QOTD (2010-01-09)

A 1956 letter from Lionel Trilling to Allen Ginsberg, responding to the manuscript of “Howl”:

Dear Allen,

I’m afraid I have to tell you that I don’t like the poems at all. I hesitate before saying that they seem to me quite dull, for to say of a work which undertakes to be violent and shocking that it is dull is, I am aware, a well known and all too easy device. But perhaps you will believe that I am being sincere when I say they are dull. They are not like Whitman—they are all prose, all rhetoric, without any music. What I used to like in your poems, whether I thought they were good or bad, was the voice I heard in them, true and natural and interesting. There is no real voice here. As for the doctrinal element of the poems, apart from the fact that I of course reject it, it seems to me that I heard it very long ago, and that you give it to me in all its orthodoxy, with nothing new added.

Sincerely yours,
Lionel Trilling

Other fun facts to do with Trilling and Ginsberg that I discovered from the annotated edition of Howl edited by Barry Miles: Ginsberg took Trilling’s on Romantic literature and wrote a paper comparing Rimbaud and Keats; Ginsberg wrote in a letter to Richard Eberhart in 1956 that “I suffered too much under Professor Trilling, whom I love, but who is a poor mental fanatic after all and not a free soul”; in 1958 he told John Hollander that Trilling had a “tin ear” for poetry. Gasp!

I am struck by how young Ginsberg seems as he mails “Howl” manuscripts off to famous poets and professors, and then I remember that when he began to write “Howl,” he was only 28. I wonder if when I am 28 I will have already begun work on what people will consider my magnum opus, and I wonder if when I am 28 I will speak with such a naïve tone of self-assurance.

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