‘Howl,’ Ginsberg’s Time Bomb, Still Setting Off New Explosions

Hyperbolic titles invite dissent. So here’s mine: What makes Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” “the poem that changed America,” as the cover of this essay collection proclaims?

Ginsberg might’ve responded by saying, as he did in a 1986 essay included here, that when San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore published “Howl” 50 years ago, changing America was part of the plan: “I was curious to leave behind after my generation an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness in case our military-industrial-nationalist complex solidified into a repressive police bureaucracy,” he wrote, adding that he also “thought to disseminate a poem so strong that a clean Saxon four-letter word might enter high school anthologies permanently and deflate tendencies toward authoritarian strong-arming.” Indeed Ginsberg’s ecstatic eruption of a poem, with its fucks and cocks and infamous opening lines—“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by / madness, starving hysterical naked”—has been anthologized, lionized, internationalized and scrutinized by everyone from Whitman scholars and gay-rights activists to spoken-word performers and public prosecutors (in 1957, “Howl” and its publisher beat obscenity charges in a San Francisco court).

But still—the poem that changed America? A case might be made for such a claim, but this uneven collection of essays (most of which have all the critical distance of a fanzine) doesn’t make it—unless “poem” refers not just to “Howl” but to Ginsberg and the whole Beat movement; and “changed” simply means “had an emotional effect on”; and “America” is limited to literati and former friends of Ginsberg, such as the contributors to this volume.

Editor Jason Shinder explains in his introduction that “unlike the myriad of critical texts” about the poem, this one delivers “personal narratives.” His claim is misleading: The collection’s meatiest essays are pure lit-crit, offering astute close readings that avoid academic jargon but are unlikely to captivate a general readership. Marjorie Perloff analyzes the poem’s “language of modernism,” including “le mot juste, the objective correlative, the use of complex semantic and rhetorical figures.” To Eliot Katz, Ginsberg is a brand of political poet; to Alicia Ostriker, he’s a Jewish one: “If his personal style is an American incarnation of the Yiddish personality, his moral power descends in a direct line from the power of Hebrew prophecy.” Since there’s something deliciously defiant in eruditely explicating a text that was dismissed by the establishment of its day—Norman Podhoretz panned “Howl” in The New Republic and the Partisan Review; Lionel Trilling found it “just plain dull”; Richard Eberhart, in The New York Times Book Review, called it “a howl against everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit, assuming that the louder you shout the more likely you are to be heard”—most of these contemporary critical readings bear a triumphant undertone, as if to say, with all due respect: “Take that, Mr. Trilling!”

The book’s personal essays, on the other hand, vary in tone from reverent to rapturous. Some—including those by Jane Kramer, Vivian Gornick, Amiri Baraka and Eileen Myles—are odes to Ginsberg himself. Though they share sweet memories of the man behind the poem, most aren’t quite essays but sketches that often feel truncated. Amiri Baraka’s piece, for instance, is peppered with captivating tidbits that merely tease: “The gap between Black nationalism and Tibetan Buddhism. I wanted to make War, Allen to make peace,” he writes.

Other personal essays are not about the poet but the poet’s effect on, well, another poet (or writer). Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins discovered via Ginsberg that “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.” Rick Moody reminisces about his days in the Providence rock scene of the 70’s and suggests that “Howl” was “a great article of constitution of the punk rock years.” Considering the range of musical connections drawn here—“Howl” is linked in form and content to punk rock and folk rock and even hip-hop—one wonders why more diverse figures, as opposed to just writers and poets, aren’t offered the opportunity to affirm the poem’s lasting resonance. Surely there are, say, rockers or rappers or Def Poetry Jam performers who found inspiration in Ginsberg’s rebel yell; why not let them vouch for the poem’s contemporary impact?

A little more diversity might have steered this collection clear of its greatest flaw: repetition. Too often, the essays end up staging an informal competition: Who can say the same thing—“He rebelled against conformity and repression, and this moved me”—in the most evocative fashion?

Here are the losing contestants: Eliot Katz’s too-technical description of “Howl” as “a long reverberating social critique that illuminates a new multidimensional field of political, psychological, cultural, and militaristic repression,” and Marge Piercy’s tired metaphor: “Poetry seems to close down periodically to something safe and barely felt. Then comes a poet who thrusts the door open with a great shocking bang.”

Here are the winners: Luc Sante’s characterization of “Howl” as “the last poem to hit the world with the impact of news and grip it with the tenacity of a pop song,” or Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s portrait of the Beat movement as “the uprising of the garbage dumps of the suburbs, as if tin cans, broken bicycles, and rusted cars erupted with a roar like Vesuvius’ lava at the smug Pompeii of soullessness.”

But all the talk of Ginsberg-as-rebel eventually turns tedious; it also strikes this reader (I’m on the cusp of Generations X and Y) as gratingly nostalgic: wistful musings about how glorious things were back in the heyday of counterculture. Robert Pinsky’s assertion that “if ‘Howl’ were published for the first time tomorrow, it would be sensational and challenging” is liable to leave anyone weaned on explicit expression and censorship controversies—on songs such as N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police,” or Ice-T’s “Cop Killer,” or the Oscar-winning “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp”—feeling skeptical, to say the least.

Thomas Frank aptly summed up the state of my generation’s “counterculture” in Commodify Your Dissent (1997): “The rebel race continues today regardless,” he wrote, “with ever-heightening shit-references calculated to scare Jesse Helms, talk about sex and smack that is supposed to bring the electricity of real life, and ever-more determined defiance of the repressive rules and mores of the American 1950’s—rules and mores that by now we know only from movies.” Post-boomer generations grapple cynically with the fine and often artificial line between mainstream and underground, repressed and liberated; we know Allen Ginsberg as, yes, the man who “chant[ed] in the park surrounded by hippies in beads and feathers” (as Luc Sante puts it)—but we also know him as the guy in those 90’s-era Gap ads.

None of this is to undermine the value of “Howl” today; on the contrary, it’s to suggest that the poem is, in a present-day context, more multifaceted than ever—and more multifaceted than much of this book allows.

Two essays (out of 26) are exceptions to the rule: They shrewdly interrogate the well-hashed Ginsberg-versus-Cold-War-repression party line. Phillip Lopate offers an honest reaction to Ginsberg’s rebel persona—“what about all those working stiffs who would not end up raving lunatics, who could not afford to drop out, were we automatically judged mediocre and condemned to a lower status than ‘the best minds,’ by dint of neglecting or refusing to fall apart?” And David Gates tries to reconcile the fact that “Howl” has become an American classic with the notion that “much of [the poem’s] power comes from its sense of censorious readership, which does not agree that, for instance, the ‘tongue and cock and hand and asshole’ are holy.” That kind of discussion lets “Howl” reverberate in contemporary America, at a time when our “angelheaded hipsters” aren’t cruising “the negro streets at dawn,” but drinking lattes in Williamsburg or reading Ginsberg and Kerouac on the Lower East Side.

Baz Dreisinger is an assistant professor of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.