It galled Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, CC ’48, that he never won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and never served as the U.S. Poet Laureate, either, though few poets were as popular as he was, and for as long as he was all through the second half of the 20th century. Even on his deathbed, in 1997, he telephoned President Bill Clinton to ask if some honor might be bestowed upon him before his last gasp. There was nothing the White House could do for him, and he died feeling unappreciated.
But perhaps Ginsberg would be satisfied by the homage paid to him now, and to his long, autobiographical poem “Howl.” First published in 1956, it was the focus of a landmark obscenity trial in San Francisco in 1957. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg’s publisher at City Lights, won the case, and “Howl” was ruled to have redeeming social value. “Howl” went on to be translated into more than two dozen languages, and to be read around the world. City Lights has published more than a million copies, and this year, on the poem’s 50th anniversary, celebrations will be held from San Francisco to New York—at Columbia’s Miller Theatre on April 17 with Professor Ann Douglas, among others.
If anyone wanted proof that poetry matters in America, the coast-to-coast and the international readings of “Howl” would seem like more than enough evidence. But in academia, which has become the only real sanctuary for poets and poetry in America, “Howl” is still largely unread; the poem that won the legal battle in the courtroom lost the culture war in the classroom. Students of poetry, including those at Columbia, have been poorer off, and perhaps safer, too, from an intentionally provocative poem that explicitly attacks capitalism, the FBI, and war and that idealizes and romanticizes the lost, the lonely, and the outcast. After 50 years, “Howl” remains controversial in what it has to say and how it says it—by its serious subject matter and its simultaneous playfulness with words.
Readers who enjoy “Howl” today seem to feel that it captures the mood of the present moment, and that it’s as timely as it was in 1956—in the midst of the anxiety and the paranoia of the cold war.
“Poetry is news that stays news,” Ezra Pound once said. “Howl” still reads like front-page news from the battlefield in the “human war,” as Ginsberg called it. For the most part, the poem delivers bad news from its famous opening line, “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.” But it also moves from depression and anger to a state of inner peace and tranquility—a kind of Buddhist acceptance—and it’s no wonder that Ginsberg himself became a practicing Buddhist in the last decade or so of his life.
The public readings of “Howl” that are taking place this year are more than just events to pay homage to Ginsberg and to his work. They are also a cultural call to arms to defy contemporary conformity and caution, and in that respect they carry on the Ginsberg tradition of rebellion that existed side by side with his Buddhism, and that made him a complex figure and a complex poet. Academia has somehow never appreciated or understood that complexity, perhaps because of the shocking four-letter words and the unconventional form of his work. The millions of fans who have read Ginsberg—and those who are just now discovering his work—have not been put off by his wild language or his wild form. If anything, they have recognized in “Howl” a poem that takes pure delight in expressions like “hydrogen jukebox”—and indeed it’s Ginsberg’s extraordinary language that makes “Howl” an American classic.
The author, CC ‘63, is the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation.