I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career
The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997
Edited by Bill Morgan
The Times Literary Supplement
"The most engaging part of the correspondence charts the symbiotically emerging careers of poet and publisher after the publication and trial of Howl. . . . [The letters] paint Lawrence Ferlinghetti as part Zen clown, part establishment man. They reveal his gentlemanly radicalism in prose that oscillates between the playful and the profound.'’––Douglas Field
"I have heard the Gettysburg address / and the Ginsberg address," quipped Lawrence Ferlinghetti, American poet and publisher, more than 50 years ago, in his iconic poetry collection "A Coney Island of the Mind." The reference to Beat legend Allen Ginsberg, while playful, is at the same time indicative of Ferlinghetti's immense admiration for his colleague and friend. This admiration goes as far back as 1955, when Ferlinghetti agreed in principle to publish then-unknown Ginsberg's highly controversial poem "Howl" through his newly minted press, City Lights Publishers.
The relationship between the two, crucial to the life of American poetry, can now be explored, in all of its nuance and depth, thanks to the publication of "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955-1997" edited by Bill Morgan.
The history of the Beat movement is a magnet for myths because it is irresistible: In the 1950s a small band of like-minded artists broke the barriers of censorship, elitism, homophobia and racism with their experimental writing, fraught with confessional, spiritual ecstasy and sexual explorations. Rooted in vernacular, all-American speech, the writing was accessible to the wider masses, and the directness of address was intensified through the emphasis on live gatherings and performance. Beat literature and activism contributed a great deal toward the artistic, social and political revolutions of the 1960s. The key figures — Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs — soared to rock-star popularity and were widely emulated. Aside from being a brilliant, groundbreaking poet, Ginsberg was also a dogged self-archivist with a flair for publicity. The letters he exchanged with Ferlinghetti allow for a degree of demythologizing, which takes away none of the Beats' glory nor their importance in the history of American poetics.
The correspondence opens with an October 1955 telegram Ferlinghetti sent to Ginsberg, following the public reading of Ginsberg's "Howl" at the Six Gallery in San Francisco — a moment widely considered to be the Beats' transition from a clique to a public literary force. Riffing on Ralph Waldo Emerson's letter to Walt Whitman, Ferlinghetti writes: "I GREET YOU AT THE BEGINNING OF A GREAT CAREER [stop] WHEN DO I GET MANUSCRIPT OF 'HOWL'?" The poem's publication follows soon after in 1956, then the obscenity trial a year later, fame, and nearly 40 years of correspondence, which continued until Ginsberg died in 1997.
The Beats put a premium on literary community and close friendships, which for them was a source for inspiration, and perhaps even an indelible part of the artistic experience itself. In an interview, Ginsberg famously advised all poets to write "as you would talk with yourself or with your friends." Implicit here is also the idea that conversations with friends were literary occasions, and so, in the poets' letters, certain asides and tangents are as memorable as poems themselves. In one such letter, Ginsberg is momentarily intoxicated with gratitude: "I wanted to send you something sublime — naked mama or trumpet of divinity — anything real beyond materialist illusions — and wish I could thank you for when I envision you like that so kind a messenger, making secure the communication gets sent across cold Atlantics and vast empty voids." Just as poetically, and as firmly focused on the sublime is a 1958 letter, in which 32-year-old Ginsberg summarizes his latest news: "I went to dentist, had laughing gas and it changed my life… Now I'm a Buddhist. …I can see: the whole fabric of existence is illusion. If you can get the kind of explicit Nirvana thru meditation as you can thru nitrous oxide, contemplation here I come. I never saw anything like that before — whole friggen cosmos slipped into the void like lizard's tail into crack in blank wall. Sort of an immense obvious cosmic joke." More than a few other dentist trips are referenced over the years, along with other transformative experiences of various magnitudes.
Of course, not all of the letters in the collection are focused on poetic matters. Ferlinghetti was (and still is), above all, Ginsberg's publisher, as well as the owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, which before long became the hub for the new American poetry. Business matters permeate conversations: publishing rights, publicity, distribution, endless financial troubles and, most poignantly, legal matters.
