The story now feels nearly inevitable. In 1955, Allen Ginsberg moved into an apartment in the San Francisco North Beach area, just a few blocks away from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Pocket Bookshop. Ginsberg showed the fledging publisher his work, and Ferlinghetti was intrigued. He attended an event at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, where Ginsberg recited part of “Howl” for the first time. A few days later, Ferlinghetti sent the poet a telegram: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he cabled, echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s legendary note to Walt Whitman. “When do I get the manuscript of ‘Howl’?”
So began a decades-long relationship between the two men, as writer and publisher and as friends. From 1955 until Ginsberg’s death in 1997, they exchanged letters on matters large and small, from the 1957 obscenity charges that Ferlinghetti faced as the publisher of Howl to Ginsberg’s precarious finances (“I’m broke, dumb, writeless and nowhere. Send on royalties as soon as you can,” wrote Ginsberg in 1958). They sent each other thoughtful editorial notes and breezy accounts of their far-flung travels. In the early years, letters were their principal mode of communication, and their correspondence tracks not only the arc of their storied careers but also the palpable affection and respect the two men had for each other.
City Lights has just published a collection of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti’s selected correspondence, I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career, edited by Bill Morgan. What follows are excerpts from that volume.
June 22, 1956: Allen Ginsberg onboard the USNS Sgt. Jack J. Pendleton in Seattle to Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
Well what news? I am in Seattle, will be here over weekend and thru next Friday, will return to San Francisco next weekend for a few days — arrive sometime Sunday I expect, around the 30th or 31st. If therefore you got or will get proofs hold on to them, I’ll look them over myself.
Generally speaking the Greyhound poem [“In the Baggage Room at Greyhound”] stinks on ice, at least the end does — that won’t last no 1000 years — I had a nightmare about it standing on the prow several days ago. I dunno what to do, haven’t written anything better on it since leaving town. Maybe later.
If you call Kenneth by phone tell him I’ll see him in few days, when return, Rexroth that is.
Spending much time gazing at the “misty vast nebulous and never-to-be-knowable clouds,” and reading Shakespeare.
In early August, Ferlinghetti sent an advance copy of the bound book Howl and Other Poems to Ginsberg onboard his ship near the Arctic Circle.
ca. August 9, 1956: Ginsberg onboard the USNS Sgt. Jack J. Pendleton to Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
Received the copy of the book you sent me promptly — and was excited to see it. Everything worked out fine with the typography — it looks much better this way and it seems to have been real cheap to do — $20 is nuthin. I shuddered when I read the poetry tho, it all seems so jerry-built sloppy and egocentric, most of it. “Greyhound” looks fine, I’m glad you told me to put it in. Reading it all through I’m not sure it deserves all the care and work you’ve put into it and the encouragement you’ve given me, in fact to tell you the truth I am already embarrassed by half of it, but what the hell, thank you anyway for all your courtesy and I hope few people will see it with such jaded eyes as I do, tho I guess it’s best the poems have a truthful fate than an over-sympathetic one. I wonder if we will actually sell the thousand copies.[…]
“Transcription of Organ Music” I still like, I’m not sorry. It’s not revised so it’s not bad “Art” like the rest of the writing. Its ineptness is its own and nature’s not mine.
After Ginsberg returned from the Merchant Marines, he and Ferlinghetti communicated in person for a time. In the fall of 1956, Ginsberg took a trip to Mexico with Jack Kerouac and Peter Orlovsky, among others, then went to New York City. During this time, Ferlinghetti reprinted 1,500 copies of Howl and Other Poems.
January 15, 1957: Ginsberg in New York to Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
January 9 letter received, as well as clipping from [San Francisco] Chronicle. I was going to write [Norman K.] Dorn, the reviewer, a letter but I tried several, each a different tone and they all sounded goofy so I gave up. If you see him ever say we collectively rarely have lice, and I hope he drops dead of clap. No, wasn’t really discouraged, just realized what a weird place New York book reviewing works like. [ . . . ]
Listen, great tragedy. My friend Lucien Carr objects violently to using his name in dedication. His reasons are varied and personal and real enough for him — I had never asked his OK, and he has reasons why not. What can be done about omitting that line in the dedication in the second printing? Is it too late for immediate action?
It’s my fuck up, but I have to straighten it out. Therefore if the whole thing is printed and bound already, have it done all over again and bill me for the second printing. It’s about $100 more or less?
