Ginsberg's Howl at 50
from The Philadelphia Inquirer
Fifty years ago tonight, the 29-year-old poet Allen Ginsberg was fourth to read in a group of five unknown (in this case, all men) poets at a converted garage turned art gallery on Fillmore Street in San Francisco.
These are the first words of a new poem Ginsberg read that night:
That first line, and this first reading of Howl at the Six Gallery on Oct. 7, 1955, caused a stir that has yet to settle.
Jack Kerouac was said to have sat on the side of the stage, drinking from a jug of red wine and shouting, "Go!" The audience shouted in excitement and release: "Yes! That's right! Go, go, go! All right!" Ginsberg was reported to have left the stage in tears.
As the story goes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti - publisher, poet, and owner of the local City Lights bookstore - dispatched a telegram to Ginsberg borrowing a famous line that Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to Walt Whitman upon reading Leaves of Grass: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career." Savvy businessman that he was (an aspect of the Beat bohemians worth noting), Ferlinghetti added: "When do I get the manuscript?"
In the mid-1950s, Howl and Kerouac's novel On the Road became the pocket survival guides for a generation Kerouac fashioned simply as "Beat" - beaten down, and beatified, and beat (as in music). Howl was the onset of the Beat Generation but also something more. It provoked and catalyzed the emerging counterculture of the 1960s. It connected - and continues to connect - poetic, political, and musical traditions flowing back to the Bible, William Blake, and Walt Whitman and onward to scores of contemporary poets, writers - and musicians as different as Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Bono, and Beck.
Ginsberg's insight in Howl was this: The personal and the public are one. He realized that his private consciousness and the public consciousness were intimately related. In other words, his poetry, at its best (and in some cases, its worst) was "a record" of his "own consciousness."
Howl pitted the repressed inclinations of the Eisenhower era against Ginsberg's own perfectly pitched poetic mania. He was one of those
Most literary critics were quick to label the poem as non-, anti-, or unliterary. Yet Howl's impact would soon be felt far beyond the hundred-odd people who squeezed into the Six Gallery that evening. The poem has become one of the most famous in U.S. history, having sold more than 1 million copies in its City Lights edition alone.
How did Ginsberg transact this public articulation of his private consciousness? First and foremost through himself: a performer of exuberant energy, candid, humorous, sexual, tender, revolutionary, self-promoting, a poet relentlessly in love with his friends, freedom, and new forms of expression.
Second, by being a fine poet. Renowned for his ability to hold forth, sing, and perform, Ginsberg could both write and deliver his work.
But there was something else, something bigger than any one poet.
In his personal and public engagement with the United States, Ginsberg was following his "old courage teacher," Walt Whitman. Both poets took as their great subject America itself. In Ginsberg's poem America (1956) even his grand assertion that he is America is immediately qualified when he writes:
It is in lines such as these - equal parts chutzpah, humility, and humor - that I love Ginsberg most.
Much of this prophetic poem is warning us all (today, as in 1955) that something is wrong. But anguished critique is one thing; making art of it, as Howl does, is another. Ginsberg, like Whitman before him, realized it's more important to say what a life feels like than what it means or is supposed to mean. In the 1950s, the United States was in dire need, as it so often is, of its poets and artists. The question remains: Are we strong enough to face what they have to tell us?
We read Howl today (and, during the Jewish holidays, I also suggest his other heart-breaking masterpiece, Kaddish) because its sorrow, joy, and longing remain so very much alive. In this time of great need and unprecedented trouble, Howl helps us connect with one another and reconnect with our own lives.