I loathe romance. I was the girl who laughed hysterically at the many public declarations of love made in Love, Actually and the tender resolution to any and all Meg Ryan movies; flowers, candlelight dinners and heart-shaped boxes of chocolate should be kept away from me lest I lose all interest in someone, no matter his many positive attributes. I haven’t got a clue where this aversion stems from. Surely not from bitterness though, because, at nineteen years old I’ve already fallen in love four times. I don’t use the term lightly, so it may seem odd for me to confess that in only one of these instances was it a traditional, and regrettably nauseating, story of boy-meets-girl. The first time I fell in love was with Manhattan over a decade ago. The fourth occasion was a little over a year ago when I finally got to see HBO’s adaptation of Angels in America.
Somewhere amidst owning up to my feelings for that island and that boy and those angels came Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s infamous and adored poem which, not incidentally, celebrates the 50th anniversary of its publication this year. Part meditation on 1950s America, part gay lament, part hallucination, all long-verse and image-laden, the poem was first read—or performed, as it were—in San Francisco in 1955 and then published the following year by the legendarily underground City Light Books.
Ginsberg composed Howl in a day’s time after a particularly lucid peyote trip. Later he added a “Footnote” and dedication to Carl Solomon, a man he befriended while institutionalized earlier in the decade. The poem quickly cemented itself into the greater American consciousness in 1957 when its many references to sex, drugs and homosexuality provoked an obscenity trial against its publisher (a trial ultimately decided in Howl’s favor). It has since become a staple of high school and college English classes, celebrated as a hallmark of the Beat generation – that spontaneous, bohemian, and particularly American group of writers who planted the seeds for the 1960s counterculture.
For those unfamiliar with Howl’s “angelheaded hipsters…who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge…who lounged hungry and noisome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup, and followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse about America and Eternity, a hopeless task, and so took ship to Africa,” the poem consists of four distinctive sections, each with its own cadence, characters, themes and goals.
Dedicated to those “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” the first section is the poem’s longest and most emotionally punishing: it captures the nightmare world in which Ginsberg and his fellow Beats lived. The second section moves beyond describing their condition to indict America (represented here as “Moloch,” a Hebraic god of sacrifice). It is “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery!…Moloch the cross-bone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows!…Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!” and Moloch who is responsible for the troubles faced by those outside the bounds of lulled, 1950s society.
Despite the oppressiveness depicted by the second section and the demagogic depths to which Ginsberg slips momentarily, the third section offers up a measure of possibility. Addressing Solomon directly, Ginsberg assures him that one can be rescued through love, through friendship, and through the fact that “I’m with you in Rockland in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.” In the addendum, Ginsberg carries his acute sense of hope further, declaring, “The world is holy!…The skin is holy! The nose is holy!” It is here that he concludes there is reason enough to live and move forward and find solace in the fact that our trials make holy every part of us still here and still going.
Ginsberg founded a genuine revolution in words. His poem showed a generation something they’d never seen before in the brazenness of his phrases and the structure of his images; when he wrote about “the blonde & naked angel” come “to pierce them with a sword” and “the soul illuminated its hair for a second,” he wasn’t being metaphorical. Nothing about Howl feels delicate or traditionally poetic since Ginsberg tiptoed around nothing, but instead, as fellow poet William Carlos Williams put it “experiences it to the hilt…Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.”
In this sense, Ginsberg’s words and the way he strung them together verbalized an anxiety that those on the margins felt amidst assembly-line America. His poem had a practical application if only to inspire a sense of outrage and community among those too beaten down to muster up such feelings on their own. Never before had a marginal voice been powered by such visceral writing. “There was simply nothing else like it,” said poet Stanley Kunitz, and though that doesn’t remain the case today—the poem couldn’t remain revolutionary through its annual academic dissections—one only needs to appreciate that it once was groundbreaking.
What Ginsberg wrote was, like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a veritable cross-country road trip that showed us the United States with a detail accomplished by few before or since. In fact, another of the more explicable reasons why I fell for Howl was its Americana and American sensibility. Even its cadence, which is like a prayer or chant, is deeply ingrained in the oral, Evangelical, American religious tradition.
