We got the Beat!
Allen Ginsberg – Howl and Other Poems (1956/2006)
Back in 1956, this book was put on trial, accused of being pornographic. OH, HOW THE TIMES HAVE CHANGED! Anyone who watches your average HBO or Netflix program, and then reads “Howl” expecting the same level of naughtiness is going to be disappointed. There are a handful of body parts mentioned in the text, one or two references to Ginsberg’s homosexuality, and perhaps a few four-letter words, but I think our society has caught up with The Beats, in terms of cultural tolerance.
What our society hasn’t caught up with, or perhaps has lost completely, is Ginsberg’s ability to evoke a mood and an atmosphere in just a few words. He had an uncanny ability to conjure ghosts with a shake of his pen—and the first ten or twelve lines of “Howl” are an absolute fireworks display, a flash-bang-pow, that illuminated an entire underground culture. This book was first published in the mid-50s, when America was supposedly a straight-laced, Leave It to Beaver country (it wasn’t), when Ozzie and Harriet ruled, and when MEN WERE MEN and women belonged in the kitchen… And then suddenly CRASH! this book descends from outer-space and invades the popular consciousness, with its talk of drugs and homosexuality, exposing the fragile and false PRIME TIME façade of American life—it must have been pretty shocking. Ginsberg possessed a stunning ability to paint a phrase in alien colors, and (at the time) Howl was a total freak-show that terrified the mainstream, at least enough for them to ban the book and put it on trial.
The poems in this collection are also interesting (to poetry fans and scholars, at least) because they show the TRANSITION of Ginsberg from a Romantic to a Mystic. The earliest works included here, written between 1952-1954, were clearly created by a self-conscious young man who could turn a pretty phrase. They are fragile and sweet and shy. However, by the time we reach the verses from about 1955 or so, Ginsberg begins to EXPAND. He becomes a mouthpiece for cosmic energy, and his poems become stronger, stranger, more like magical chanting that exposes us to candid glimpses into the world BENEATH the normal. What allows the poet to pull this off are Ginsberg’s skills and his economy of language, and his choice to mix the mundane with the magical. In lesser hands this could be disastrous, but Ginsberg’s vision is unique—and it works. He has a headache, he doesn’t feel like writing today, he’s just going shopping in a supermarket—and then he starts fantasizing, and imagines Walt Whitman browsing in the cold cold cuts and eyeing the stock boys.
Ginsberg is one of my favorite poets, and this short book is one of the best and most important of his works. I really wish people would take the time to read poetry again. We’re losing the ability in this culture to think in metaphor, to play with language, to imagine the ridiculous mixed in with the mundane, and to chant magical incantations when we’re expected to keep quiet. I would recommend that EVERYONE read this book, even if you hate poetry—especially if you hate poetry. It’s short, brilliant, freakish, and funny, and it’s time we brought a little magic back into our everyday lives…
—Richard F. Yates