‘You feel like you are going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff. I didn’t linger on it too long, I assure you.’
(an elocution teacher, at the obscenity trial for ‘Howl’)
‘Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell’
(William Carlos Williams, Introduction to ‘Howl and Other Poems’)
Allen Ginsberg’s monumental poem was first heard in a series of famous readings that signaled the arrival of the Beat Generation of writers. The first of these readings took place in October 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. It was Allen Ginsberg’s first public performance, and it made him instantly famous at the age of twenty-nine.
The poem is part Walt Whitman, part Old Testament hellfire ranting, and one-hundred-percent performance art. The lines in the famous first part of the poem tumble over each other in long unbroken breaths, all adding to a single endless sentence:
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 …
And so on for a long time. We can talk about what it means later; first just listen to the rhythms of the rolling, crashing words:
yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars,
whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement,
who vanished into Nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall …
Ginsberg is describing his fellow travelers, the crazy, lonely members of his community of misunderstood poet artists, unpublished novelists, psychotics, radicals, pranksters, sexual deviants and junkies. At the time that he wrote this he’d seen several of his promising young friends broken or killed:
who distributed Supercommunist pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down Wall, and the Staten Island Ferry also wailed,
who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before the machinery of other skeletons,
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 cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were growing old and cried,
who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse and the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion and the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising and the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunkentaxicabs of Absolute Reality,
who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways and firetrucks, not even one free beer …
Each of these describe real-life events by people Ginsberg knew, but the poem is especially dedicated to Carl Solomon, Ginsberg’s crazy-insane hyper-intellectual friend who he’d met in a mental hospital years before:
who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy,
and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotheraphy psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong and amnesia …
It is Carl Solomon’s insanity that drove Ginsberg to write this poem, especially because it reminded him of his mother’s own unspeakable insanity (which he finally wrote about in ‘Kaddish,’ but here he can only say ‘with mother finally ******’). Carl’s insanity also reminds him of himself:
ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time —
The first part of the poem, the single long sentence, gives way to the second part, a long curse spit at Moloch, ‘sphinx of cement and aluminum’:
Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!
According to biblical tradition, Moloch was a Canaanite idol to whom children had been sacrificed as burnt offerings. In Leviticus 18:21: ‘You shall not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech, and so profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.’ Moloch appears in the poetry of Milton and Coleridge. Ginsberg is cursing the false idols to which human beings are still sacrificed today.
In the third part, Ginsberg says:
Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
and imagines Solomon behind the walls of the upstate New York psychiatric hospital. This section is followed by a ‘Footnote to Howl,’ in which the name of Moloch is replaced by the word ‘Holy’:
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
The Obscenity Trial
There’s nothing like a good obscenity trial to turn the high school kids of America onto a work they’d otherwise ignore. In the case of ‘Howl,’ a line about saintly motorcyclists fucking somebody up the ass did the trick. Moloch played his role to perfection, confiscating 520 copies of the City Lights Pocket Poets edition of ‘Howl and Other Poems’ in March 1956. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher of City Lights Books, was arrested and bailed out by the ACLU, who led the legal defense. Nine literary experts testified on the poem’s behalf. Ferlinghetti later described the prosecution’s attempt at building a case:
The prosecution put only two ‘expert witnesses’ on the stand — both very lame samples of academia — one from the Catholic University of San Francisco and one a private elocution teacher, a beautiful woman, who said, ‘You feel like you are going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff. I didn’t linger on it too long, I assure you.’ The University of San Francisco instructor said: ‘The literary value of the poem is negligible … This poem is apparently dedicated to a long-dead movement, Dadaism, and some late followers of Dadaism. And, therefore, the opportunity is long past for any significant literary contribution of this poem.’
Ferlinghetti was found innocent of publishing obscene books and was quickly set free.
Other Interesting Stuff About ‘Howl’
There’s a great scene in Ralph Bakshi’s animated film ‘American Pop’ in which a Ginsberg-like figure reads ‘Howl’ in a coffee house, capturing the heart of the main character while scaring away his goody-goody friend.
A funny yuppie-style parody of ‘Howl’ was published in The New Republic during the 80’s. It’s called ‘Yowl.’ Thanks to R.McLachlan@massey.ac.nz for sending it to me. The first line of ‘Howl’ has lately been parodied so often it risks becoming a cliche.
Though ‘Howl’ is Ginsberg’s most famous poem, when a friend of mine asked him to sign a copy of it at a poetry reading he said, “This isn’t my best work.” When my friend asked what was his best work, he said, “Kaddish.” Well, okay, Allen. I can’t argue with that — but I still like ‘Howl.’
The original City Lights/Pocket Poets edition of “Howl and Other Poems” was released in October 1955.