The Paradox of Howl

The anti-establishment poem’s debt to the established past.

"Howl" Fifty Years Later by Jason Shinder
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”: Few lines or phrases by any American poet retain the iconic status of those first few clauses of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. Composed in a frenzy (and then painstakingly revised) in 1955, published in 1956, this poem of mental hospitals, jails, secret and overt gay sex, drug-taking, and transcontinental Bohemian fervor gained immediate and lasting notoriety. In Jason Shinder’s The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later, a compilation of essays and short memoirs, poets, novelists, and essayists as unlike as Mark Doty, Philip Lopate, Robert Pinsky, Andrei Codrescu, Rick Moody, and Eileen Myles admire the poem as liberation, artifact, invitation, and talisman, praising Ginsberg himself as “lusty spiritual comedian” (Mark Doty), “dangerous Beat guru, bearded and druggy” (Sven Birkerts), “authentic made-in-America holy fool” (Vivian Gornick), and simply “an icon” (Luc Sante).

To follow Howl through the commemorative volume is to see how it can be all things to all readers, but also how thoroughly it has come to represent an enduring counterculture, a set of young rebels—the Beats, and then their successors—who dress oddly, speak their own argot, and hold straight, square, and old bourgeois ways in fiery contempt. (Most of the writers in Shinder’s collection remember reading Howl when they were themselves teens.) And yet to look hard at the poem itself is to see a paradox: The poem that announced the coming of a new culture, an end to the dead habits of the past, is itself deeply intertwined with that past.

Ginsberg had written nothing like Howl before Howl. Instead, he had imitated (reams of apprentice work include imitations of 17th-century stanzaic poetry, and of William Carlos Williams), and he had observed (the failure of the ‘30s left; the conformism of his classmates; the travails of his mentally ill mother). A promising Columbia student in the ‘40s, Ginsberg grew disillusioned with academia, dropped out (or was asked to leave), came back in 1948, fell in with proto-Beat (and real junkie) Herbert Huncke, and got caught harboring Huncke’s stolen goods. Instead of jail, Ginsberg was sent to the Columbia Psychiatric Institute. There he met another patient, Carl Solomon, whose charisma and whose travails (such as insulin-coma therapy) would inspire, six years later, Ginsberg’s poem.

Howl decries not only Solomon’s confinement but the tacit and overt restrictions on passion, self-expression, and free thought that Ginsberg saw everywhere in McCarthyite America. Telling Solomon, over and over, “I’m with you in Rockland” (a mental hospital), Ginsberg denounces the American social order as “Moloch,” the ancient idol whose cult required human sacrifice. Insistent lists and brief descriptions mourn the victims of that sacrifice, the would-be heroes and martyrs “who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing,” “who balled in the morning in the evening in rosegardens in the grass of public parks,” “who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide.” (Many of these “who”s, though not all, are real friends or acquaintances, whom the poet later identified.)

Ginsberg once called the poem “an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness in case our military-industrial-nationalist complex solidified.” So it has been. In order to make his great anti-establishment poem, Ginsberg had to assimilate much of the established, European, literary past—the same past so many young readers can now avoid, thanks in part to the focus on the relevant, the contemporary, and the immediate that Ginsberg’s fiery, irreverent example, “yaketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks,” helped to usher into American culture.

The poet of Howl recreated himself as a compound of adolescent antinomian antihero and biblical prophet, “madman bum and angel beat in Time,” who was “putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death.” In order to do so, he had to learn from Isaiah and Jeremiah, from William Blake (of whom, as an undergraduate, Ginsberg said he saw visions), from the long lines and catalogs of Walt Whitman, Guillaume Apollinaire, and the 18th-century madhouse poet Christopher Smart. Manuscripts and drafts show, in page after page of typescript revisions, just how much work Ginsberg put into his poem—so much that Kerouac, who didn’t believe in revisions, objected, demanding (as Ginsberg later recalled) “my LINGUAL SPONTANEITY or nothing.” Diaries from the summer of 1955 show Ginsberg thinking about Ezra Pound, Catullus, Wordsworth, even the French comic playwright Molière. Spontaneous though Howl feels, it also sounds like a synthesis from many and far-flung sources: Its bold young men in shameful situations, its inspired victims and scorned lovers, crystallize poet-protagonists from Rimbaud to ancient Rome. The poem owes its mental leaps and runaway phrasings to the disorienting collage and fractured syntax of American modernists such as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, even T.S. Eliot. (One essay in Shinder’s collection shows how Ginsberg rewrites Jewish liturgy; another highlights his Modernist debts.) If Howl, like Eliot’s The Waste Land, has something for every reader, that’s partly because, like The Waste Land, the poem has so many models, so many ingredients, from so many writers, dead and alive.

Readers in the ‘50s found the poem exciting, even frightening, because they were already anxious about Beats, hoodlums, communists, and delinquent youths. They discovered the poem in the first place, though, because they were in the habit of reading—and reviewing—new poems. A young man’s first book from a small West Coast press (Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights), Howl nonetheless won lengthy praise in the New York Times Book Review from the established poet Richard Eberhart. Partisan Review instead ran an attempted demolition by the poet and scholar John Hollander, who knew Ginsberg from Columbia: “I believe that the title … is meant to be a noun,” Hollander wrote, “but I cannot help taking it as an imperative.” Ginsberg sent Hollander a long, serious letter with instructions on how to read the poem: “All the ear I’ve ever developed goes into the balancing of those lines.” (Hollander later issued a qualified retraction.)

The book won even wider attention after it wound up in court. In 1957, San Francisco authorities prosecuted Howl as obscene: The ACLU came to the book’s defense, and a courtroom crowd applauded Judge Clayton Horn’s decision that the book had “some redeeming social importance” and could therefore be sold. “It would have taken years,” Ferlinghetti recalled, “to accomplish what” one Customs officer “did in a day, merely by calling the book obscene. … Perhaps we could have had a medal made.”

Is there a Howl for our own time, a cultural creation that explains, excites, antagonizes, and polarizes a wide swath of America? It could not be a poem. Recent poets and poems have become notorious (Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America”), or widely popular (“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple”), or critically acclaimed, but no poem has accomplished all three at once, nor blew open its moment, as Howl did. Films and records can still attain succès de scandale—think of Kids, Brokeback Mountain,or Slim Shadybut a poem on a page, or a book of poems, cannot. The current head of the National Endowment for the Arts owes his prominence in part to a book called Can Poetry Matter?—as if to say that it does not matter right now.

“The poetry world,” agrees Myles, “is ever more cursed with public events that ask is poetry political, relevant, over, commercial, popular, etc.” In Howl, though, “it was all those things at once.” Young readers encounter Ginsberg’s prophetic book, not as the culmination of any tradition, but just as they encounter On the Road, as evidence of a nascent counterculture of half a century ago. And yet to reread Howl, or to read Howl Fifty Years Later, is to think of a time when poetry clearly mattered, when one book inspired by Blake and Whitman and Apollinaire and Christopher Smart could scare, disturb, charm, and transform many readers who haven’t reacted that way to any poem since.