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Beat Poets, Acid Gurus, The Governor & Me

Gary Snyder & Allen Ginsberg

A local saloon changing owners is rarely front-page news in the big city, but the recent sale of Tosca, in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, has received much attention. The much-beloved establishment had reportedly been losing money for some time, even though it has a great location on Columbus Avenue and is both a tourist destination and a fabled hangout of the literary, cinematic, and socialite elite. The semi-exclusive back room has been the location of many notable gatherings, from major film “wrap” parties to an ill-advised attempt at a “glamorous” Mayoral photo shoot. In any event, many people are glad Tosca has been saved from from turning into yet another trendy eatery — although the new owners do plan to add food to the menu.

One of my favorite memories from Tosca's back room was a literary reading by the great beat/environmental/Buddhist/Pulitzer — poet Gary Snyder. A book of his letters with equally-renowned legend Allen Ginsberg had just been published, to great interest and acclaim. Ginsberg died in 1997 but Snyder is going strong and came down from his longtime Sierra homestead to read from and sign copies of the book. Those attending included old pals and journalists, including some famous names. Then-California Attorney General Jerry Brown was present, as he and Snyder go way back, at least to when Brown, during his first gubernatorial stint in the 1970s, appointed Snyder co-chair of his California Arts Council.

Snyder genially read a few seemingly random selections from the book's letters, and then said 'Well, we're all old pals here, let's talk. Any questions or comments?” Brown, sitting nearby, stood somewhat stiffly and said, “Yes, Gary, I need to correct something in one of the letters in this book.” Snyder looked bemused, and said, sure, go ahead. Brown then noted that in a letter from 1976, Ginsberg wrote to Snyder that then-Governor Brown had visited the fabled acid guru Timothy Leary in Lompoc State Penitentiary, where Leary was again doing time for multiple pot busts (and, according to the guardians of the nation, corrupting an entire generation of impressionable youth). During a previous incarceration there in 1970, Leary was sprung from the prison yard at night and spirited away to extradition-proof Algeria in a you-can't-make-this-stuff-up coup involving Weatherman, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love acid ring, and even founding Black panther Eldridge Cleaver, also taking advantage of the asylum/hospitality in Algeria. Cleaver then in turn held the hapless Leary hostage until he could escape to Europe and be arrested and incarcerated yet again.

As Brown noted, in April 1976 Ginsberg wrote “Going to L.A. this Sunday for a local Buddhist festival at UCLA — meet Ken Kesey and visit Leary in San Diego Federal Jail — working on his case again with PEN Club and Amnesty International to get him out. He says Gov. Brown visited him in jail, before he was released from California Authority last year.”

“Ginsberg's letter implies that I, as Governor, might have had something to do with Leary being released", Brown complained at Tosca, nicely yet firmly, to Snyder. “I want it known that I never did visit Leary there.” OK, then. It was safe to say that to most if not all present, this seemed a tremendous stretch and some ado about nothing, especially over thirty years later. Silence ensued, and even Snyder seemed at a loss for a reply to his old friend. I, however, was sitting on the piano near the back and enjoying a pint of Anchor Steam, probably my favorite local beer next to Anderson Valley Boont Amber Ale. It seemed to me that somebody had to reply to the Attorney General's strange historical concern.

“What, are you running for office or something?” I blurted out. A solid chuckle rumbled through the crowd, as the mild tension was dissolved. Somebody — I think it was Peter Coyote, who had been the other co-chair of the state Arts Council — said “Nice one, Steve!” Brown, however, just turned and glared at me, with a look that seemed to imply “Who are you, punk, and how dare you?” But of course he was indeed running, or at that point planning to, and won his third Gubernatorial term in 2010, humiliating the clueless Meg Whitman in with a fine Ali-esque rope-a-dope campaign — wait her out, let her punch herself into disrepute and despair, and reap the rewards. The crazy thing, though, was that anybody might have worried that such an old event and implication might have consequences in a current political campaign. But then, in politics...

Perhaps it was this appended thought in Ginsberg's same letter that set Brown off: “Is Brown ripe enough to run for Prexy?” Well, 37 years later, who knows?

