In 1956, it was OK for the best minds of Allen Ginsberg's generation to be starving and hysterical, but naked? Perhaps not. As for what transpired...
In 1956, it was OK for the best minds of Allen Ginsberg’s generation to be starving and hysterical, but naked? Perhaps not.
As for what transpired between Ginsberg’s “angel-headed hipsters” and the “saintly motorcyclists” who made them scream with joy, it was an outrage! Simply an outrage!
Published 50 years ago this week, Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems” was considered so shocking, publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested for selling it in the U.S. His trial helped alter the legal definition of obscenity.
But that’s not all that changed after “Howl.” With its stream-of-consciousness style and candid descriptions of sex, drugs and homosexuality, it transformed the face of literature and popular culture.
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“It changed the way we saw things. Maybe that’s why we think of it as great. There are few works of art that do that,” said Jason Shinder, editor of the book “The Poem that Changed America: ‘Howl’ 50 Years Later.”
The epic sprawl of “Howl,” filled with arcane personal references to Ginsberg’s Beat Generation friends, like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, is an unlikely candidate for America’s most famous poem.
But it continues to resonate with readers — whether or not they understand it. “It was always clouded by some layers of obscurity, but you know exactly what he’s saying. He’s not hiding behind any academic language,” said Bill Morgan, author of the biography “I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg” (Viking, $29.95).
“Howl” is still renowned for its portrayal of Beat-era hedonism. But in many ways, it’s a poem about madness.
Ginsberg was inspired by his stay in a mental hospital and by memories of his mother, Naomi, who went insane during his childhood in Newark and Paterson, N.J., spending years in and out of mental institutions, where she underwent a lobotomy.
The poem itself is dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg befriended at Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Hospital, where he spent eight months in 1949.
“Society had no room for the crazy people or the people of genius or anyone who is different,” Morgan said. “That’s what he is raging about in ‘Howl.’ “
Ginsberg wrote the poem after a peyote-induced vision. He imagined the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco transformed into the Phoenician god Moloch, to whom children were sacrificed by fire.
If it weren’t for Kerouac, legendary author of “On the Road,” Ginsberg might never have written “Howl.” Kerouac’s concept of “spontaneous prose” liberated him from the more stilted, formal voice of his early poetry.
Although Ginsberg gave readings of “Howl” in 1955, it was published in 1956 by Ferlinghetti, a poet and owner of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. William Carlos Williams, a fellow Jersey poet and friend of the Ginsberg family, wrote the introduction, which ends with the warning: “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.”
“It was a time when speech itself was censored, and Allen had a lot to do with defying that censorship and putting language on a more direct footing,” said Newark author Amiri Baraka, Ginsberg’s friend and a Beat Generation contemporary. (Ginsberg died in 1997 at age 70.)
In a well-publicized obscenity trial, Judge Clayton W. Horn declared “Howl” had literary merit and did not appeal to prurient interests.
“That precedent hadn’t been used before,” said Morgan. “Before ‘Howl,’ there were so many books that weren’t allowed in the U.S. You had to sneak in copies of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ and ‘Lolita’ from Paris. Immediately after that, those other books were sold in the U.S.”