What did you think of [Kenneth] Koch’s poem “Fresh Air” in I.E. [The Cambridge Review]? I thought very good. Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky and I went out to visit W.C. Williams who said he’d review the book — probably for Times I guess — so (this being Gregory’s book Gasoline) with [Randall] Jarrell intro that ought to set up Gregory. Long funny afternoon we all got drunk and my father* drove us home here raving and weeping about St. Carlos. He dug Jack and his wife also. Gregory unmentioned above was there too, I forgot. He read mad silly poems to Williams and Williams loved him, but worried what he’d be like “in forty years.” [ . . . ]
As ever, Allen
*Louis Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg’s father, was a poet and schoolteacher in New Jersey.
February 5, 1957: Ferlinghetti in San Francisco to Ginsberg in New York
Howl will be delayed an extra two weeks due to deletion of Lucien Carr, and I have been completely out of [copies] for almost a month. However, it should be here in bulk by February 20 at the latest. I caught them in the last stage — the book had already been folded and gathered, but not stitched. Therefore, one section could still be taken out, reprinted, and regathered, etc . . . The total extra cost comes to $25, which I could use as soon as possible, to pay the bill. I have back orders from all over the country now — including big orders for Paper Editions. [Ted] Wilentz at the Eighth Street Bookshop in New York has ordered 100 copies. I sent him the last five I had. Gotham Book Mart has also put in a big standing order, and I sent them five of yours as a stop-gap. [ . . . ]
We all got photographed for Life Sunday night at a mass reading at Kenneth’s [Rexroth] . . . I am sick of all these con operations, and I hope every photographer in the country crawls in a hole somewhere and drops dead. It all has nothing to do with poetry. I am not sending my poetry anywhere unsolicited, and frankly I don’t give a good shit if they come and get it or not. I wasted enough post on Partisan twenty years ago . . . However, as for your book, I will continue to push and will send copy to Lisa Dyer at Hudson Review as soon as I get a copy to send. Poetry writes me that they will include it in a review early this summer . . . by [Frederick] Eckman [ . . . ]
Best, regards, etc, Larry
March 3, 1957: Ginsberg in New York to Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
Have investigated but as far as I know, the book can’t be copyrighted here because printed in England. If you know a way it can be, please do so in my name and send me bill for what it costs.
If necessary, can copyright it in your name or City Lights or whoever, with the understanding that it’s my copyright to use as I wish and get whatever loot I can. Though actually I guess no copyright is necessary and it’s all just a bunch of bureaucratic papers so no point actually in doing anything, nobody has anything to steal except in paranoiac future lands.
What’s happening? I’ve now extricated myself from publicity work and am sitting quietly reading Blake and Mayakovsky — do you know the latter? — really the end, mad public prophetic style.
I hear [Charles] Olson is there, what’s he like and what’s happening socially?
As ever, Allen
ca. March 1957: Ferlinghetti in San Francisco to Ginsberg in New York
The hell with contracts — we will just tell them you have standing agreement with me and you can give me anything you feel like giving me on reprints whenever you get back to States and sit in Poetry Chairs in hinterland CCNYs* and are rich and famous and fat and fucking your admirers and getting reprinted in all of seldenrod-man’s anthologies,** until then, natch, the loot shud be yours since as you say I am getting famous as your publisher anyway. Do you want more Howls and other Pocket Poets sent now (which ones?) and charged against you? How many? . . .
Will soon send addition on Howl sales to-date. OK? G’bye . . .
*City College of New York.
**Reference to Selden Rodman, who edited several mass-market collections of poetry.
The letter from Ferlinghetti written March 27 that Ginsberg refers to below has not been located. In it, Ferlinghetti must have told Ginsberg, who was visiting Burroughs in Morocco, some of the details about the seizure of copies of Howl and Other Poems by the San Francisco office of the U.S. Customs Department.
April 3, 1957: Ginsberg in Tangier, Morocco, to Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
Received your letter of March 27 and was surprised by news of Customs’ seizure. [ . . . ]
I suppose the publicity will be good — I have been here with Jack, Peter and Bill Burroughs all hung-up on private life and Bill’s mad personality and writings and on digging the Arab quarter and taking majoun (hashish candy) and opium and drinking hot sweet delicious mint tea in Rembrandt dark cafes and long walks in lucid Mediterranean coast green grassy brilliant light North Africa that I haven’t written any letters (this is the second in two weeks) or thought much about anything. I’ll write to Grove to Don Allen and let him know and he’ll tell the lady from Time-Life.* If you can mimeograph a letter and get some kind of statement from William Carlos Williams, [Louise] Bogan, [Richard] Eberhart and send it around to magazines might get some publicity that way.