The boldness of Ferlinghetti's decision to publish Ginsberg's "Howl" — filled with bold and explicit sexual content, unthinkable at the time within the public American discourse — should not be minimized. He surely believed in Ginsberg's work, but could he have ever imagined that the book and its publisher would go on trial, launching one of the most important censorship battles in 20th century America? The letters are particularly instructive in elucidating the context of the trial. It appears that at the time Ginsberg was touring Morocco and later Europe, and the burden of the defense fell on the shoulders of Ferlinghetti and his business partner, Shigeyoshi "Shig" Murao. As letters indicate, Ginsberg took the legal repercussions somewhat lightly and saw the turmoil as an opportunity for gaining spotlight and media attention, requesting editorials and eliciting debates across the literary spectrum. His hunch was correct: The interest in the work skyrocketed as the result of the trial. In the meantime, having emerged victorious, Ferlinghetti continued his involvement in freedom-of-speech matters and, among other things, participated in the obscenity trial of comedian Lenny Bruce.
As the letters make clear, Ginsberg's "Howl" as well as his other landmark epic, "Kaddish," were published after a considerable degree of editorial input from Ferlinghetti, who repeatedly beseeched Ginsberg for "condensation" and narrative pruning, and proposed other changes. Both "Kaddish" and "Howl" are distinguished by a breathless improvisational feel, and editing the works while preserving and intensifying the rawness of the text was an impressive feat.
Through their correspondence, both poets witnessed each other's bouts of doubt. In an early letter, Ginsberg calls his work "jerry-built sloppy and egocentric," and in later years he jealously points to the literary experiments of his friend William Burroughs, who then introduced the "cut-up" method of randomized collage. Ginsberg searches for and claims to be unable to find a method of his own that would be as revitalizing and radical.
Ferlinghetti expresses his doubts as well. In much of the early correspondence, Ginsberg's reactions to Ferlinghetti's creative work, though cordial, are cursory and minimal. At one point, bogged down by negative reviews from critics and even his own friends, Ferlinghetti announces to Ginsberg that he's giving up writing. Ginsberg's response is effusive, generous and comes with a slew of compliments, as well as a gem of a personal anecdote. Ginsberg advises his friend not to take criticism too harshly, and recounts how he himself was made fun of by his closest associate, Kerouac, in a moment of drunken candor: "Ginsberg, you're nothing but a hairy loss."
As much as Ferlinghetti admired Ginsberg and sought his approval, it is clear that he maintained his own style as a poet and independent direction as a publisher. While Ginsberg repeatedly pressured Ferlinghetti to publish his various friends, the latter pushed back, sometimes harshly: "You're a movement in yerself, but you carry this little band of cohorts around with you in portfolio like prospectus for the Revolution …. I'm not out to run a press of Poets That Write Like Allen Ginsberg."
Inclusion of this letter, like so many others, is owed to Bill Morgan's editorial choices, and his excellent, terse narrative insertions that contextualize the exchange between the artists. It was also a thoughtful decision on Morgan's part to end the book with a 1997 elegy Ferlinghetti wrote after hearing the news of his friend's passing. It is not only a gentle tribute but also a testament to Ferlinghetti's artistic mastery. Though undoubtedly, to scholars of American literature he will remain not only a poet but, also, as Ginsberg put it back in 1961, the iconic publisher, "guarding the signal and the great impulses of being … to decide what to do with the cosmos, whether to recognize the vast image of being and publish it to all gathered consciousness."
Jake Marmer is a poet and critic. His poetry collection, "Jazz Talmud," was published by Sheep Meadow Press.
