In writing Howl, Allen Ginsberg was following poetic tradition rather than establishing it. Yet no one has ever done anything quite like itby Sam Leith / March 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving mystical naked/ Who dragged themselves thru the angry streets at dawn looking for a negro fix…” Sounds nearly familiar, doesn’t it?
Allen Ginsberg used to repeat the dictum “first thought, best thought,” but the lines above were his actual first thought, according to the draft facsimile of Howl. He was too good a poet not to recognise that “negro” and “angry” were better transposed, that “hysterical” has a rhythmic spring “mystical” lacks, and that “who dragged” fouls up the whole thing.
The other night I went to see Howl, the new film dramatising Allen Ginsberg’s 1955 poem and the subsequent obscenity trial. Made me cry, it did—if only because it contained James Franco reading (very well) that exhilarated and sentimental and anguished and funny and tender poem.
Not all of Ginsberg is great. He was a poet of the chuck-it-all-in-and-see-if-it-works kind, and sometimes it didn’t work. But Howl is great, and much more of him is great too, and not always for the reasons people think. “Beat” he may have been, but he wasn’t cool. Howl was the opposite of cool: deeply and bravely self-exposing.
Ginsberg is seen as the spokesman for a generation but it’s really a personal poem, as personal as its great precursor Leaves of Grass, though like Walt Whitman’s work it turns the personal outwards: “What I assume, you shall assume.” Howl is suffused with feeling for the madness of Ginsberg’s mother. The poem is dedicated to his friend Carl Solomon, languishing in an insane asylum which the poet calls Rockland.
People think of Ginsberg as an iconoclast but Howl is as religious a poem as you could hope to find. In its rhythmic DNA, each line as long as a breath, are psalms and plainsong. He’s also thought of as ground-breaking, but there’s nothing ruder in Howl than in Rochester. Robert Browning made verse talk, and the modernists were violating decorum and syntax half a century earlier. Ginsberg was following a tradition rather than establishing one. He is steeped in William Blake’s mysticisms and Whitman’s bodily exhilaration, but his long line rushes and runs like nothing in either of them. Nobody has done anything quite like Howl before or since.
It’s amazing how well it holds up. So much in it is of its time: the Benzedrine and Metrazol, ECT and lobotomy, Dadaism and the Internationale, the shout-outs to Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, the hipsters and jazz and all the rest. But its intense strength of feeling, mediated through that electrified line, makes it as effective now as when Ginsberg first delivered it.
The least well-founded notion about Howl is that it’s a random rant. Its great strength is rhythm; Ginsberg had a magnificent ear. When in Kaddish, his long poem for his mother, he wrote “farewell/ with six dark hairs on the wen of your breast” it was, yes, intimate and exact and slightly icky, but it was also precise in its music.
In Howl, the effects are cranked, Spinal Tap style, right up to eleven. The first section rushes past us like a subway train. The second—“Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgement! Moloch the vast stone of war!”—shouts and barks.
But the third section suddenly shifts from prophetic declamation to: “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland…” Here is a declaration of fellow-feeling—a swoop from the cosmic to the intimate (for Ginsberg, they are connected by a superhighway) that is enacted in miniature by the last lines:
I’m with you in Rockland where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free I’m with you in Rockland in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night
The line “forget your underwear we’re free” neutralises the danger of tipping into pomposity, as Ginsberg’s humour does throughout. Then, in a single line, we move from the scale of aerial bombardment to a lone man, wet and in tears, seeking shelter in a cottage in the vast night.
He was the nuts, Allen Ginsberg, and don’t let anyone tell you different.