My brother is a lawyer and has recently done some research on the subject, I’ll write him to get in touch with you and provide any legal aid — if any is useful from him in New York. I guess this puts you up shits creek financially. I didn’t think it would really happen.
I must say am more depressed than pleased, [more] disgusted than pleased, about customs shot, amusing as it is — the world is such a bottomless hole of boredom and poverty and paranoiac politics and diseased rags here Howl seems like a drop in the bucket-void and literary furor illusory — seems like it’s happening in otherland — outside me, nothing to do with me or anything. Jack [Kerouac] has a room I move into next week, full of light on a hill a few blocks above the beach from whence I’m writing now, can look over the veranda redstone tile, huge patio, over the harbor, over the bay, across the very sunlit straits and see the blue coast of Spain and ancient parapets of Europe I haven’t been to yet. Gibraltar small and faraway but there in brilliant blue water, and a huge clear solid cloudless blue sky — I never saw such serene light as this, big classical Mediterranean beauty-light over a small world. I’ll write Señor MacPhee myself, ask him to let my copies go, big serious poignant sad letter.
Rock and roll on all the jukeboxes here, just had a rock and roll riot at the movie house here a few weeks ago, and in fact before I left New York, me and Peter picked up on the historic stage show at the Paramount. I brought a few Little Richard and Fats Domino records here in fact.
Only interesting person here besides Burroughs is Jane Bowles whom I have only met with once.
[Ginsberg spelled backwards]
*Rosalind Constable, a Time-Life journalist.
On June 3, 1957, two undercover San Francisco police inspectors arrested the manager of City Lights Bookstore, Shig Murao, for selling copies of Howl and Other Poems and a magazine called Miscellaneous Man. Ferlinghetti was out of town at the time, so they issued a warrant for his arrest upon his return. Both Ferlinghetti and Murao were released on bail posted by the ACLU, pending a court decision on obscenity charges.
June 10, 1957: Ginsberg in Tangier, Morocco, to Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
Received your June 4 letter today, with clipping. I guess this is more serious than the customs seizure since you can lose real money on this deal if they find you guilty. What does it look like? I guess with ACLU should be possible to beat — except this is local law — does that give police complete discretion to decide what’s obscene? If so that may make it difficult.
I remember your speaking of troubles with local police on Henry Miller — and not being able to beat the cops on that — is it possible also in this case? It was all funny before but could be very difficult, for you, you actually stand to risk so much, money. In any case if you get fined I’ll try to help raise loot to pay it — you’ve put yourself out financially very far already.
I’m really sorry I’m not there to take part in this latest development. […] Well if they do send you to jail I’ll make haste to return to San Francisco and wage war in person, join you in next cell. Poor Shig, after his motorcycle bust up to get busted on this kind of bum rap . . . give him my thanks and apologies. . . I hope it was not grim. Strange to see his name in the paper.
Have written very little but will sooner or later. When I have a manuscript I will send it to you to look at and publish if you can and want to; I won’t go whoring around New York publishers I promise.
If there’s anything I can do tell me. What does Kenneth Rexroth say? Give him regards, I still have to write and will. Hello to jailbird Shig.
September 28, 1957: Ferlinghetti in San Francisco to Ginsberg in Paris
[ . . . ] Will send you clips on final action on Howl trial next week, when judge brings in his written decision and opinion. I am writing it up for next issue of Evergreen, per request of Don Allen . . . Great picture of you in Life. Where was it taken?
[ . . . ]
. . . Will see to getting those manuscripts around as soon as they arrive (Burroughs, Kerouac, etc) . . . At Art Festival here this week, there was Grand Guignol puppet type show, with puppets of you and Corso and Rexroth, with scene at The Place* for backdrop, lampooning all and fingerlike penis flopping out and Kenneth intoning and Lawrence F. [Ferlinghetti] and the Police Inspector and the Cellar jass scene with Kenneth on the podium with Brooks Brothers suits and you get the idea anyway — by [the way] you know Gerd Stern and Jack Gilbert; and they are still reading Robespierre at Festival. […]
Yours trooly, write
*A San Francisco café/bar that hosted poetry readings.
On October 3, 1957, Judge Clayton W. Horn of the California Supreme Court ruled that Howl and Other Poems had “some redeeming social importance” and was not obscene.
ca. late March 1958: Ginsberg in Paris to Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
[…] I’m broke, dumb, writeless and nowhere. Send on royalties as soon as you can. No Guggenheim so may have to come back to U.S. earlier than hoped — right now I’m living off Burroughs.