Los Angeles Times
"In I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career, the Ferlinghetti who takes shape in these letters possess a vivid inner life … If Ferlinghetti is the fixed point, Ginsberg was the satellite: That dichotomy and the looping switchbacks of their long friendship is played out nakedly in this collection. Editor Bill Morgan's notes are concise and sharp, lending context decade-by-decade while also identifying cultural and social shifts that might affect the flow of correspondence (travel, long-distance rates) and how that shaped their communication … The details of their correspondence fill in history from a different angle; they add contour to a moment that Ferlinghetti's journals might only sketch (and vice versa), and as such are a fine complement. What's important about these documents is that not only do they shed light on the editor-writer relationship (and the galaxy of relationships that developed under the aegis of City Lights), but also the tensions and tenderness of long and true friendship … Late in their friendship, after a public reading, Ferlinghetti writes Ginsberg with an open heart: 'You've developed your voice to the fullest. It keeps getting better and better, clearer. Fine articulation, volume, modulation and power.' The same could be said of Ferlinghetti's legacy—with City Lights' ever-open door and its lasting imprint across the globe."––Lynell George
"It All Started with a 'Howl': City Lights Publishers Celebrates 60 Years"
Jul 16, 2015
Elaine Katzenberger, publisher and executive director of City Lights, spoke with Michael Krasny about the 60-year history of City Lights Publishers, the legacy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the two new books being published by City Lights in the anniversary year. City Lights authors Karen Finley and Thomas Page McBee call in as well to offer their take about being published under City Lights.
"Back in the 1950s, a thin book of poetry sparked a police raid of a San Francisco bookstore and a landmark court trial over selling 'obscene' material. That book, 'Howl & Other Poems' by Allen Ginsberg, put City Lights Publishers and its owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on the literary map. This year, City Lights Publishers celebrates its 60th anniversary. We look back on its storied history and on its current place in the publishing world."
"Lawrence Ferlinghetti: 'Most of the poets were on something, but somebody had to mind the shop'"
Jul 4, 2015
The publisher of the Beats talks about Ginsberg the showman, the Albert hall 'happening' and how one of his own poets emptied the City Lights till, all with the letters book, I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career as a guide through his multifaceted career as poet, traveler, and publisher.
Colin Robinson, The Guardian UK
"Interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights"
Jul 2, 2015
Lawrence Ferlinghetti interviewed by Jonah Raskin in his home about the 60th Anniversary of City Lights Publishers, his relationship with Allen Ginsberg, and what he thinks of San Francisco today.
"The heart and the soul of bohemian San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has altered the cultural landscape of readers and writers both locally and globally from his perch at City Lights, at 261 Columbus Ave. in North Beach. I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career, a new collection of letters between him and Allen Ginsberg, tracks their friendship and explores the fellowship of poets born at City Lights Bookstore and its publishing arm, City Lights Books."––Jonah Raskin
San Francisco Chronicle
"PW Picks: Books of the Week June 29, 2015"
Jun 29, 2015
I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career selected by Publishers Weekly as a book of the week for June 29, 2015
"Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti will forever be linked as the respective writer and publisher of Howl [and Other Poems], and this irresistible collection of their correspondence shows the depth of their friendship and working relationship … These [letters] should interest even casual readers, but devotees will find most rewarding the book's central revelation: that while Ginsberg was Beat Poetry's face, Ferlinghetti was its hero, the key to so many great writers' success. Their affectionate correspondence becomes spottier as they make the switch to telephone calls, but the later letters are as striking and stirring as their very first exchanges. [Bill] Morgan has assembled an impressive volume that is a must for every Beat aficionado."
"Limiting his comments to background information, Morgan lets Ginsberg's personality emerge above and beyond what his poetry reveals … The letters are a perfect picture of the San Francisco Renaissance and the rise of the beat poets, with Ginsberg at the top of the heap ... Having some familiarity with both men's work is actually unnecessary, as their lives and outlooks come through in this compilation of their correspondence. A good primer to convince readers who have not experienced the work of Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg to give them a try."
