Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Howl and the Howlers: Ginsberg's Poem Fifty Plus Years Later

An Essay on the Most Famous Poetry Reading ever to Occur in California and on the Most Famous Single Poem ever Written There

If it’s true that the road to originality lies in imitation, then it wasn’t an utter waste of time for a Catholic high school boy from the suburbs to try to sound in his poems like a downtown homosexual Jewish beatnik intimate in the ways of pot and Benzedrine.
                            —Billy Collins, “My ‘Howl’” (2006)

Don’t hide the madness.
                           —Allen Ginsberg, “On Burroughs’ Work” (1954) 

“The Beat Generation” was one of the most publicized, misunderstood, attacked, understood, deeply considered, cannibalized, ripped-off art movements of the twentieth-century. Its influence extends from the adolescent troubled about sexuality and identity to the dry-as-dust scholar looking for history and significance in old books and papers. Whereas the “hippies” seem somewhat passé, sentimental, and—worst of all—old, the even-older Beats (some of whom were also hippies) have passed into history as American artists of considerable importance. Like Elvis, Jack Kerouac is now forever young, intense and handsome—a symbol of American success—and only occasionally remembered as the middle-aged, fat, lonely man he became. He has in fact become exactly what he wished to be: a great American writer. But he has become more than that: an icon. If America has secular saints, he is surely one. But, like many prophets perhaps, he has become a saint of a religion he would have despised: his image is used to sell things; he is the American bourgeoisie raised to cosmic proportions.

From its inception, the Beat Generation was a testimony to the power of the fuzzy definition. Intensely meaningful—and with certain aspects continually but not always manifesting—“Beat” has never been adequately defined. Had it been adequately defined, it might have been long dead as a movement. Though everyone would agree that something took place in the middle of the twentieth century, after the war, it would be difficult to find agreement about exactly what that something was. Was it a rebellion, as people often claimed? Kerouac announced, with some justice, that he was never a “rebel.” In his late bitterness but with some irony still, he told Bruce Cook in The Beat Generation, “The Beat Generation?—That was just a bunch of guys trying to get laid.” He also wrote,

The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way.

                “About the Beat Generation” (1957) 

           On October 7 or October 13, 1955, a poetry reading was held at The Six Gallery, a cooperative art gallery in San Francisco. Different sources list different dates. Allen Ginsberg’s postcard announcing the event says October 7th–and that is almost certainly  the correct date–but his biographer, Barry Miles, says October 13th. (I’ve been told that Ginsberg claimed that the reading had to be postponed for six days—so the postcard was inaccurate. No one else seems to mention the postponement.) The featured readers were Allen Ginsberg (the organizer), Michael McClure (whose first reading it was), Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Philip Lamantia. Jack Kerouac was visiting Ginsberg at the time and attended, though he did not read. Kenneth Rexroth was Master of Ceremonies.

Ann Charters writes in The Beat Reader, “The ‘Six Poets at the Six Gallery’ reading was the catalyst that dramatically revealed what Ginsberg later called the ‘natural affinity of modes of thought or literary style or planetary perspective’ between the East Coast writers and the West Coast poets.”

Both Jack Kerouac and Michael McClure wrote about the Six Gallery event, Kerouac in The Dharma Bums (1958)—in which he calls the Six Gallery the Gallery Six—and McClure in Scratching the Beat Surface (1982). The event soon became famous as the first public reading of “Howl” (though Ginsberg read only the first section of the poem that night). Ginsberg’s poem created a sensation. Kerouac collected money for wine and passed around gallon jugs of California Burgundy. When Ginsberg’s turn came, writes Barry Miles, “he read with a small, intense voice, but the alcohol and the emotional intensity of the poem quickly took over, and he was soon swaying to its powerful rhythm, chanting like a Jewish cantor, sustaining his long breath length, savoring the outrageous language.  Kerouac began cheering him on, yelling ‘Go!’ at the end of each line, and soon the audience joined in.  Allen was completely transported. At each line he took a deep breath, glanced at the manuscript, then delivered it, arms outstretched, eyes gleaming, swaying from one foot to the other with the rhythm of the words.”

All descriptions of the Six Gallery event emphasize the transformative character of Ginsberg’s reading.  Michael McClure writes that “‘Howl’ . . . was Allen’s metamorphosis from quiet, brilliant, burning bohemian scholar trapped by his flames and repressions to epic vocal bard.” Kerouac’s communal wine-drinking gave the event a Bacchanalian, Dionysian quality. (Wine is of course associated with various religions, including Kerouac’s own, Catholicism; in a 1958 letter to John Hollander, Ginsberg himself refers to “Howl” as “rather like a jazz mass.”) Barry Miles too attests to both transformation and religious associations. These various elements coalesce into a single image: what the audience at the Six Gallery was witnessing was the metamorphosis of Allen Ginsberg, “hornrimmed intellectual hepcat with wild black hair” (in Kerouac’s phrase), into Allen Ginsberg, “epic vocal bard.”