[ . . . ]
Read and enjoyed, “I Am Waiting” — but I think you run into same trouble I have now on this politics poem — the specific poetry, the images, are not fine and permanent enough — too lax and coy. The music, or drive forward is there, but the concrete particulars are not wild enough languagely — but I am now riddled with self-criticism and shouldn’t bring you down with the same drag.
Everything I’ve tried writing this year comes to a pile of spiritless miscellaneous junk so I give up for awhile. Don’t know what next, broke, headed nowhere [ . . . ]
January 10, 1959: Ginsberg in New York to Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
[ . . . ] Now, I have been working on my own poems and tho I was complaining last year it seems I have been writing like mad. It’s just that I never typed anything up in final form, but went ahead. As it stands it’s rather frightful. I have a couple short poems, then a lot of middle size poems — “At Apollinaire’s Grave” (enclosed — Grove printing it in Evergreen). […]Well that’s all OK, but they never get higher off the ground than the Greyhound poem. Finally however, I am now typing a vast mad masterpiece “Kaddish” — so far in five different sections, the center one is a thirty-page single-space piece of strophic narrative interspersed with chants and hymns.
If we publish it all together it’ll all amount — good poems, not just shit dribble notations — to 100 pages or more. So maybe a big mad full book. The “Kaddish” is for my money better and wilder than “Howl” — I mean huge sections of Bach-like construction, as well as lots of Newark detail, politics, etc.
I still haven’t started working on all the material (about thirty pages) I assembled on Fall of America, either, and mean to do that this month, too.
I don’t know what to do. I’ll bring everything I have done, when I come in May to read for Berkeley and San Francisco State. We’ll worry then.
January 17, 1959: Telegram from Ferlinghetti in San Francisco to Ginsberg in New York
I READ “APOLLINAIRE’S TOMB” THUNDERSTRUCK AND POOR YOU ARE HUGEST DARK GENIUS VOICE ALIVE STILL UNRECOGNIZED DESPITE ALL. HOWEVER ABOUT BOOK NOW OF NINE POEMS YOU LIST IN LETTER TO BE IN PRINT FOR YOUR VISIT HERE IN MAY. “KADDISH” AND “FALL OF AMERICA” SEPARATE BOOKS LATER. PLEASE MAKE SURE GROVE PRESS DOES NOT RESTRICT OUR RIGHTS TO REPRINT POEMS THEY USE. YES BIGGER ROYALTY SEND YOU ALL PROFIT LATER LOVE
LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI CITY LIGHTS BOOKS
October 10, 1960: Ferlinghetti in San Francisco to Ginsberg in New York
Have been swamped with work, Shig on vacation, etc. . . . . and have not finished copy-reading all of your manuscript. Will send you complete run-down of copy-questions separately when I’ve done whole manuscript. In meantime, here is Section II (Narrative) of Kaddish which I feel you’ve had the most trouble with; and this version is more concentrated (slightly) and more found (more melted and fused together, more forged into one piece) than the former version you sent me, which is good; and the reason I’m sending it now is that I feel/ sense/that you have not quite reached the final point of compression and clarity in this section — due to the fact that I am pressing you for the finished works and you don’t have any time to get a perspective on it and see it from the outside. You are so submerged in it that you can’t get an objective outside view of this section as a whole. By the time the proofs came, I think you would be doing some more weeding out — and it’s better to take the time right now, for a few last touches.
October 11, 1960: Ginsberg in New York to Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
Eureka! Here is the entire book complete, retyped, ready to roll.
I went over “Kaddish,” read it aloud to Jack new slightly cut (five pages cut) version (enclosed) and it sounded foursquare and right what I want. I take back earlier doubt as to whether it should be published.
I guess make one big monster book and charge a lot, I just wrote too much. Note it’s only poems 1958-1960. I left intermediary stuff out — another little book. My father’s seen and approved, I’ll get legal letters from family for you this week.
OK, OK — write
Ginsberg asked Ferlinghetti to return his original manuscript of “Kaddish” to him. He had promised to give it to Julian Beck and Judith Malina to auction as a benefit for the cash-strapped Living Theatre.
March 16, 1961: Ferlinghetti in San Francisco to Ginsberg in New York
Dear Allen Alvah Irwin Garden Goldbooker . . . .
