Dec. 29, 2010

A Short Testament

by Anne Porter

Whatever harm I may have done
In all my life in all your wide creation
If I cannot repair it
I beg you to repair it,

And then there are all the wounded
The poor the deaf the lonely and the old
Whom I have roughly dismissed
As if I were not one of them.
Where I have wronged them by it
And cannot make amends
I ask you
To comfort them to overflowing,

And where there are lives I may have withered around me,
Or lives of strangers far or near
That I've destroyed in blind complicity,
And if I cannot find them
Or have no way to serve them,

Remember them. I beg you to remember them

When winter is over
And all your unimaginable promises
Burst into song on death's bare branches.

"A Short Testament" by Anne Porter, from Living Things. © Zoland Books. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1961 Beat poets Allen Ginsberg (books by this author) and Gary Snyder (books by this author) were trying to find a way to meet up with each other in India so that they could embark on an epic overland voyage together. It was before long distance phone calls were cheap, and so the poets had to coordinate their plans en route to each other through a series of handwritten letters --- sent ahead to tentative transit stopover destinations --- and hope for the best.

Gary Snyder was leaving from Japan, where he’d been studying Buddhist meditation. Ginsberg had been on the road for the past half year, and already made stops in Morocco, Greece, and Israel. The entertaining letters exchanged during the course of their precarious planning by the two poets --- one already a Pulitzer Prize winner, one a future Pulitzer Prize winner --- reveal a lot about these Beat leaders’ creative processes, ideas about spiritualism, and sense of adventure. The letters are collected in a recent volume edited by Bill Morgan: The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, 1956-1991 (2009).

In September 1961, Snyder wrote from Kyoto:
“Our plan at present is to leave Japan on Messageries Maritimes ship, Cambodge, about 12 December, arrive Bombay 31 December. Stay in India three or more months, depending on how money holds out. Return from Colombo also via Messageries Maritimes, visit monuments, ashrams, a few people, and try and see some Tibetan Buddhist practice in Nepal, Gangtok, or Sikkim.” He wrote about the possibility of doing poetry readings in India help cover the cost of traveling expenses, and asked Ginsberg if he wanted to join.

But the next month Snyder wrote he’d changed his plans after “studying the weather tables” ; the new plan was to disembark down south in Ceylon on this day in 1961, December 29, and then head north to Calcutta. He wrote that the Bodhi tree where Buddha attained enlightenment was a must-see. He told Ginsberg he wanted to “commune with the Himalaya even from relatively far if needs be.”

He had plenty of logistical advice for Ginsberg, telling him: “You got to take water purifier tablets (halazone) and plan to eat lots of bananas and yoghurt, they’re always safe. Never stay in a hotel. Railway stations usually have rooms you can sleep in. . . . Apply for visa early. . . . Get cholera shot and diarrhea medicine. God is close to dirt in India they say.”

Ginsberg wrote back from Athens that he was thinking of traveling overland through Iran to get to India. In October, he wrote that he was stranded in Israel, strapped for cash and hoping to find a free boat from the Red Sea to take to India, but that Arab-Israel boycotts were messing up the ship traffic. He warned that he may have to detour through Djibouti or Bahrain. In early December he wrote that he was still stuck in Israel, hoping that Playboy Magazine would send him $500 soon so that he could catch a plane. Five days before Christmas, he was still stuck in Israel. He wrote:
“Dear Gary:
Things have been stupidly jinxed here for weeks, I’m stuck like a flypaper in this dreary join. Can’t get thru Arab states overland without extensive passport hassles and trips to Istanbul; can’t get boat out of Southern Israeli port of Eilat. Waiting for money and maybe fly to Teheran or Even India. I’ll be late! Alas!”

Then, on this day in 1961, Gary Snyder wrote:
“Dear Allen, We got here cool and easy yesterday---sorry to see your immovability. We’d hop’d to see you sooner. . . . We’re staying at the “British Soldiers and Sailors Institute.” Which takes couples and is very cheap. Next door to YMCA. Went to great zoo and less impressive Buddhist temple today. Leave day after tomorrow . . . for Kandy . . . . Try and buy your Indian rupees on the local black market, not at banks. . . . But be careful moneychangers give you full count. The Buddha didn’t use money thank God. . . . Ceylon is lovely and cool and green.”

Finally, after dozens of letters and months of planning, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder found each other in Delhi, India. It was February, several weeks after their initially planned meetup date. They traveled around India together for two months. Then Gary Snyder went back to Japan to resume Buddhist studies, and Ginsberg settled in India for more than a year.

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1916 that James Joyce (books by this author) published his first novel: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce had tried to write the same story in several forms before. In 1904, he wrote an autobiographical essay, but it was rejected. When he got the rejection letter, he sat down at his kitchen table and sketched out a plan to expand the essay into a novel, and within a year, he had written 900 pages of a book about a character named Stephen Dedalus, entitled Stephen Hero.

Then he left Ireland, started teaching English for almost no money, and was trying to support his family. He found it harder and harder to finish his novel. So he decided to write short stories instead, and he wrote a collection called Dubliners. A publisher in London accepted it, but then the publisher asked him to clean up some of his language. He did that, but then the publisher wanted the subject matter changed, then an entire story removed, and finally Joyce refused.

So Joyce decided to return to his novel. But he didn't like it anymore. He thought it was too conventional. So he started from scratch, and he re-titled it A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Joyce had spent nearly 10 years trying to get his fiction published, and then, in 1913, he received two letters — one from a publisher who wanted to reconsider publishing Dubliners, and a second from Ezra Pound, who was looking for new fiction to publish in a magazine. Dubliners was published in 1914, and Pound published a serial version of A Portrait of the Artist. The complete novel came out on this day in 1916, with its famous first line: "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo."

The novel ends with Stephen Dedalus as a young man, vowing to leave Ireland and to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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