"[H]ere is a four-decade exchange of gossip, chitchat, travelog, and thoughts on writing between two committed poets—Ginsberg, an exceptional poet—who worked diligently to promote the Beat ethos. Most of the missives, compiled by archivist [Bill] Morgan, have never before been published. While there are no great surprises, the material fills in the picture of what we know about the writers already. Both were generous, high-spirited men who not only practiced their craft but thought about it deeply ... Indispensable for scholars but of interest to lovers of the Beats and contemporary poetry, too."
"Collects the back and forth of a patient editor and his house's bright star, who, when he wasn’t trying to be the next Whitman (the beard, the bulk, the breathless lists) or Coleridge (the metaphysics of debauchery), fancied himself a literary agent, P.R. rep, and distributor—a one-man Amazon.com, fueled by cigarettes, amphetamines, and ayahuasca … Ferlinghetti, for his part, remained caustic, cautious, and discerning: he said yes to Kerouac and Corso, and no to Whalen, Snyder, and Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s lover: 'You’re a movement in yerself,’ he wrote."––Joshua Cohen
"This volume provides the reader with unique insight into the evolving relationship between the young poet Allen Ginsberg and his publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was equally new to the publishing field with his launching of City Lights Publishers in 1955 … Equally all of these letters are selected and annotated with the skillful touch of Bill Morgan. He has adroitly sifted a myriad of poetry, scraps of notes, the letters themselves and collectively edited the letters into a shiny testament of mutual love for which the voice of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg shine through."––R. I. Sutherland-Cohen
"Summer Reading Guide: The 136 Books You'll Want to Read"
May 28, 2015
I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career selected in the memoir/bio section of the Los Angeles Times summer reading list, among 27 other nonfiction books.
"A collection of the letters, spanning over four decades, between "Howl" poet Ginsberg and City Lights co-founder Ferlinghetti, both Beat Generation legends. (June)"
Los Angeles Times
San Jose Mercury News
"Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote an indelible chapter of San Francisco history when he founded City Lights Books in 1955. In addition to volumes of poetry by himself and others, the legendary Beat poet published a book that would rock the literary world. Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems introduced a new kind of American poetry, and when Ferlinghetti was slapped with an obscenity charge for putting it on the market, the case established City Lights as a champion of artistic freedom. This volume of letters between Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg––published for the first time––marks City Lights' 60th anniversary."––Georgia Rowe
New York Journal of Books
"[I]t is a must … a rather joyful addition to the sagging bookshelf in the back bedroom."––Winton Rafe McCabe, New York Journal of Books
"Letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti"
May 8, 2015
A letter from Allen Ginsberg to Lawrence Ferlinghetti dated July 5, 1962 and included in I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career, is excerpted in the May 8th edition of Little Star Weekly. Ginsberg was writing from Calcutta, India to Ferlinghetti in San Francisco. The letter appears in the online version and on the journal's app.
Little Star Weekly
May 7, 2015
The Bay Area Reporter rounds-out Independent Bookstore Day with a run-through of books to look for, excerpting a passage from I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career - a portion of a letter Allen Ginsberg wrote to Lawrence Ferlinghetti talking about if he could mail a Richard Avedon nude photo of him through mail.
The Bay Area Reporter
"The City Lights Are Burning Bright"
Apr 15, 2015
Beat Scene previews upcoming City Lights publications, highlighting I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career especially.
"There is a long awaited book of letters that passed between Allen Ginsberg and [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti himself, I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career. This one will be eagerly anticipated. Certainly it will intrigue all those who are keen to know more about why things happened and how. Personally I can't wait for this book in particular. To have new and fresh insight into the daily lives of the two key individuals in the Beat Generation story, well, you couldn't put a price on it. They touched so many lives."––Pauline Reeves
"Spring 2015 Announcements: Literary Biographies, Essays & Criticism: Lives in Letters"
I Greet at the Beginning of a Great Career previewed in Publishers Weekly's Spring 2015 Announcements:
I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, 1955–1997, edited by Bill Morgan A collection of the correspondence between the author of Howl and his publisher and fellow poet, and City Lights Books cofounder, provides an evocative portrait of enduring friendship.