Here is my San Francisco Chronicle review of the book, which is a very worthy read even if you're not especially into poetry and beatniks. These guys were far more than that.

The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder — Edited by Bill Morgan Counterpoint Press; 321 pages; $16.95

It may not be too much of a stretch to argue that this chronological collection of four decades of correspondence between two modern literary giants is among the most notable works either ever produced. Even if one does not feel that letters are a true form of literature, this volume provides the most personal and arresting picture to date of two writers who have already been exhaustively examined.

Most of all, this is a record of a remarkable and enduring friendship. Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder met in San Francisco in 1955 as part of the planning for the legendary Six Gallery reading, where Ginsberg's first public reading of his epic poem “Howl” took place. They obviously hit it off.

“PS. Any time you could send monies, a few bucks etc. most appreciated,” Snyder writes to Ginsberg in the first letter here, from 1956. The loans and gifts continued in both directions for years, with seemingly no strain on their bond. Another potential challenge was that both writers achieved fame in their time, yet each seemed to exult in the other's successes.

Ginsberg had attained notoriety first with “Howl"; Snyder had mixed feelings about his barely fictionalized fame as Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac's “Dharma Bums” but became a focal point on his own.

“I know you've been busy because I read about you in Time,” Snyder writes in 1968. “I saw your Playboy interview which is so precise, and on the highest levels I thought accurate, charming, beautiful, and to me illuminating,” he continued the next year.

The friends write about travel, poetry, Buddhism, lovers, marriage, divorce, ecology and politics, finances, health matters and medical bills, and their “careers” and perils of success. “My main life problem seems to be the f- karmic mail every day — new problems, proofs, contracts, appeals, and screw ups,” Ginsberg laments in 1974. There is also much detail about practical aspects of their shared property in the Sierra foothills, where Snyder has lived for decades but where Ginsberg rarely got to stay — they even discuss the fair allocation of toilet seats. But as Snyder now notes in his brief introductory note, “that's what the 'real work' is.”

Their shared vulnerability and doubts are present from the start. “Not written anything very great, that's bugged me, overanxious to please I guess and follow Howl up, obsessional, so just a lot of self conscious long lines about politics, horrid, some funny tho — I don't know, I have a lot of manuscripts,” Ginsberg confesses in 1958, in a perhaps prophetic note about the rest of his life's work. In the earlier letters, Snyder comes off as more of the comradely teacher, outlining Zen concepts and setting his own course as a broad and deep socio-ecological thinker, as in this 1960 observation: “Nobody can straighten American politics out because the people won't stand for it — how can the internal economics be put in order when everybody wants everything? Any sane monetary policy or farm policy doomed to ruin. Ditto by logical extension foreign policy.”

By 1976 Ginsberg is comfortable enough in their bond to critique Snyder's writing — “noticed you were getting as bad as me into psychopolitical generalization.” But later that year he also writes, “It does seem strange that for 20 years I've been yapping about God. Why didn't you tell me to shut up?”

They were restless correspondents geographically as well — letters crossed from all over the Americas, Asia, Europe, Africa and at sea. But the focus is on the two coasts. Snyder notes in 1964 that in San Francisco there is “something really lovely flowering,” that two years later “the dance-joy-love-acid scene is too beautiful.” But by the actual 1967 Summer of Love, Ginsberg worries about the Haight-Ashbury scene — “[Alan] Watts called me worried it's getting out of hand.”

Many notable figures appear, but Kerouac is surprisingly scantly mentioned here. Ginsberg reports in 1968 some “other gossip — I'd spent 3/4 hour with Robert Kennedy discussing pot, ecology, acid, cities, etc., a month before he started running for Prexy and died.”

By the late 1980s, both were evolving into senior statesmen, with Ginsberg, after an “old home week for us broken-down reprobates,” reflecting, “Interesting — most of us suffering from low self-esteem and worthlessness illusions.” Both busy professionals, they keep in touch not only via letters but in person whenever possible; “I could meet you in San Francisco, if I can remember how to drive in North Beach and find a parking place,” writes Snyder in 1990.

