Among the freshmen enrolled in Lionel Trilling’s “Great Books” course at Columbia in 1944 was a young Allen Ginsberg. The two would go on to share a “lifelong friendship that was also a mortal combat—over literature and politics, morality and maturity, liberalism and radicalism.”
September 4, 1945, Sheepshead Bay
Dear Prof. Trilling:
I am sorry I have waited so long before replying to your letter—which was very kind —but I have been confined to the base hospital here with pneumonia in my chest for the past few weeks.
Thank you for your criticism of [my] poem with the portentous title. I must admit that it pleased me to read all those nice things you wrote about it, but to tell the truth I have only a hazy idea of what you mean by ‘the voice and its tone’, which you admire in poetry. As for rhyme, I usually try to make an extremely loose rhyme do if necessary where I can and find one that fits, and that I have no compunction about this because I’m increasingly pleased by the effect of the sort of ‘muted’ rhymes of Auden and cummings. So I would rhyme ‘touched’ and ‘watched’ and ‘flesh’ and ‘death’ or even ‘birth’ and ‘death’—to use some more obvious situations. I wasn’t aware of Shelley while writing, though I aimed at a violent semi-cerebral rhetoric. I found a copy of Shelley here (incidentally I have been reading War and Peace during by convalescence, with great pleasure) and on re-reading Mont Blanc I found the language much akin to my own desire.
That you are unable to understand why I make so much of Rimbaud, dismays me somewhat. Though I should dislike to be over bumptious about it, with your kind permission I must witness his defense. I fear that since you have read Rougemont’s Partie du Diable you possibly approach Rimbaud viewing him as another eccentric French Satanist somewhat in a class with Maldoror, fit to be the prophet of the Mexican Hashish Surrealist Quarterly. […]
I would say that, to his credit, he surpassed the more highly advertised and shallow spiritual struggles of Baudelaire-Dandyism and diabolism as puerile reactions of the puritan temper to the “vulgar complacency” of the times. I think of Rimbaud as a hero in the sense of having a violent, varied—and finally mature—response to a fairly representative social situation. Not that of a provincial 19th Century Frenchman, that of a Western man. He was flexible enough to change his ideas to correspond to his experiences, and in consequence ran the gamut of political, religious, rationalistic, and esthetic visions and verdicts that have attacked the significant figures of modern poetry. I approve of Rimbaud because unlike the heroes of the Columbia Bookstore, he survived and mastered these visions, and rose above them to a solution to the “problems” of our time which as yet our writers are first discovering. […]
In the period of the early Season in Hell Rimbaud felt out his culture—his Charleville and his Paris—and analyzed it, in more primitive terms, to the same effect that Freud and Spengler later did. He went deeper than the reformism of Butler, the ivory tower amorality of Mallarme, dug deeper for faith than Dedalus did in finding himself in art. […]
He presents by implication and statement the sociological, not the abstractly ethical, “spiritual” problems of his time. His struggle concerns not merely the unpoetic machine versus faith, which is naïve; nor individual power versus collective boorishness, as in Nietzschean anarchy; he presents not diffused evils to be conquered, or wicked individuals to be curbed, or heroes to emerge, and dragons to be killed – but he knows a complex anthropological unit in what appears to him to be in a state of cachexy – a whole syndrome of ills adumbrating a cultural decline.
He fixes the symptoms somewhat in Freudian terms as the conflict between the anarchic impulses of the individual psyche and its needs, and the more of a categorized, protestant civilization which is crippled because it conceives of pleasure as evil. He is interested in types representative of a neurotic culture, one ridden with anxiety and tension, the civilization of the false passport, insecure, confused, in sum chaotic. […]
The Civilization, as he and most others seem to agree, offers no hope of personal salvation, no vital activity, no way of life within its accepted structure. His creative powers are not realized in the usual activities of the citizen—at the machine, in the office. Realizing that art was an escape—and merely an escape, a fool’s paradise, a Dedalusian ivory tower—and admittedly so, considering the myths of the wound (Cocteau’s) or the Wound and the Bow (Wilson’s) which represent art as compensation for creative activity in life—Rimbaud amputated the wound and cast off the bow, and went to Africa. This was the exodus from society not into the futile exile of the artist, but into living salvation in the land of the primitive, unrestricted, uninhibited. And he embarked to a rigorously active public life as gun-runner and slave trader.
With Rimbaud as catalyst the problems that supposedly beset the sensitive youth of the day are crystallized realistically for the first time I think. And so I look to him as “prophet” of the present literary concern with anthropology and psychoanalysis, the shift in vision of society from the simple idealism of Sinclair Lewis to the complicated, half hidden Spenglerian Weltanschauung of O’Hara, and, I predict, the whole crop of post World War II writers. Whether or not his pessimism prevails, his idée, his sociological approach rather than moral, has already prevailed. […]
I see I have written a great deal and I have said nothing about his poetry as poetry. Season in Hell seems to me the most individually expressive poetry I have run across—more than any poet, I can understand the personality—half childish, half sardonic, somewhat sentimental, furious, jealously personal and strikingly dispassionate—from the poetry. I mean, it is so compressed and flexible that it contains whole visions in a single line. To me it is pretty clearly the work of genius, and so despite your lack of enthusiasm I continue to admire Rimbaud unabashedly. […]
I had wished to send you some poems, but I am confined to my bed out of reach of a typewriter. Everything with me is in hand manuscript form. I hope I have not tried your patience with this letter, for it is rather long; but my chiefest pleasure now, unlike Hans Castorp, is to communicate with the outside world from the Magic Mountain.
For a 1975 audio recording of Ginsberg leading a college seminar on Rimbaud, click here.
For a partial transcript of the seminar, click here.
Excerpted from The Letters of Allen Ginsburg, edited by Bill Morgan, published by Da Capo Press (2008). Letter © The Allen Ginsburg Trust.