It was in the vein of this being a specifically American rhyme that I, very unfortunately, turned to The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later, an anthology of essays published on the 50th anniversary of the poem, wherein a handful of prominent authors discuss their first encounters with Ginsberg, and where I thought I might find more rational reasons for my infatuation.
It’s not that the collection is without its merits—some of its more academic pieces would be spot on for those English profs who insist on dismembering Howl and, actually, the essays by Ginsberg’s assistants and collaborators are wonderfully nostalgic—but when it comes to the stories of personal discovery, you’ve got to endure much too much self-indulgence, redundancy and emotional masturbation for it to be worth the read. I also personally think it too grand and pretty spurious a claim that Ginsberg changed the whole of the United States. George W. Bush has changed America, as did Elvis. When the majority of people need prompting to remember what Howl is and who wrote it, you can’t title your book this way.
Despite these complaints, it was in this volume that I discovered many examples of Howl’s ability to change people. Jason Shinder, editor of the collection and assistant to Ginsberg, wrote how “People changed their professions, moved or created alternative lifestyles as a direct impact of having read the poem,” and then each successive contributor, however sappily, claimed something in the same vein. These changes, in most everyone’s cases, were completely irrational. Respected authors of all stripes from the past half century had fallen in love with Howl like I had; they didn’t have to have been a product of the age of air raid sirens, the arms race, or the Senator McCarthy trials or even to have experienced “poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed” of Ginsberg’s subjects to feel as such. They just felt that way; our irrational reasons were the ones that really mattered.
How did we know we were in love with it? Well, how do you know you’re in love with someone? It’s that bloody answer your mother would give you: you just do. There are hints, sure. In the case of Howl, we became embarrassingly emotional about it. We loved the familiar, musty smell of its tiny, original City Lights publication. We became both envious and thankful when other people gushed about “angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated” and those who “wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yard wondering where to go, and went, leaving no broken hearts.”
Despite feeling like we owned the material, we never wholly understood what Ginsberg was saying, and upon every return to the poem, we found there was something new to be discovered. We were devoted to reading it over and over again and being completely destroyed every time. We felt taken care of by the end of it, and we felt like we’d risked something for this. We had out-of-body experiences; we did crazy things after reading it; we wanted it to belong to us, to know it better than anyone else did; we thought its flaws better than other people’s best qualities. Quite frankly, it undid and unraveled us, reduced us to sobs, made us shiver and shake, catapulted our stomachs into our throats.
And now I realize: the most exciting part is not really knowing why. Like the most intense crushes, or loves, it’s something wonderfully chemical and wholly involuntary. Maybe we loved it because Howl rarely preached to us, but showed us instead the most lovely, harrowing, raging and pathetic images one could ever hope to see. Maybe because it gave voice to one generation even as it pissed off another. Maybe because, as one of the contributors to The Poem explains, Ginsberg presents an “alarming hostility to dumbness.” Maybe because it’s that adventure across America so many plan to take. Maybe because, despite the tribulations you have to endure, it makes you want to be – or happy to be – an American. Maybe because it’s essentially a young person’s poem. Maybe it’s because, as another contributor to The Poem explains, “There’s something” about Howl I can accept unconditionally.” Maybe because it’s brutal, brazen, quiet, hopeful, savage, charismatic, and mischievous, and yet fairly unpretentious about addressing the whole business of being human. I really don’t know.
At this point, I could transcribe more of the poem for you, try to make you understand, but I don’t think it would help. Howl was supposed to be devoured whole, and then it was meant to inspire either the most oppositional or tender reactions that a given reader could muster. With time, it has certainly lost its capacity to be dangerous. But if revolution was all it had going for it, we could easily shelve it in the historical annals. Clearly there’s something else, something pretty ridiculous, inconvenient, consuming, and can’t-live-without-it about Howl that causes 21st Century kids to love it with equal fervor. And for those who’ll scoff at the idea of someone falling head over heels for words or images or a whole island of buildings, I’d say that if I, the girl disgusted by romance, can manage it, so can you.