You crazy to give away original Kaddish manuscript right now! Am sending it to you surface mail today, along with former manuscript you sent me. This latter includes four or five of the principal poems in Kaddish as well as earlier version of “Kaddish” itself, and I beg you to lay this manuscreed on Living Theatre and save the final manuscript (which is in black folder) for yourself. What do you figure anarchists will have to eat in 1975? If you will please save this manuscript until at least ten years from now, you will eat off of it from 1975 to 2000. Even right now you should (and I could) get at least muchos $ gringos $ for it from a big library. Please do not throw away your shoes in order to walk barefoot thru India, because when you get back to U.S. you will need them shoes again. (By way, what did you do with original “Howl” manuscript? I hope you still have it?) . . . . You crazy goofball . . . . Sending out review copies to all new names you gave me. Books ready in gross here tomorrer! Trublu. [ . . . ]
ca. October 1, 1961: Ginsberg in Greece to Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
Been out of Athens for a week, now answering letters. [ . . . ] The book of poems you have, that’s so far arranged in chronological order. If there’s anything should be left out, suggest it.
Well, I’ve been in Greece a month — a week in Athens screwing Greek street boys and hanging round Ammonia Square Times Square area, then to country to Delphi, walking over Mt. Parnassus to shepherd valleys, pure idyllic sheep bells and country paths, then around Peloponnesus to ruins at Olympia, back to Athens, then to Isle of Hydra, then a town Methana where old Greeks take sulfur baths for bones, then the Plains of Argos where the chiefs gathered for Iliad wars, and wandering in valleys on foot around Mycenae, and tomorrow leave Athens again and stay two weeks in Crete, I’m almost broke again, go there wait two weeks for man to send me 100 dollars for Empty Mirror manuscript (Yale collector) — then after that two weeks at Mt. Athos with ugly monks. Then Israel and then dunno till India January 1 meet Gary [Snyder][…]. Greece is really Greece, everybody’s sexy and the light’s immense. Peter disappeared into Istanbul, angry at Burroughs for cutting up Love. I don’t know what I’m doing, just wandering and having strange dreams about losing mind in amnesia. Some kind of lonely changes.
July 5, 1962: Ginsberg in Calcutta, India, to Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
Our letters must have crossed in the mails. I got your July 1 sad letter today, and had written you one on June 27 or something, so you can see even without your saying anything I did hold your hands and look in your eyes soulfully and said I liked D.H. Lawrence poem and told you about Jyoti Datta Bengali poet who also said how nice he liked your poetry and said you should send him your books. I don’t consider you a business man honey (I’m full of chandul — opium — we just got back from the Chinese den here). Larry, I do “consider” you a poet and I do and always have I admit complained about your loose pen but I wouldn’t complain to you about it if I didn’t think you were fine enough to complain to and your poetry solid enough to complain about non-solid frills in it. Don’t feel so bad!
What occurs to me is that you’re more perfect as 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 now some strictly private and anti-social melancholy poems. Anyway that always struck me as your natural vein, that and a kind of empathy-nakedness which is rare.
But aside from that, since I turned down Knopf and Penguin offers, you can’t entertain the thought that I (and Peter) think of you as $ pimping poesy! Banish the thought, Chairman of the Board, and full speed ahead! San Francisco must really be bugging you. Or is it babyshit all over your living room floor? What’s baby doing? Is it any good?
In June 1965, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg both participated in a reading at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Then Ferlinghetti read at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy.
July 5, 1965: Ferlinghetti in Venice, Italy, to Ginsberg in San Francisco.
Querido Allen . . . .
I am here for a few days with Jean-Jacques [Lebel] and his Denise, on the way back from Spoleto to Paris and then London again for a little while . . . .
Spoleto was a week of luxurious living and drinking, and I shook some fruit, and read a new long poemblast on Vietnam to disturb the dreamy surroundings . . . .
I am sitting here looking across the water at St. Marco, from Giudecca island where I have a room over the quai. Wonderful. People beside me are leaning out the window and sending you their love
November 11, 1967: Ginsberg in Milan, Italy, to Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao in San Francisco
Dear Larry (or Shig):
Saw Pound several weeks on and off in Venice. He said “Cantos a mess spoiled by stupid suburban anti-Semitic prejudice.” I gave him Beatles records and [Bob] Dylan, sang Hari Krishna on his 82nd birthday by fireside and wrote huge poems on Venice — putting my own mind thru his condensation and image focus — light “crooked-mirror’d on the glassy water” of Grand Canal. Returning to New York in a few days. I’ll phone.
[P.S.] I kept complete record of conversations and his few comments.