This week, in 1956, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was published by City Lights in San Francisco.
This was a revolutionary collection of poems that connected Ginsberg’s poetic present to an American tradition that included Alt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, and also created the conditions for new forms of poetry.
Ginsberg was part of the group of writers who would come to be known as the Beat Generation – beaten down, the beat of the still marginal jazz music, beatific. 1957 would see the publication of other seminal (I use that word deliberately, as all of these texts have sex and sexuality as persistent and dominant themes) Beat texts – Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957 and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in 1959.
Ginsberg and his fellow writers attempted a radical critique of their conformist, Cold War times. They did so by inheriting their ideas in, modified form, from the madmen and outlaws of the previous generation, to paraphrase Fitzgerald (who belonged to his own generation, the inter-war Lost Generation).
The Beats adapted their modes of expression to distance their work from the aesthetic orthodoxy: they introduced new rhythms and measures, new prose styles and vocabularies, new underworld themes and settings. Their work was to be spoken and heard, freeing it from the constraints of publishing and the academy.
Beat writers sought to expand consciousness – their own and that of their readers – through the experience and representation of travel, sex, drugs, Eastern mysticism and new literary forms; all of which appear in ‘Howl’.
‘Howl’ is a courageous response to the dominating passivity of the Cold War culture of conformity that succeeded the war, typified by the TV appearances of Senator McCarthy waving his evidence of communist infiltrators into American government.
Most people know the first lines:
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
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz
The poem is in 4 sections, including the later ‘Footnote’. This first section is a list of the fallen – Neil Cassidy, Burroughs, Kerouac, Naomi Ginsberg. They are American aesthetic and intellectual exiles whose joy, emotional and sexual appetites, hunger and despair set them apart from what has been termed ‘the republic of mere logic’.
In Part II, Ginsberg posits Moloch, a tyrannical Hebrew deity who demands child sacrifice, as the personification of the capitalism and uniform consumption, which banishes deviance, improvisation and spontaneity in all its forms.
Part III takes Carl Solomon, the lunatic saint who was inspiration and publisher to the Beats. ‘I am with you in Rockland’, Ginsberg declares – allying himself with the mental patient in the asylum (to employ the vocabulary of the time).
Part IV, or ‘Footnote’, is Ginsberg’s solution to the oppressions of his contemporary American culture and his attempt to escape from the rationality of the machine. Instead of Moloch, he proposes a society of spiritual grace which celebrates the sexual, behavioural, artistic and political deviances that Part I and Moloch seek to destroy – these then become ‘Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy….’. In Part I the soul, the spirit and the body are profane and transgressive, here they are spiritual and sacred. This reappraisal will result in a new American society that will accept Ginsberg and his friends who have previously been excluded.
Instead of embracing Ginsberg’s new poetic vision of citizenship – where deviance is holy – America banned his poem for obscenity.
You can find out more about why ‘Howl’ was banned with Dr LIsa Mansell at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCGX0OxEUK4