The Baystate Objectivist

The Baystate Objectivist

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Howl Revisited

An overview review.

Captain Skypilot Ken Babbs the Intrepid Traveler reports that he is buried in snow, something almost unheard of where he lives near the University of Oregon.

That's okay, it gives the ol' Captain a chance to lay about catching up on his reading.

I've been reading alot lately. In the house where I live there are a lot of books lying about, addiction recovery books mostly but also books some of the former residents have left behind, many of which reflect their druggie sensibilities. One that I picked up and re-read the other day was the thin volume of poetry Howl by Allen Ginsberg.

Originally published in 1956 as part of Lawrence Ferlingetti's Pocket Poets series, the books were designed to literally fit in your coat pocket. There was a time, especially on college campuses, that carrying Howl around with you was the ultimate hip literary accessory, as modeled below. Photo by Bert.

I read Howl years ago, decades actually, so long ago that this time much of it came across as fresh to me. That is one of the great blessings of re-reading a book after many years. The book of course has not changed, but you have, and the changes that you bring to the reading alters what you read into something different from what it was when you read it before. Here are some thumbnail reviews of the poems as seen by the 2008 version of Tom Devine.


Howl introduced in its dedication the names of three major 20th century cultural figures who had never been heard of before. The most important of these was Jack Kerouac, destined to become the most famous of the so-called "Beat" writers and the only one whose works have really stood the test of time. Of the others mentioned, William Burroughs became better known as a public personality whose books were more praised than read, and Neal Cassady, someone who became famous not for his writing but through Kerouac and later, Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead.

Introduction by William Carlos Williams

Williams reputation has faded somewhat since this book was written, but he was considered at the time a major progressive and was willing to lend his reputation to defend Ginsberg, whom he knew, and who ulitimately went on trial for obsenity because of this book. Unfortunately this intro focuses too much on defending the book's artistic integrity, and too little talking about the actual poems. Because we are now so far out of context of the scandal that surrounded this book, the intro doesn't really say very much to the modern reader, just one example of how some of the book has become dated.


This poem has one of the most killer opening lines in all of American poetry:

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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

Unfortunately, it peaks early and goes downhill from there. Nothing else in this too long poem ever approaches the intensity of that opening cry, indeed it is never made clear in the poem what constitutes the best minds or what destroyed them. There are repeated but vague denunciations of conformity and commercialism, and there is an undercurrent of a joyous celebration of American life, but Walt Whitman did this a century before, and much better. What Ginsberg really needed was a tough editor with the balls to tell him to sharpen his focus, but Ginsberg probably would have rejected such editing under the Beat literary credo of "first thought - best thought" which rejected all forms of editing or re-writing as artificial. Unfortunately the resulting spontaniety did not usually compensate for the lack of clarity and style.

The only thing that remains really subversive about Howl is its frank portrayal of homosexuality. For example:

who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked
and trembling before the machinery of other
who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight
in policecars for committing no crime but their
own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication,
who howled on their knees in the subway and were
dragged off the roof waving genitals and manu-
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly
motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim,
the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose
gardens and the grass of public parks and
cemeteries scattering their semen freely to
whomever come who may,

The open sexuality of the poem remains it's only really enduring anti-establishment message. The rest of the Howl now reads too much like an overlong whine.

Other Poems

The much shorter poems that make up the rest of the volume are actually better overall than Howl. In the silly and fun A Supermarket in California Ginsberg openly acknowledges his debt to Whitman. In the poem Transcription of Organ Music he describes his apartment in verse. The saving grace, as in so much of Ginsberg's poetry, is his sense of humor.

Sunflower Sutra is my favorite poem in the collection. In it Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac are sitting near some railroad tracks getting high and grokking on a dead sunflower. The poem captured for me some of the sense of stoned contemplation that I used experience back in the day when Jay Libardi and I used to go fishing around the Valley. With our fishing poles resting on forked sticks and bobbers on the string there was nothing to do really but to drink Budweiser, huff ganja and talk. Sometimes we got so deep into things and so cosmic in our musings that it could become an annoying interruption when a fish would bite. The places we could go in each others head is the part of my relationship with Jay that I miss the most. He knew me better in some ways than anyone has before or since.

Ginsberg apparently had a similar closeness with Kerouac, and it comes across in this poem as the two high friends get all excited reading their own minds into the flower's husk.

A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent
lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye
to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited
grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden
monthly breeze!
How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your
grime, while you cursed the heavens of the
railroad and your flower soul?
Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a
flower? when did you look at your skin and
decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive?
the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and
shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?
You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a
And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me
So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck
it at my side like a scepter,
and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack's soul
too, and anyone who'll listen,
--We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread
bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all
beautiful golden sunflowers inside,

The other major short poem in the volume is America, which is essentially a love poem to the U.S. socialist movement of the pre-war period. Of course that movement, which was an apologist for Stalin, is today considered throughly discredited, making Ginsberg's nostalgia for that era seem misguided to modern readers. Ginsberg was very politically active, but had no real unifying political ideology beyond a wish for a benign anarchy. He was very paranoid in his distrust of any government, which led him to what was perhaps his only meaningful political contribution.

Ginsberg was among the first to suggest that it was the government who had first introduced LSD to the American public, something that was ridiculed at the time but ultimately proven to be true. Of course it was LSD offered by military testing that Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary used to give birth to the modern American drug culture, which ultimately devolved into the scourge on society it is today. So Ginsberg used to claim that the government planted the seeds for the drug culture in order to use the resulting widespread drug abuse to justify curtailing American liberties. It's a paranoid interpretation, but by no means entirely false.

There are a few early poems tacked on to the end of the volume which should have stayed in Ginsberg's High School notebook. Howl was not the peak of Ginsberg's career, that came in the follow-up collection Kaddish, which deals with his mother's desent into insanity. From there it was mostly downhill in a literary sense, with his last meaningful book being Planet News in 1968. For the following thirty years he lived on the strength of his celebrity, which was considerable. In fact to this day he remains the last major American poet whom most Americans can recognise from a photograph.

I'll be sampling widely from the house library in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for some more book reviews.

Hampshire Gazette/Amherst Bulletin reporter Mary Carey is back from her trip to California. Apparently she never visited the Haight/Ashbury, which I would have gone to straight off. Yes, I know all the true hippies fled long ago and that all that remains is just a tourist trap, but I simply must sit on the steps of the Grateful Dead house before I die.


Former Club Member said...

Sadly, I can 100% confirm that the allegations about Brad are indeed true. Not only does his past behavior toward women and girls support these claims, there are hard copies of the inappropriate emails/messages that he sent to the girls involved. He has had a certain Republican Club member threatening and intimidating other club members into keeping him around as president and keeping MACR out. It is terrible that he has taken the Republican Club down with him. It is ashame that he was elected and I feel deep regret that I went through great efforts to get him elected. It was a mistake on my part.

Mary E.Carey said...

Tom -- The book reviews are a great idea. I keep thinking I would like to revisit some of the books that were so influential when I was young. There is a great scene involving Ginsberg and Bob Dylan (as played by Cate Blanchett) in "I'm not Here." I wish I HAD gotten to Haight Ashbury. I thought often while I was in SF of your recommendation that I check it out. Next time, for sure. But you should get there before I do! I also love The Last Time I Saw Richard.