Some writers burn their letters. This is easier said than done since letters go out to other people and must be gotten back first. In some cases, this involves thousands of people one doesn't even remember having written letters to. The letters one remembers having written are probably to people who matter and are, in some ways, of less interest since Literature lurks behind them. For the most part, writers' letters are about money, The Work, and money. It is sometimes depressing to read endless pleas for chump change from friends, publishers and admirers, but it is also amusing and instructive.
Here is Gregory Corso, poet, free spirit and notorious moocher, writing from New York in 1959 to Willis Barnstone: "I want to get out of this Woody Woodpecker cartoon; can your Wesleyan give me 200 dollars? Do I sound like I won't read but for loot? No. It's just that I want to get away, and I'll probably get the money from somebody; under the threat of madness etc., etc."
To us, later voyeurs, this is interesting: firstly, "200 dollars" was a lot for a poetry reading in 1959; secondly, Corso feels (or feigns feeling) bad about asking for money (shades of erroneous romantic hangover that "poetry should be free"); and thirdly, the money is not for anything frivolous like, let's say, drugs or food, but for the purpose of getting out of New ("Woody Woodpecker") York, a place that no longer suits the poet. The unquestioned assumption here is that the poet must move in search of new inspiration as soon as it dries out.
In 1962, from Paris, Corso writes to Judith Schmidt: "Two things, first the check you said you sent to American Express Paris never arrived. Maybe American Express doing me in after that book I wrote?" We find here the unquestioned assumption evolved into full-blown paranoia, though still tinged with a tiny streak of humor. The poet is no longer being faux-delicate about his needs; he now blames the vast conspiracy of rich philistines, the duplicity and jealousy of colleagues and friends, and the occult power of poetry, all of them embodied in the American Express office.
Outside of money, Corso's letters, like those of other poets, are about The Work, its creation and its disposition. To Allen Ginsberg in 1958, from Paris: "I finished BOMB poem -- had much difficulty, pain, thought, for ending. Could have ended it with light or profundity, or humor, or bitterness. I choose the latter because deep in me it's the way I feel -- someday perhaps the light, but as for now -- no." Immediately followed by, "George Whitman will print it up in his new job as publisher, mine will be the first (scroll) yours the second." Note all the italicized words: they cover the Work inside-out, from conception to publication. And he slyly manages to claim first place in a group mythology that has Ginsberg second (my italic).
In the lives of poets, money goes from "I need it because I'm great," to "You owe it to me because I'm great." Work also follows a well-established trajectory from the context-defining ruminations of youth (establishing poetic family; solidifying poet gang; laying poetic foundation to the art of Love, Liberty, and the Pursuit of the Absolute) to the embittered (or ecstatic) consideration of immediate surrounding (the only life there is) and the defense of choices made for deeply disturbing reasons.
This spring, New Directions will publish An Accidental Biography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso, edited and with an introduction by Bill Morgan, preface by Patti Smith.