The letters stop in mid-1995; Ginsberg died in 1997. Whether the cutoff was due to his failing health or other reasons is not indicated. But in any event, we can be grateful that these paper relics exist from an era before e-mail, cell phones, even faxes. Anyone with a remote interest in these writers and their times should find much of value here. It becomes very clear that these two very different men viewed one another with not only great respect but also with enduring love.

(Postcript: I had another chance to try out my feeble attempts at humor on the Governor just last year. Emerging from the state capitol building after the usual dispiriting round of lobbying for a worthy bill but being beaten back by a gang of profiteers and lunatics, I spotted Brown walking with his famed pup named Sutter, a Welsh Corgi (fine small dogs, those) who has his own Twitter and Facebook accounts and is at least if not more popular than his human handlers. I walked over, bent to pet the dog (a bodyguard stood quietly at a distance) and said “Taking your best advisor for a walk?” Brown — who fortunately and unsurprisingly did not recognize me — looked down at us and nodded. I then said, “Actually, I'm talking to Sutter.” This time, the Governor smiled.)

One Comment

  1. John Sakowicz January 18, 2013

    Great article, Steve Heilig. Thank you.

    I, too, have a few memories of both Ginsberg and Snyder that are part of my core experiences as a young poet.

    About Snyder…

    Back in 1978-79, when I was a graduate student in the MFA program at the Writing Seminars Department at the Johns Hopkins University, one of my classmates, and good friend at that time, Tom Sleigh, told me he made a “pilgrimage” of sorts to Snyder’s home in the Sierra foothills. Sleigh had hitchhiked all the way from Baltimore to California.

    Thinking Snyder would welcome this act of hero worship, Sleigh was greatly disappointed when Snyder threatened to call the police and promptly threw Sleigh off his property. It seemed that Snyder’s need for privacy had overridden his cool hippie-, Beat poet-, Deep Ecology activist-, Zen Buddhist-self.

    So much for congeniality among poets.

    Thinking I would have better luck than Sleigh — but this time, bearing gifts of marijuana, a couple of peyote buttons, my pathetic attempts at Japanese calligraphy, and an autographed copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72” — I made the same pilgrimage, thinking I might be more welcomed than Sleigh. (I think I remember Sleigh telling me he had come to Snyder empty-handed except for his backpack, sleeping bag, and his own considerable talent as a poet.)

    I was wrong. Snyder threw me out, too.

    About Ginsberg…

    Allen Ginsberg and I shared the same birthday, June 3. When I met Ginsburg at a poetry reading at the Maryland Institute of Art in the late 1970s ( I can’t remember the exact year), I made mention of that factoid to Ginsburg.

    This encounter took place after the poetry reading.

    Ginsburg was sitting on the stage alone, in a half-lotus, very high or very dreamy (I didn’t know which), and sort of lazily playing a harmonium.

    He looked straight at me. Then, in all seriousness, Ginsburg said, “Happy Birthday. Now go and get over it.”

    In all these years, I’ve never quite figured out what Ginsburg meant by “it”.

    Incidentally, Ginsburg was in Baltimore to visit the Berrigan brothers, Ted and Philip, who had started a community of peace activists called the Jonah House, which was located on Mount Royal Avenue in Baltimore.

    The Maryland Institute of Art is also located on Mount Royal Avenue..

    Final note…

    In a June 18, 2011 interview with the “Oregonian”, Snyder sort of alluded to the subject of hero worship.

    “Q: When you do an event, how do people approach you? Do you get the veneration of Gary Snyder?

    “A: I’m not sure what the veneration of Gary Snyder looks like. (laughs)

    “Q: A lot of bowing and crying.

    “A: Well, the Buddhists go like this. (Snyder clasps his hands together and bows.) When people do that, I know they have a Buddhist background. Most people want to have a book signed, or want to have a little talk or a question answered. There’s always a certain number of people I’ve met elsewhere before that I say hello to again. I’m approachable. I don’t make myself unapproachable. I’m not at that level of celebrity where I’ve got to have bodyguards, and I’m glad that I’m not.

    “Q: Are you at the level of celebrity where you do get recognized?

    “A: Oh, rarely. “

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