeting was the start of something, a fresh avenue to exploit. Ferlinghetti, conceding a ration of his time, in the office above City Lights, was preoccupied, courteous but disengaged, giving up this interview as he had given up so many others. Corso made a show of being the outsider, possessed by muse not mammon. He considers the situation in ‘Poet Talking to Himself in the Mirror’:

Ain’t got no agent
can’t see poets having agents
Yet Ginsy, Ferl, have one
and make lots of money by them
and fame too
Maybe I should get an agent?
        Wow!
No way, Gregory, stay
        close to the poem!!!

The striking aspect of the published correspondence between Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti is the way, over the years, they sustained or enlarged their tolerance of their differences in taste and talent. Ferlinghetti loses Ginsberg as the star of his publishing stable to serious money and wider distribution. He regrets the loss, but maintains the friendship. ‘I hired Andrew Wylie to reconstruct my publishing life and get a New York publisher,’ Ginsberg announces in 1983, 27 years after the appearance of Howl and Other Poems. And then, a year later: ‘I told Andy to figure out a way that will leave everybody … not feeling bad … I just want to make sure I have a permanent income after quarter century of publishing austerity on my part.’ As the two poets fade into the historic record, ghosts of their younger selves impersonated in films, sleepwalking through memoirs, Ferlinghetti signs off as ‘Dad’. He sends love, now, at the end of letters formerly concluded with a bare signature or slogan (‘let freedom wing’). He is away again to Europe. ‘You be in Spain or Italy? Perhaps we meet up over there, as so many times in the past.’ But Ginsberg is dying on the telephone, ringing around his friends for the last time. Ferlinghetti is travelling, sketching, taking up invitations. In the final prose entry of Writing across the Landscape, he accompanies Jennifer Wilson to Belize. Wilson is a venture capitalist and public benefactor, who bought Ezra Pound’s birthplace, a white clapboard house in Hailey, Idaho, for $240,000, out of fear that some lesser purchaser might destroy the heritage. She won a charity raffle prize, a stay at a resort owned by Francis Ford Coppola, and invited Ferlinghetti along. In a ‘run-down beach motel’ the poet composes ‘At Sea’ and dedicates it to Neruda, whom he published for the first time in Rexroth’s translation of Thirty Spanish Poems of Love and Exile in 1955. Rexroth’s book – coming before Howl and Other Poems – demonstrates Ferlinghetti’s abiding affection for Spain and Mexico, for sliding across borders. With Ginsberg dead and gone, Ferlinghetti could reflect on paths not taken. ‘Voyageur, pass on!’