n 1960, Allen Ginsberg wrote a letter to Timothy Leary, then a professor at Harvard. Leary had invited the poet to Cambridge to participate in his studies of the newly synthesized chemical psilocybin. Ginsberg responded with enthusiasm, then listed his qualifications: LSD in 1959, as a subject in a research study at Stanford University; ayahuasca on a trip to South America the following year; nitrous oxide; ether; mescaline; marijuana; datura; opiates. Part II of “Howl,” he added, was “Peyote writing.” His motivation in all this, he explained, was to recover a lost feeling, a “series of mystical experiences—connected with reading Blake” that he had gone through when he was younger.
Leary’s life has been covered extensively, not least in his own memoirs. Trained as a psychologist, he was forty years old and a professor at Harvard when he went to Mexico, in 1960, and tried psychedelic mushrooms for the first time. He returned to Harvard, placed an order with Sandoz, which then manufactured LSD and psilocybin (the synthetic version of the chemical in the mushrooms), and began the Harvard Psilocybin Project with his colleague Richard Alpert (now known as Ram Dass). The invitation to Ginsberg was one of several overtures by Leary to recruit poets and artists for his experiments. After Ginsberg’s visit to Cambridge, he offered to introduce Leary to interested friends, a group that included the publisher of Grove Books, Barney Rosset, the poets LeRoi Jones (later known Amiri Baraka), Muriel Rukeyser, and Robert Lowell, the painters Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline, and the jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.