Ann Charters remarks that Ginsberg “found the audience so fervently sympathetic to his words that he discovered his unrecognized talents as a performance artist”; his “predecessor as an incandescent performer of poetry was the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, whose widely acclaimed reading tours of American cities in the early 1950s . . . and his best-selling recordings had revolutionized the way his audiences thought of poetry.”

True enough, but Kerouac’s and the audience’s shouts of “Go!” indicate that Ginsberg had taken on the persona not only of the rhapsodic poet but of the jazz musician. Though Ginsberg wasn’t reading his poem to jazz accompaniment (as ruth weiss, Kenneth Rexroth and others were soon to do at The Cellar), his unaccompanied reading was alive with a sense of music—even with a sense of bebop: “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.”

In his notes to the LP album, Allen Ginsberg Reads Howl and Other Poems (1959), Ginsberg describes his poem as full of “long saxophone-like chorus lines” and suggests that writing it was equivalent to the experience of a jazz musician improvising. Like the hipster, who, Norman Mailer wrote in “The White Negro” (1957), “absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro,” Ginsberg’s performance at the Six Gallery took on the aura of the hippest of public performers: in Mailer’s formulation, “for practical purposes [he] could be considered a white Negro.” Instead of being the observer of what Kerouac called in On the Road “the happy, true-hearted Negroes of America,”  Ginsberg became the authentic conveyer of their power. Like Neal Cassady—the “secret hero of these poems”—the sensitive, gay, bespectacled, hustling, funny, lonely, fiercely intellectual, convivial, drug-taking ex-student of Lionel Trilling’s stood before his audience as something equivalent to Charlie Parker. For one of the very few times in the twentieth century, poetry seemed cool.

And—most importantly—if Ginsberg could do it, so could we.

Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues had already presented the jazz musician as analogous to the poet, but Kerouac was not yet widely known. (On the Road did not appear until 1957; Mexico City Blues was not published until 1959.) “Howl” was written at a time when influential critics such as Arthur Mizener were saying, “The age of Yeats is over; we are in the age of Auden”—by which Mizener meant that Romanticism had been replaced by irony and sotto voce. Ginsberg sent “Howl” to a critic even more distinguished than Mizener, his old Columbia mentor Lionel Trilling. Trilling was—as the poet knew he would be—horrified:

I’m afraid I have to tell you that I don’t like the poems at all. I hesitate before saying that they seem to me quite dull, for to say of a work which undertakes to be violent and shocking that it is dull is, I am aware, a well known and all too easy device. But perhaps you will believe that I am being sincere when I say they are dull. They are not like Whitman….

Poet John Hollander, writing in the Partisan Review, was even harsher:
It is only fair to Allen Ginsberg…to remark on the utter lack of decorum of any kind in his dreadful little volume.

In “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer asserted that after the Second World War and the revelation of what went on in concentration camps “one could hardly maintain the courage to be individual, to speak with one's own voice”: these years, he complained, are “the years of conformity and depression. A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a collective failure of nerve…The only courage, with rare exceptions . . . has been the isolated courage of isolated people”:

If the fate of twentieth century man is to live with death from adolescence to premature senescence, why then the only life-giving answer is to accept the terms of death, to live with death as immediate danger, to divorce oneself from society, to exist without roots, to set out on that uncharted journey into the rebellious imperatives of the self.

In such a climate, Ginsberg could appear not only as an immensely talented poet but as a harbinger of cultural change. “Howl” too “lives with death as immediate danger” and insists on “the rebellious imperatives of the self.” The poet’s LP liner notes indicate that writing “Howl” was a kind of conversion experience, a personal transformation: “I suddenly turned aside in San Francisco . . . to follow my romantic inspiration—Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath.” The extraordinary thing about the event at the Six Gallery was that the audience could witness Ginsberg’s transformation: they could actually see the poet become jazz musician. Ginsberg’s powerful reading, “arms outstretched, eyes gleaming,” was not only the presentation of a poem but a living emblem of the possibility of change. Through rhythm  (the “beat”) it turned being “beaten down” (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”) into, in Kerouac’s French pun, “béat”—blessedness. The poet’s longing for the visionary transforms him, through the jazz musician, into active, epic, Whitmanic, visionary bard. This transformation experience is at the absolute center of “Howl” and is in fact its primary subject. 

~~ Jack Foley, from Beat (The Beat Scene Press, 2003)

(This essay in its entirety may be read here.  Warning: the full essay includes lengthy quotations from "Howl" with language which may be offensive to some readers).

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