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.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008



This morning I had to go and have a whole range of psychological tests to try to determine why I have such an addictive personality. They ask me why I do drugs and I tell them that drugs are fun and they feel good, but I can tell from the expression on their faces that this is the wrong answer.

Anyway, the tests were held at a medical facility in Florence, which is a section of Northampton that I would compare to Indian Orchard in Springfield. The Orchard likes to think of itself as independent, but that independence exists only in attitude, since they pay taxes to Springfield's City Hall and vote in Springfield elections. In the same way Florence has an independent attitude, no matter what the maps and the lawbooks say. My grandmother's name was Florence.

Getting to Florence is easy, you just go past Smith College and continue straight ahead until the road leads you directly there. Going past Smith I saw this banner advertising an upcoming dance.

Some Smithies are Obamadroids.

There are lots of beautiful houses along the way, colorfully painted, such as this passionately purple one.

Or electric yellow.

Not all are well kept up. If they ever revive The Adams Family TV show, this house would make a good setting.

I've always been intrigued by this majestic structure which stands on the corner of Harrison Avenue, a street I once lived on.

What I find so intriguing is this electric candle that is burning in this window. It's been there for years and burns night and day. Of course leaving a burning candle in a window is the universal symbol of waiting for the return of a loved one.

For whom is this candle burning, and why? Maybe it's just the romantic in me, but I feel there must be a fascinating story behind this mystery.

Along one stretch are these old pines, about a half dozen of them. Pines grow slowly, so these large sentinels have watched this road to Florence for over a century.

This garage has a straw-witch guarding the snow plow.

Along such a rural stretch, Cooley-Dickinson Hospital seems jarringly modern.

Like most New England towns, Northampton has lost a lot of old factories to the South and overseas. Here an old silk mill has been transformed into a medical facility.

Along the road I passed this odd little European car. I would hate to get into an accident in one, the car would get crushed like an eggshell. Does anyone know anything about this make of car?

This is the Evolution Cafe, which is run by the same people who used run Fire and Water Cafe, the bohemian poetry center in downtown Hamp. Tomorrow I have to go for some more psych tests, and perhaps I'll stop in and check it out.

Here's the latest update on my brother from my sister in law:

Hello everyone,

We were scheduled to go to Stanford for a checkup last week. I worked Thursday and we left for Palo Alto in the early evening. There were storms predicted for the whole weekend and yes, indeed, we did end up traveling in a snowstorm on Donner Pass and were required to put chains on our tires to get over the mountain. But all is well that ends well and we made it -- thanks to many of you who were praying for our well being.

We saw Dr. Miklos on Friday and he was pleased with John's progress. His blood work looked great and we were encouraged when the doc said, "You're doing so well, I don't think I need to see you every week -- or even every other week. How about I will see you one more time in late February and then we will send you back to Dr. Singh in Reno?" Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

He is taking an anti-fungal, an anti-viral, and an antibiotic so guess there's no bug safe around him now! As soon as he can build up his strength and get over the fatigue, he will get his life back. That will probably be in a couple months. Cancer survivors tell us your life will always be "before cancer" and "after cancer" from now on. Believe me, we are ready for "after cancer". It feels like we have been in "during cancer" for a very long time.


Well, all their suffering will only make the good times that much better.

Despite the cold and snow, work is proceeding on the new hotel behind Northampton's Pulaski Park. It is controversial because some say it will ruin the park's ambiance.

There are all kinds of warning signs, with a prankster trying to alter this sign in a humorous way by adding words and trying to scratch out "hat."

"Caution: People Get Really Hard in this Area." If that were true, I'd follow this project more carefully.

Finally, here's Jay at Joe's Pub.

Monday, January 28, 2008

First Day

The students are back!

Today the Spring Semester at UMass begins! This morning there were the predictable traffic jams in the predictable places.

The tables of the various student groups were all set up in the Campus Center concourse. Of course I helped myself to some of the free popcorn!

There was a big poster sale for images to cover the concrete block walls of the dorms. After all these years Grateful Dead posters remain big sellers. Bob Marley is also still iconic. (click photo to enlarge)

Students walk to class as the bell in the Old Chapel rings in the beginning of a new semester.

Sleepy ol' Amherst comes to life as a new season of fun has begun. Yahoo! I'm gonna get mine!

Everyone is running down to Springfield today to hear Hillary Clinton speak at Springfield College.

Um, I'll pass. However, Hillary's troops were out this morning in Northampton waving to traffic.

Yesterday the supporters of John Edwards were braving the frigid temps of downtown Hamp.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer had a devastating column this weekend denouncing Edwards as a total phony. To read it click here.

It's too bad that Yo Yo Ma, a resident of Winchester, Massachusetts, isn't running for president.

