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50 years later, ‘Howl’ still resonates

Allen Ginsburg's Beat classic broke new ground for poetry
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the years after he wrote “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg alternately described the poem as a song of spiritual liberation, a homage to art, an ode to gay love and a lament for his mentally ill mother.

The Beat poet who defined his times with the salvo, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” gave perhaps the most adroit explanation, however, upon publication of the original facsimile edition of the tour de force that had launched his career more than three decades earlier.

“Howl,” he advised readers in his preface, was meant to be an “emotional time bomb that would continue exploding.”

With nearly 1 million copies in print, it is one of the most widely read poems of the 20th century.

Still, critics disagree about the place Ginsberg’s best-known work holds in American letters. But even its detractors acknowledge that his provocative assault on the Cold War and conformity roared across the cultural landscape in a way that continues to resonate a half-century after its storied debut at a San Francisco art gallery.

Ginsberg first publicly read “Howl” as a work-in-progress on Oct. 7, 1955 — a date that holds as much meaning for followers of the Beats as “Bloomsday,” June 16, does for fans of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The Six Gallery reading, as it has since become known, preceded by a year the poem’s publication and the moral outrage provoked by its defense of homosexuality and drug use.

The wine-soaked gathering also featured poets Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Phil Lamantia and Phil Whalen and was hosted by elder statesman Kenneth Rexroth. Admirers regard it as a turning point that took poetry out of the Ivory Tower — creating space for dissent and presaging the youthful rebellion that inspired folk music, sexually explicit performance art and more recently, poetry slams.

“Poets now read all over the place, but at that time they didn’t — if they were famous, they maybe read at the Museum of Modern Art,” said Jonah Raskin, author of “American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation.”

Allen Ginsberg reads a poem to the assembled crowd in Washington Square Park in this Aug. 28, 1966 file photo. In the years after he wrote \"Howl,\" Ginsberg alternately described the poem as a song of spiritual liberation, a homage to art, an ode to gay love and a lament for his mentally ill mother. (AP Photo/ FILE)NEW YORK TIMES

“This event was breaking ground in that there were people who said, ’Let’s read in this funky art gallery’ and were the opposite of silent. They were ranting and roaring and howling.”

At 29, relatively new to San Francisco and bearing the psychic scars that had landed him in two mental hospitals, Ginsberg was the last and least-known in the five-poet lineup. As legend has it, his raw, intensely personal evocation of desperate souls “who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts” stole the night.

His friend, novelist Jack Kerouac, was in the audience of about 150 at the performance. “Scores of people stood around the darkened gallery straining to hear every word,” Kerouac recalled afterward. “Everyone was yelling, ’Go! Go! Go!”’

Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore, also heard Ginsberg read that night. The next day, he sent Ginsberg a telegram asking to see the manuscript of what was then Part 1 of what would grow to a three-part epic.

“I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Ferlinghetti wrote, intentionally echoing a line Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to Walt Whitman after reading “Leaves of Grass.”

While “Howl and Other Poems” was being prepared for publication, Ginsberg and other Beat poets took their show on the road, performing up and down the West Coast. It wasn’t until spring 1957, after San Francisco police arrested Ferlinghetti and the manager of City Lights, Shigeyoshi Murao, on charges of selling obscene material, that the book became a symbol of the social tensions Ginsberg sought to expose.

With help from the American Civil Liberties Union, they were acquitted after a highly publicized trial, and the judge’s ruling established a legal standard for publishing controversial books of “redeeming social importance.” Judge Clayton Horn agreed with the defense that the section of the poem Ginsberg read at Six Gallery “presents a picture of a nightmare world.”

Members of the Academy of American Poets still debate whether “Howl” has only had legs because of its early notoriety, but there is no denying its “profound influence on the course of American poetry,” said Tree Swenson, the academy’s executive director.

“If the words were not compelling, if they did not have the kind of power that they have, this would not have happened,” Swenson said. “If it had been plain bad writing, no one would have bothered.”

The Six Gallery reading nonetheless remains enough of a literary milestone that 50th anniversary reappraisals of “Howl” already have begun.

Last weekend, more than 400 people crowded into the San Francisco Public Library auditorium to hear actor Peter Coyote and seven poets recite “Howl” to the accompaniment of a jazz duo. Stanford University, home to Ginsberg’s papers, is holding five “Beat Mondays” with lectures about the poem.

City Lights will publish a fully annotated Golden Anniversary edition of “Howl and Other Poems” next year. Farrar Straus & Giroux is preparing a collection of essays by writers such as Andrei Codrescu, Vivian Gornick, Phillip Lopate, Daphne Merkin, Rick Moody and Robert Pinsky called “The Poem That Changed America.” A feature-length documentary, “Howl: The Movie,” is also in the works.

This week, San Francisco plans to install a plaque outside 311 Fillmore Street — cite of the long-closed gallery.

On Oct. 7, England’s University of Leeds will host a multimedia “Howl for Now” performance that will include seven musical pieces inspired by the poem. The event, which coincides with a book of critical essays of the same name, was designed to introduce “Howl” to a new generation of young adults, said organizer Simon Warner, a music instructor at the university.

Ginsberg died in 1997 at age 70 eight days after he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. A tireless promoter of his own work who enjoyed performing publicly until the end of his life, he would no doubt enjoy the attention “Howl” still generates and be the first to point out its continued relevance in an America struggling with terrorism and the war in Iraq.

“We are in an era where censorship is creeping back in through the Patriot Act and where people are ... being intimidated not to speak about what we should be speaking about,” said Gerald Nicosia, author of “Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac.

“If you substitute terrorism for communism, we are getting the same rhetoric.”

The anniversary couldn’t be more well-timed for those who enjoy historical parallels, agrees Ginsberg biographer Raskin.

“What the Declaration of Independence did for the U.S., the Six Gallery reading did for people who were rebelling against the conformity of American society,” he said. “And since people are still rebelling against authority, it’s just a natural place to go back to. Even rebels like to have ancestors.”