Teahead Joyride Neon
Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" Knew Where to Go--And Went
Two provocative assumptions are embedded in the title of the new book The Poem That Changed America: Howl Fifty Years Later. One is the assumption that a poem, any poem, could have any appreciable impact on the United States in its superpower years since World War II. The other is the assumption that Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a work closely associated with a specific time and a small subculture, is the poem that did it.
This book of essays, collected and edited by Jason Shinder, makes a persuasive case on both counts. Poetry, these essayists imply, is where language changes; changes in language lead to changes in thought, and changes in thought lead to changes in behavior. You want examples? They provide many. And Ginsberg not only changed what poetry could talk about—gay sex, drugs, outré religion—but also how poetry could talk. By resurrecting the then-neglected ghost of Walt Whitman and introducing it to the jazz improvisation of Charlie Parker, the prose improvisation of Jack Kerouac, and the New Jersey vernacular of William Carlos Williams, Ginsberg brought a new spontaneity to language and thus to thought and behavior.
But could any poem reach a large enough audience in America to have much impact? Even though Howl, the 1956 book that took its title from the poem, is one of the best-selling poetry volumes of the past half-century, its audience was only a fraction of that for an Elvis Presley song or a Ronald Reagan speech. But older brothers passed the black-and-white City Lights pocket-sized book to younger sisters, high-school senior to high-school freshman, like a secret talisman of a forbidden culture, and it enjoyed a readership beyond its sales numbers and a shelf life beyond the ’50s.
Converts to “Howl” included the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Vaclav Havel, Robert Hunter, Jim Jarmusch, Lou Reed, Czeslaw Milosz, Abbie Hoffman, Patti Smith, Tom Hayden, and Joe Strummer, amplifying the poem’s message beyond its actual readership. Other converts—Amiri Baraka, John Cage, Andrei Codrescu, Rick Moody, Billy Collins, Marge Piercy, Frank Bidart, Luc Sante, and Robert Pinsky—contribute chapters to this book.
What other American poem is instantly recognizable from its opening line? Ginsberg’s “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” is as familiar as Melville’s “Call me Ishmael.” And Ginsberg’s line inevitably raises the reader’s question, A mind can be hysterical, but how can it be starving or naked?
A later line about those same minds who “passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war, who were expelled from the academies for crazy” raises similar questions: How can you hallucinate something as real as Arkansas? Don’t you mean, ‘expelled for being crazy’? By wrenching words out of their usual functions and putting them to new uses, by eliding over other words, by piling up nouns without connectors, “Howl” creates a fast, jarring diction that shakes old habits and demands answers.
The typical essay in Shinder’s book begins with the memory of a first shocking “Howl” encounter as a teenager, the thrill of the unconventional, unapologetic language, and the liberating notion that there were others out there in America who were also some combination of gay, Jewish, pacifist, promiscuous, restless, harassed, weird, wired, poetic, and/or neurotic.
Then the essay traces how the author and those others lost their embarrassment at such adjectives and thus planted the seeds of gay liberation (Bob Rosenthal’s essay), the hippie movement (Sven Birkerts’), the anti-war movement (Eliot Katz’s), Eastern Europe’s Velvet Revolution (Codrescu’s), the punk movement (Moody’s), and Jewish assertion (Alicia Ostriker’s). Finally the essay revisits “Howl” after a long absence and discovers that the poem is still as shocking, thrilling, and liberating as it was in the author’s youth, even if for somewhat different reasons.
Revisiting “Howl” later in life does makes it easier to understand, both because of life experience and because the culture has absorbed its style and subject matter. But it’s still shocking, not only for its naive embrace of heroin, anonymous sex, and crackpot religion, but also for the language that feels as fast and jarring as ever.
A rereading reveals that “Howl” is more political than remembered. Who’s responsible for driving the best minds hysterical and naked? The poem’s second section answers:
When Ginsberg calls for the yet-to-be-convened fifth international, he’s calling for a reconciliation between democratic-socialist politics and personal-liberation poetics, and the New Left of the ’60s was in many ways a response to that invitation. Because Ginsberg could complement his interior poetry with an external politics, he was able to outlive his youth in a way that the apolitical Kerouac never could.
“Howl” is also much funnier than remembered, too. If you listen to a 1956 recording of Ginsberg reading the poem on the Rhino Records box set Holy Soul Jelly Roll, you’re struck by how often the audience laughs at lines like “who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were growing old and cried.” The playful wit throughout “Howl” doesn’t undermine the horrific descriptions but rather sharpens them.
But most of all, revisiting “Howl” reminds you that it’s first and foremost a great poem. The academic critics Marjorie Perloff and Robert Polito and the poets Frank Bidart and Alicia Ostriker take a close look at the poem’s mechanics and reveal that, far from being a slapdash, impromptu wail, “Howl” is a smartly assembled bit of oratory, a carefully revised poem that drew from the past even as it was, in Billy Collins’ words, blowing up the past like a “hand grenade that bounced into the house of formalism.” It’s great writing, which is why it can still be read today and still go on changing America.