Yo-Yo Ma is considered the world's greatest living cello player, a professional musician since the age of 5 whose celebrity transcends the world of classical music. Born in Paris, Ma (of Chinese descent) was a child prodigy on the cello and began serious study in New York in the early 1960s. He graduated from Harvard University in 1976, already an internationally acclaimed cellist. He has won more than a dozen Grammy awards and is known especially for his interpretations of Bach and Beethoven, and for his ability to play many different styles of music, including tango and bluegrass.

Here's what Yo Yo had to say when asked recently about how best to improve the world.


A relative who only sees me on my website commented on the phone to me the other day that he was surprised that I got my haircut. I told him I didn't and explained that in most pictures the shoulder length hair I've worn since I was in High School is tucked into my baseball cap. He refused to believe it, so here is proof positive provided by these pics shot last night by my roommate Bert.

Hat on:

Hat off:

A great version of an appropriate song:

Almost cut my hair
It happened just the other day
It's gettin kinda long
I coulda said it was in my way
But I didn't and I wonder why
I just felt like letting my Freak Flag fly
Cause I feel like I owe it to someone

Must be because I had the flu' for Christmas
And I'm not feeling up to par
It increases my paranoia
Like looking at my mirror and seeing a police car
But I'm not giving in an inch to fear
Cause I promised myself this year
I feel like I owe it to someone

When I finally get myself together
I'm going to get down in that sunny southern weather
And I'll find a place inside to laugh
Separate the wheat from the chaff
Cuz I feel like I owe it to someone

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Video Deluxe

Clearing the backlog.

The other night I saw what I considered to be this beautiful sunset in Northampton. It wasn't colorful, just very moody. I guess haunting is the better word. But maybe it was just in my imagination, because little of that comes across now that I look at the picture.

Perhaps local sunset-pic expert Tony Mateus will give me some pointers.

Here's something you don't see everyday, a Volkswagen with racing stripes!

This morning at UMass by Garber Field I saw that a tree had been cut down.

It always makes me feel a little sad when I see a tree felled. I think of what that tree has witnessed. How many people passed beneath it? What did they say? How many of those people are still alive? What happened under that tree? Perhaps someone asked someone if they would marry them. It's a shame that those in the plant world cannot speak, because I know they would have fascinating things to say.

On the bus on the way home from my therapist I spotted (how appropriately) someone reading Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It was an old, faded edition with a cover design I had never seen before. I asked the young man reading it about it and he showed me the copyright of 1966! He said his grandfather had given him that book to read.

Cool grandpa!

Have you been wondering what they've been doing in the dorms of Hampshire lately?

That wacky cops series filmed by Hampshire students keeps getting weirder and sexier.

Finally, here's Ed Askew and Joshua Burkett recently at Ecstatic Yod in Florence, a section of Northampton.

An 18 year old Italian girl tells her Mom that she has missed her period for 2 months. Very worried, the mother goes to the drugstore and buys a pregnancy kit.

The test result shows that the girl is pregnant.
Shouting, cursing, crying, the mother says,
"Who was the pig that did this to you? I want to know!"

The girl picks up the phone and makes a call.
Half an hour later, a Ferrari stops in front of their house.
A mature and distinguished man with gray hair and impeccably dressed in an Armani suit steps out of the of the Ferrari and enters the house.

He sits in the living room with the father, mother, and the girl and tells them:
"Good morning, your daughter has informed me of the problem.
I can't marry her because of my personal family situation,
but I'll take responsibility. I will pay all costs and provide for your daughter for the rest of her life. Additionally, if a girl is born, I will bequeath a Ferrari, a beach house, 2 retail stores, a townhouse, a beachfront villa, and a $2,000,000 bank account.

If a boy is born, my legacy will be a couple of factories
and a 4,000,000 bank account.

If twins, they will receive a factory and $2,000,000 each.

However, if there is a miscarriage, what do you suggest I do?"

At this point, the father, who had remained silent,
places a hand firmly on the man's shoulder and tells him,
"You try again."

Friday, January 25, 2008

Cal's Place

The Coolidge presidential museum.

Mr. and Mrs. Coolidge.

Few people are aware that the museum about Calvin Coolidge, the Northampton mayor who is the only Pioneer Valley resident to rise to the presidency of the United States, is located on the second floor of Hamp's Forbes Library. Or at least few people seemed aware of it when I stopped by yesterday as the museum's only customer. It's free and open to the public, if only the public would get their butts over there.

Calvin Coolidge was once considered by historians to be a minor American president, but has been considerably upgraded in recent decades. Liberal historians, anxious to justify Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, unfairly denigrated the preceding presidents. However today Coolidge is considered to be one of the founding fathers of the small government, balanced budget school of American conservatism. In a famous example of Coolidge's enhanced stature, when Ronald Reagan was first sworn in as President, he had a portrait of Roosevelt removed from the Oval Office and replaced by one of Coolidge.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the museum to local visitors is the section devoted to Coolidge's long career in Northampton. He started in politics as a prominent Hamp attorney, and the door to his office is on display.

Here is one of the ballot boxes that were in use when Coolidge was elected to Northampton's mayoralty.

