The Poem That Changed America: Howl Fifty Years Laterby Jason Shinder (Editor)
A tribute to Ginsberg's signature work, which stirred a generation of angel-headed hipsters to cultural rebellion.
In 1956, City Lights, a small San Francisco bookstore, published Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems with its trademark black-and-white cover. The original edition cost seventy-five cents, but there was something priceless about its/i>/b>
A tribute to Ginsberg's signature work, which stirred a generation of angel-headed hipsters to cultural rebellion.
In 1956, City Lights, a small San Francisco bookstore, published Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems with its trademark black-and-white cover. The original edition cost seventy-five cents, but there was something priceless about its eponymous piece. Although it gave a voice to the new generation that came of age in the conservative years following World War II, the poem also conferred a strange, subversive power that continues to exert its influence to this day. Ginsberg went on to become one of the most eminent and celebrated writers of the second half of the twentieth century, and "Howl" became the critical axis of the worldwide literary, cultural, and political movement that would be known as the Beat generation.
The year 2006 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of "Howl," and The Poem That Changed America will celebrate and shed new light on this profound cultural work. With new essays by many of today's most distinguished writers, including Frank Bidart, Andrei Codrescu, Vivian Gornick, Phillip Lopate, Daphne Merkin, Rick Moody, Robert Pinsky, and Luc Sante, The Poem That Changed America reveals the pioneering influence of "Howl" down through the decades and its powerful resonance today.
The Washington Post
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THE POEM THAT CHANGED AMERICA"HOWL" FIFTY YEARS LATER
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUXCopyright © 2006 Jason Shinder
All right reserved.
Chapter OneVIVIAN GORNICK
WILD AT HEART
* * *
In 1947 Saul Bellow published a novel called The Victim, in which a derelict character named Kirby Allbee haunts another named Asa Leventhal, claiming that Leventhal is responsible for his downfall. Kirby, one of Bellow's fabled fast talkers-all feverish self-abasement and joking insult-repeatedly baits Leventhal, and at one point, when Leventhal murmurs something about Walt Whitman, says to him, "Whitman? You people like Whitman? What does Whitman mean to you people?" Who could ever have dreamed that less than a decade after the publication of The Victim not only would "you people" be announcing out loud that they liked Whitman but it would appear that they themselves had reincarnated him. The day after Allen Ginsberg's celebrated 1955 reading of "Howl" in San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram that read, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career"-the sentence Emerson had used writing to Whitman upon the publication, exactly a hundred years earlier, of Leaves of Grass. Fifty years later, I think it can safely be agreed that Allen Ginsberg is the poet who, within living memory, most legitimately resembles Whitman. He, like Whitman, wrote anemblematic American poem that became world famous; was experienced preeminently as a poet of the people, at home among the democratic masses; developed a public persona to match the one in his writing-hugely free-spirited and self-promoting, an openhearted exhibitionist. And he, again like Whitman, is remembered as a man in possession of an extraordinary sweetness that, throughout his life, welled up repeatedly to astonish the hearts of all who encountered him. I met Ginsberg only twice, the first time at Jack Kerouac's funeral in 1969. I was there for The Village Voice. It was my very first assignment as a working journalist. Here is the scene as I remember it: At the head of the viewing room stood the casket with Kerouac, hideously made up, lying in it. In the mourners' seats sat Kerouac's middle-class French-Canadian relatives-eyes narrowed, faces florid, arms crossed on their disapproving breasts. Around the casket-dipping, weaving, chanting Om-were Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso. Then there was Kerouac's final, caretaker wife, a woman old enough to be his mother, weeping bitterly and looking strangely isolated. I sat mesmerized, staring in all directions. Suddenly Ginsberg was sitting beside me. "And who are you?" he asked quietly. I told him who I was. He nodded and wondered if I was talking to people. Especially the wife. I must be sure to talk to her. "Oh, no," I said quickly. "I couldn't do that." Ginsberg nodded into space for a moment. "You must," he murmured. Then he looked directly into my eyes. "It's your job," he said softly. "You must do your job." The second time we met, nearly twenty years later, was at an infamous meeting of the PEN board called to debate a letter (drafted by Ginsberg) that the Freedom-to-Write Committee had sent to Israel's premier, taking his government to task for censoring Palestinian and Israeli journalists. I sat in my seat, listening to Ginsberg read his letter aloud to a packed room. He was now in his sixties, his head bald, his beard trim, wearing an ill-fitting black suit, the voice as gentle as I remembered it and twice as dignified. Although the letter had been signed by Susan Sontag, William Styron, and Grace Paley among others, it was Ginsberg himself who drew fire from the opposition. In a communiqué that had been sent earlier to the committee, Cynthia Ozick had practically accused him of being an agent for the PLO; and now, the essence of the charge coming from the floor seemed to be "It's people like you who are destroying Israel." I remember Ginsberg standing there, his glasses shining, nodding in all directions, urging people toward compassionate reason. He never raised his voice, never spoke with heat or animosity, never stopped sounding thoughtful and judicious while all about him were losing their heads. When he stepped from the microphone and was making his way through the crowd, I pressed his hand as he passed me and thanked him for the excellence of the letter's prose. He stopped, closed his other hand over mine, and looking directly into my eyes, said softly, "I know you. Don't I know you? I know you." Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926 to Louis and Naomi Ginsberg; the father was a published poet, a high school teacher, and a socialist; the mother, an enchanting free spirit, a passionate communist, and a woman who lost her mental stability in her thirties (ultimately, she was placed in an institution and lobotomized). Allen and his brother grew up inside a chaotic mixture of striving respectability, left-wing bohemianism, and certifiable madness in the living room. It all felt large to the complicated, oversensitive boy who, discovering that he lusted after boys, began to feel mad himself and, like his paranoid parents, threatened by, yet defiant of, the America beyond the front door. None of this accounts for Allen Ginsberg; it only describes the raw material that, when the time was right, would convert into a poetic vision of mythic proportion that merged brilliantly with its moment: the complicated aftermath of the Second World War, characterized by anxiety about the atomic bomb, a manipulated terror of godless Communism, the strange pathos of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and the subterranean currents of romanticized lawlessness into which the men and women ultimately known as the Beats would funnel an old American devotion to the idea of revolutionary individualism. When Ginsberg entered Columbia University in 1942, he was already possessed of a presentation of self, shall we say, that would make it impossible for him to gain the love of the teachers he most admired, namely, Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren. (Trilling memorialized Ginsberg in his short story "Of This Time, of That Place" as the brilliant student whom the narrating academic can experience only as mad). Emulating these men would mean going into a kind of internal exile that Allen, even then, knew he could not sustain. His dilemma seemed profound. Then he met Jack Kerouac, also a student at Columbia. Through Kerouac he met William Burroughs; together they picked up a Times Square junkie poet named Herbert Huncke; and after that Neal Cassady, the wild man of all their dreams: a handsome, grown-up delinquent who drank, stole, read Nietzsche, fucked like a machine, and drove great distances at great speeds for the sake of movement itself. As Burroughs put it, "Wife and child may starve, friends exist only to exploit for gas money ... Neal must move." (Cassady became Dean Moriarty in On the Road and the Adonis of Denver in "Howl.") For Ginsberg, these friends came to constitute a sacred company of inspired madmen destined to convert the poisoned atmosphere of America's Cold War politics into one of restored beauty-through their writing. The conviction among them of literary destiny was powerful. And why not? People like Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Cassady are born every hour on the hour: how often do their lives intersect with a political moment that endows their timeless hungers with the echoing response of millions, thereby persuading them that they are, indeed, emissaries of social salvation? What is remarkable among this bunch-considering how much they drank, got stoned, and flung themselves across the country in search of heavenly despair-is how well they sustained one another throughout their faltering twenties, when life was all worldly rejection and self-dramatizing desperation. In 1949, now twenty-three years old, depressed, and at loose ends, Ginsberg let Herbert Huncke-a true criminal-crash at his apartment, where Huncke proceeded to stash an ever-increasing amount of stolen goods. Inevitably, the police appeared at the door, and everyone was arrested. Rescued from a prison sentence by friends, family, and his Columbia teachers, Ginsberg was sent to the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where he spent eight months that did, indeed, change his life. Here he met the man to whom he would dedicate "Howl." Carl Solomon was Allen's double-a Bronx-born bisexual self-dramatizing left-wing intellectual. They saw themselves in each other almost immediately. Solomon held out his hand and said, "I'm Kirilov" (a character in Dostoevsky's The Possessed). Allen responded, "I'm Myshkin" (Dostoevsky's fabled idiot). There was, however, one important difference between them. Solomon had lived in Paris, was soaked in existentialist politics and literature; and here, at New York State Psychiatric, he introduced Allen to the work of Genet, Artaud, and Céline, the mad writers with whom he instantly felt at one. Ginsberg marveled at Solomon's melancholy brilliance and proceeded to mythicize it. If Carl was mad, it could only be that Amerika had driven him mad. When Ginsberg emerged from the institution, he had his metaphor in place:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.
