Allen Ginsberg argues with W.H. Auden

April – National Poetry Month  Day 4

Tomorrow, April 5, is the 20th anniversary of the death of my friend, American poet Allen Ginsberg (1926- April 5, 1997).  I thought Allen deserves more than one day of celebration during America’s national poetry month, so before posting a poem or two of Allen’s tomorrow, I give you one of his letters to his father, poet and poetry teacher Louis Ginsberg. 

Allen Ginsberg to Louis Ginsberg

Ischia (Italy)

September 1, 1957

Dear Louis:

By the time you get this I’ll be back in Venice, probably preparing to start off for Paris, via Vienna- stop off there a few days. Not seen any mail for over a week, since I been traveling. As I think I wrote, Time mag. called up for an interview from Rome, and as they were summer vacation short-handed they readily agreed to my proposition that they pay my way down there & they gave me two days living expenses (35 dollars) as well as plane ticket round trip. I’ve stretched the money out for ten days already and came down further to Naples — went to museums, saw large collection of Pompeilian [sic] art in the Naples museum, including a whole roomful of interesting & sometimes beautiful Pompeilian pornography. Also walked a lot around Naples which is a beautifully situated city — slums honeycombed onto steep hills that come down to high waterfront rich boulevards and a great blue wide bay overlooking Capri a few miles out, and overlooked by vast slope of Mr. Vesuvius. The second day here I climbed up Vesuvius & spent an hour looking at steam coming out of the rocks in the walls of the great crater on top; and then slid & walked down the side thru pulverized lava sand & down lava fields into beautiful grape growing country (picking & eating delicious blue grapes along the road) and down further to the Bay of Naples and the ruins of Pompeii — spent the end of the afternoon walking thru those deserted & strange streets. Still quite a bit of statuary and painting left there including a lot of naked Venuses & satyrs & drunken Bacchuses, mythological figures all over the walls, including a set of priapic illustrations in a ruined ancient bordello. I stayed over in Naples at the youth hostel, very cheap & charming collection of traveling young Germans & South Africans & 2 motorcycling Vietnamese. Then took boat to Capri & spent day walking around steep cliffs overlooking azure sea and also went swimming. Stayed overnight, in hostel, very cheap, & drank fresh milk & made cheese & salami sandwiches & ate tomatoes so I dropped very little money there, tho hostel & restaurant prices are high. Then took early morning boat back to Naples & railroad for an hour up the coast & by foot for 4 miles into the country by more grapefields & lakes, to the ruins of Cuma — site of the Caves of Cumaen Sybil — one of the most beautiful and least visited of the local archeological sites — high dark echoey caves underground stairways and passages, a whole hill honeycombed with dark prophetic rooms, and on top of the hill a calm shady broken temple where I ate picnic lunch alone & took a nap. Then returned to a small town near Bay of Baia (“Lulled by the crystalline streams of Baia’s bay” – Ode to West Wind?) called Pozzuoli and took another cheap fisher ferry boat thru Baia Bay to Isle of Ischia, where Auden has settled every summer for past l0 years. It’s a big (15 miles circumference) island with several cities, blue Mediterranean sky & clear bright sun showering on the translucent azure-type water. Found a hostel here, spent last evening arguing furiously & angrily with Auden on the merits of Whitman at a cafe table in “Marie’s Bar” in town of Forio, outdoors under grapevines drank a lot of wine, woke this morning, had breakfast (huge peach, half quart of milk & large sugarbun) and went swimming. Yesterday also took buses around the island and climbed Mt. Epomeo, which is in the center of it, a high rough craggy mount, ex volcano, with white spurs of wind worn rock jutting out crazily on top. More German tourists all over, afoot & on donkeys. This island very interesting, since it has great variety of landscape, mountain-scape, seascape, & cliffs, little peninsular mountains, and every type of civilization from grape-peasants living in caves to hut dwellers, fishermen & strange English high society types wandering around in red shorts & sunglasses. Mostly it is an Italian resort island, contrasting with Capri which is famously international. I’ll leave here tomorrow morning (Monday) on 5AM boat, catch Naples-Rome train, be in Rome by noon, catch plane that afternoon and arrive in Venice early tomorrow evening. Now sitting in the afternoon, relaxing with lemonade in shady cafe table, writing letters, everything very slow & calm — I’ve been on my feet most of the time till today, tramping, strolling & climbing.

Auden stays in all day & comes out to cafe in evening & sits with a tablefull of dull chatty literary old fairies & they seem to vie with each other in making deprecatory home-made sophisticated small talk. I tackled the whole table on the Whitman issue & wound up tipsy calling them a bunch of shits — Auden seems to have a longwinded rationalistic approach to his opinions — I doubt if he respects his own feelings anymore — I think his long sexual history has been relatively unfortunate and made him very orthodox and conservative and merciless in an offhand way — he sounds like an intelligent Time magazine talking. [Alan] Ansen has the same peculiarity — approaching such questions as capital punishment and literary censorship as if they were complicated bureaucratic problems in which they have no right to have private feelings but only series of factual logical considerations — a sort of fetish of objectivity — which strikes me as no objectivity at all but a sort of abject distrust of people & their own lives. I quoted the first line of Whitman, “I celebrate myself,” etc., and Auden said, “O but my dear! that’s so wrong and so shameless, it’s an utterly bad line — when I hear that I feel I must say please don’t include me” (re — “what I shall assume you shall assume”) — said that he was an orthodox Englishman, not a democrat (in this context).  It all boils down to some sort of reactionary mystique of original sin. Auden is a great poet but he seems old in vain if he’s learned no wildness from life — sort of a Wordsworthian camp. Said he “immensely disliked” Shelley. He thought my own book was “full of the author feeling sorry for himself” and saw no vitality or beauty beyond that as far as I could see. All this gives me the conviction, or strengthens the conviction I have had, that the republic of poetry needs a full-scale revolution and upsetting of “values” (and a return to a kind of imagination of life in Whitman’s Democratic Vistas that I’ve been reading in Venice). In all this scene, with the great names like Auden & Marianne Moore trying to be conservative, and Eliot ambiguous & Pound partly nuts, [William Carlos] Williams stands out as the only beautiful soul among the great poets who has tearfully clung to his humanity and has survived as a man to bequeath in America some semblance of the heritage of spiritual democracy in indestructible individuality — heritage established and handed down by Whitman & perhaps Emerson, I don’t know I never read him. Hart Crane seems like the only other live soul — he too generally described by academicians [as] improper, sloppy, or immature. But I think they struggled toward freedom with great knowledge & in great solitude. Auden thought Whitman “dishonest” for writing an anonymous review of his own work. I think it wd. improve Auden’s present lax poetry if he had to return to such anonymity. Well, I’ve filled out four pages & so will close & mail this. Wrote p.card from Capri.



from Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and a Son. Allen and Louis Ginsberg.

Edited and with an introduction by Michael Schumacher (2001) Bloomsbury: New York & London.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information address Bloomsbury, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.,%20Allen%20-%20Family%20Business%20(Bloomsbury,%202001).pdf


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