This display shows how the flag festooned downtown of Northampton exploded with pride when their former mayor was elected to the presidency. The election of Republicans do not get as warm a reception in modern Northampton politics. Hamp still loves Silent Cal, but they don't much vote for his party anymore.

He was called Silent Cal because he was one of those rare politicians who believed a leader should be judged by what he does, not by what he says. In a famous story a woman is said to have confronted Coolidge at a White House dinner and exclaimed, "I bet my husband five dollars that I could get you to say more than three words."

Coolidge looked her in the eye and replied, "You lost."

Even Coolidge's own son was forced to work in the tobacco fields of Hadley, as shown in this photo on display.

When someone said that they would never expect to do such sweaty labor if they were a president's son, young Cal Jr. replied, "You would if you had my father!"

Coolidge's stern manner caused the nation to laugh when pictures appeared in the media after he was forced to wear an Indian headdress on a visit to a Sioux reservation.

That famous headdress is on display in the museum protected behind glass.

The Indians gave Coolidge a collection of artifacts, including these peace pipes.

Hey, I'll bet you could fit a lotta ganja in those babies!

When Coolidge was found dead on the floor of his Northampton home The Boston Globe had these screaming headlines: (click photo to enlarge)

The museum is free and open most afternoons. To find out the exact hours click here.

I'm saddened to hear of the death of Heath Ledger, one of the stars of Brokeback Mountain. I thought it was brave for him to take that role, not just because he was a straight actor playing a gay person, which can sometimes damage an actor's appeal, but because the film also dealt with an extremely taboo subject - homosexual infidelity in a straight marriage. Some of my most intense affairs were with married men, and it was long overdue to see a serious artistic treatment of this surprisingly common but hidden aspect of modern marriage.

Of course I also regret he died because he was sexy as hell.

Apparently his death was drug related. Damn, what a waste.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Beyond Booze

The new A.A.

A funny thing has happened to Alcoholics Anonymous in recent years - it's not so much about alcohol anymore. Oh it still is, and always will be, but it's not only about alcohol anymore.

Far from it. Go to any A.A. meeting and listen to the people talk, and it has become a rarity to hear anyone claim that their only vice was liquor. I know, because I go to a lot of meetings. What has happened is the mind-expanding trippers of the '60's and the hard party people of the '70's and 80's - those that survived - are now making up the bulk of the membership of Alcoholics Anonymous, and they are there for difficulties that usually transcend the use of only one drug.

The earliest years of A.A. were all about booze because alcoholism pretty much described the extent of the drug problem in America during the 1930's and '40's when A.A. was first taking off. Yeah there was a music and art scene doing marijuana (hopheads they were called) and a small junkie scene thought to be beyond redemption, but basically if you were talking about substance abuse issues you were talking about problems with booze.

All that changed dramatically in the 1960's when the whole cornucopia of intoxicating drugs suddenly flooded the culture. At first there was a clear demarcation between the two drug cultures, the early hippies were teetotalers when it came to alcohol, considering it the drug of the establishment. That, however, didn't last very long and by the mid-1970's nearly all of the pretensions of mind-expansion and bohemianism associated with non-alcoholic drug use were gone. The new drugs had not replaced alcohol, as the hippies had hoped, instead they simply merged with it.

And why not? People who get drunk like to get high, so the only thing surprising was that it took so long for these other drugs to join alcohol in use by the party people. Here is a picture of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Is that the face of a stoner or what? That heavy lidded grin would've been right at home at any Grateful Dead concert.

I suspect that if Bill Wilson was born a generation later, he would have named his group Drugs Anonymous, with alcohol included as just another one of the get-high substances people mess up their lives with. But it hardly matters, since his modern membership has pretty much done that informally anyway.

There remains one aspect of the drug culture that hasn't completely merged with A.A. and that is needle using junkies. There is a belief among some that the blood rituals of those who violate their veins to ingest drugs is unique among drug users and never fully understood except by those who have indulged in it. I suspect that's true, but even those who belong to the small sub-group Narcotics Anonymous usually have dual memberships in A.A. Throughout everything, at the end of the trip Alcoholics Anonymous remains the shore upon which all substance abusers, regardless of what they abuse, end up.

In Northampton recently I came upon this statement scrawled on a shack near an area strewn with liquor bottles. It's a message Bill Wilson would have approved of.

This sign advertising a blood drive in Hamp today is chained to a street lamp. Would anyone really want to steal that sign?

As an AIDS precaution, blood donors are asked, 'Have you ever had sex with another man, even once, since 1977?' If the answer is yes you can't give. As part of rehab I had blood work done in November that showed I'm totally AIDS free. So I could probably give blood safely, but I would still be banned if I answered their questions honestly. I guess it's not that big a deal, and I recognize the importance of protecting the blood supply, but it still feels like a kind of low-grade discrimination to have such a blanket rejection of all queers.

But I know I will receive absolutely no sympathy on that issue from straight people.