For the next few years he wandered, all over the country and halfway around the world, becoming a practicing Buddhist along the way. Arrived at last in San Francisco in 1954 (with Kerouac, Cassady, and Corso dancing about him), here and now, in the American city experienced as most open (that is, farthest from the seats of eastern power), he wrote his great poem, read it aloud one night in October 1955-and awoke to find himself famous. While thousands of young people responded to "Howl" as though they'd been waiting years to hear this voice speaking these words, the literary establishment promptly vilified it. Lionel Trilling hated the poem, John Hollander hated it, James Dickey hated it, and Norman Podhoretz hated it. Podhoretz hated it so much that he wrote about it twice, once in The New Republic and then again in Partisan Review. By the time these pieces were being written, On the Road had been published, as well as Naked Lunch, and for Podhoretz the American sky was falling. The Beats, he said, were the barbarians at the gate, rabblerousers who "embraced homosexuality, jazz, dope-addiction and vagrancy" (he got that part right), at one with "the young savages in leather jackets who have been running amuck in the last few years with their switch-blades and zip guns." Jack Kerouac was cut to the quick and wrote to complain that the Beats were about beatitude, not criminalism; they were here to rescue America (from corporate death and atomic bomb politics), not destroy her. In the summer of 1957, "Howl" was brought to trial in San Francisco on charges of obscenity, with a wealth of writers testifying on behalf of the poem's literary value. In retrospect, the trial can be seen as an opening shot in a culture war destined to throw long shadows across American life. And indeed, throughout the sixties, both the poem and its author were celebrated, the former as a manifesto of the counterculture, the latter as one of its emblematic figures. Today, nearly fifty years after it was written, "Howl" is never out of print, is read all over the world (it's been translated into more than two dozen languages), and by most standards is considered a literary classic. Like Leaves of Grass, it is an ingenious experiment with the American language that did what Ezra Pound said a great poem should do: make the language new. Its staccato phrasing, its mad juxtapositions and compacted images, its remarkable combining of the vernacular with the formal-obscene, slangy, religious, transcendent, speaking now in the voice of the poet, now in that of the hipster-is simply an astonishment. The effect of all this on the reader? "Even today," as Jonah Raskin, one of Ginsberg's biographers, says, "reading the poem yields a feeling of intoxication. The words produce an electrical charge that is exhilarating." That charge is actually the discharge of a man and a time well met. There is a feverish hunger for poetry and glory in Ginsberg as he moves through the late forties that is absolutely at one with his political and cultural moment. Prowling the streets of New York as if it were Dostoevsky's Petersburg; rising in an English class at Columbia to terrify students and teachers alike with some brilliant, unpunctuated rant; looking for sex in Times Square; seeing Blake in a vision in his own kitchen; nodding wordlessly when the cops ask him if he is a homosexual-we have a vivid figure standing squarely in the foreground of significant disconnect. Yet, we can also see why Ginsberg could survive his own youth to become an emblematic figure of growth and change while Kerouac and Cassady could not. Neal Cassady was a drifter through and through. To read his letters-although the ones to his writer friends are richly literate-is to see a man perpetually on the run from himself. It was all drugs, drink, women, and motion without a stop. He is forever in the car hurtling toward New York, Denver, or California. If he stops, it's to get one woman pregnant, marry a second, start an affair with a third, all in what feels like the space of a month; then it's back in the car, writing to each one, "I'll be home in a week, babe, ten days at the latest." Kerouac, except for the books, was not so very different. Neither of these men could inhabit the space he actually occupied at any given moment. Each had a leak somewhere in the middle of himself that made experience drain exhaustingly away (both were dead in their forties). Ginsberg, by contrast, was remarkably heart-whole: it made all the difference. His experience nourished him, gave him the strength to complete the self-transformation he had been bent on from the beginning. I don't think it an exaggeration to say that when he died at seventy his life had given new meaning to the word "self-created." For the formal poets and critics of his own generation, Ginsberg would remain only an original: the gifted, problematic amateur (in 1963 Robert Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop "the beats have blown away, the professionals have returned"). For the American culture, however, Ginsberg (indeed, like Walt Whitman) had become an inspirited incarnation: the authentic made-in-America holy fool.
Chapter TwoMARK DOTY
HUMAN SERAPHIM: "HOWL," SEX, AND HOLINESS
* * *
The university in my town was a place of cultural and political foment, and three thousand people packed the auditorium-the biggest one at the University of Arizona-to hear chants and rants and ecstatic outpourings. I was still in high school; everyone I knew who wrote poetry or was passionate about social change-that is, everyone cool from Rincon High-was there, and we weren't disappointed. The small figure on the huge stage seemed to loom larger, not in a threatening or puffed-up way but in an intimate one, as if he were a grand, available personality becoming more available as he squeezed the harmonium and sang Blake, and hopped a little, and spoke rhythmically and passionately into the mic. I don't know that I've heard a more responsive audience at a poetry reading since; people clapped and laughed and shouted approval. When Allen Ginsberg mentioned "one sugarcube of lysergic acid diethylamide smuggled" across some border, the crowd sent up a wave of cheers; when he read the line "It'll be a relief when the Red Chinese take over Texas," there was a huge outcry of delight. The next day, at a bookstore called The Hungry Eye, I went to hear him again-this time Allen and Peter chanting together, making the narrow room of bodies reverberate. It was 1969, and a sort of heaven. I didn't hear Ginsberg again for a decade. In Indianola, Iowa, at Simpson College, his reading was sponsored, who knows why, by one of the school's fraternities. It couldn't have been a more different scene: the audience was tastefully respectful; the poet read some of the short, sonorous, sorrowful lyrics about his father's illness, and afterward there was a party at the fraternity house. I was both looking forward to and feeling a bit shy about meeting this legendary presence, but I needn't have worried. A good twenty minutes into the party, Allen disappeared upstairs with a young fraternity member who wanted to show him some poems, and he never came back the rest of the evening. (Continues...)
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Meet the Author
Jason Shinder's most recent collection of poetry is Among Women. He is co-editing the letters between Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and teaches in The Writing Seminars at Bennington College.
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