When “Howl” was published, Ginsberg sent a copy to his former teacher at Columbia University, Lionel Trilling, a man widely regarded as one of the foremost professors of American literature. Trilling, who was fond of Ginsberg and wanted to encourage him, wrote in May, 1956, “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 . . . [but] I am being sincere when I say they are dull.” The significance of Trilling’s reply is not simply that he was unable to appreciate an exceptional poem but that he was unprepared to recognize the qualities of an entire tradition in American literature. Trilling’s training and experience had prepared him to respond with intelligence and insight to poems which the academic critical establishment regarded as important. The influence, however, of the New Critics—the writers who followed the teaching of such men as Cleanth Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, and John Crowe Ransom—left a line of poetic expression from Walt Whitman through Ezra Pound and on to Charles Olson, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and now Ginsberg essentially invisible.
When Ginsberg finished “Howl,” many poets outside the academic and publishing network of power were extraordinarily enthusiastic ( Kenneth Rexroth said that the poem would make Ginsberg famous “bridge to bridge,” meaning across the entire American continent), but many critics and professors attacked it as formless and haphazard, the work of an uneducated buffoon. This particularly angered Ginsberg, who expected some misunderstanding but was especially disappointed that his own careful analysis of poetry in the English language and his efforts to find an appropriate structure for his thoughts had been so completely missed.
In addition to Trilling, Ginsberg sent a copy to his old mentor William Carlos Williams with a letter pointing out “what I have done with the long line,” his basic rhythmic measure, a unit of breath which replaced the more familiar meter as a means of organizing the images of the poem. He believed that this “line” had what he called an “elastic” quality that permitted “spontaneity” and that its “rhythmical buildup” would lead to a “release of emotion,” a human quality which he believed had been removed from the formal and often ironic stance taken by twentieth century poetry.
Although Whitman obviously was one of his models in his attempt to reclaim the life of an ordinary citizen as a subject as well as for his characteristically long-breath lines, Ginsberg also mentioned American poet Hart Crane and English Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (citing his 1821 volume Epipsychidion, in particular) and William Wordsworth (“Tintern Abbey”) as influences. While Ginsberg was describing his modernist method of composition as “observing the flashings on the mind” and casually dismissing most editing by issuing the dictum “First thought, best thought,” he also insisted on pointing out his lifelong familiarity with the traditional “bearded poets of the nineteenth century” that he had read in his father’s home.
This solid background with conventional poetry was missed at first by critics who were overwhelmed by the originality of Ginsberg’s writing and by his insistence on including all of his primary concerns—his amalgam of religions (Jewish/Buddhist/Hindu), his homosexuality, his radical politics, and his particular current literary enthusiasms—in his writing. When Ginsberg spoke of “compositional self exploration,” he was challenging the idea that the poet worked everything out beforehand and selected an approved form to contain his thoughts. Ginsberg was, instead, one of the first proponents of Charles Olson’s well-known definition that “form is never more than an extension of content,” seeking to “graph the movement of his own mind” without the limitations of grammatical, syntactical, or quasi-literary conceptions about what was and was not poetic.
Ginsberg’s intentions were ultimately to remake or restore American poetry, “to open the field” to its fullest dimensions. The mass media’s misguided view of Ginsberg as a somewhat pathetic jester was obliterated by Ginsberg’s Collected Poems, 1947-1980, which made it clear just how much a part of the main current of American poetry Ginsberg had become. It was not a matter of Ginsberg’s ideas replacing previous orthodoxy as a dominant mode but rather of a recognition that the approaches and ideas upon which Ginsberg insisted must be given the serious attention they require. From the sequence of what Ginsberg called “strong-breath’d poems,” one might also derive a kind of counter-strain of lyrics which would not be “peaks of inspiration” in the most profound sense, but which exhibit Ginsberg’s zany, Keatonesque comic spirit and his heartfelt commingling of sadness and sweetness.
They also demonstrate his extremely sharp eye for detail amid the intricate landscape of American culture and his consistently inventive use of contemporary American speech on all levels, mixed with a classic English-American diction. The poems included in this mode begin with “A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley” and “A Supermarket in California,” which Ginsberg describes as one poem in two parts that he wrote to satisfy his curiosity about whether “short quiet lyrical poems could be written using the long line.” The poignance of Ginsberg’s lament in “A Supermarket in California” for the promise of an earlier America still alive among symbols of contemporary American decay, and his homage to Whitman in the poem’s conclusion, in which he addresses Whitman as “lonely old courage-teacher,” evoke a mood of lyric innocence that is sustained by poems throughout his career.
The comic nature of Ginsberg’s work, often using his poetic persona as the source and object of the joke, is evident in poems such as “Yes and It’s Hopeless” (1973), “Junk Mail” (1976), “Personals Ad” (1990), and especially in “I Am a Victim of Telephone” (1964), where his reveries are constantly interrupted by the telephone, which demands he respond immediately because “my husband’s gone my boyfriend’s busted forever my poetry was/ rejected.” Because Ginsberg is essentially serious, however, his use of comic situations tends to underscore and to temper his earnestness so that when he vows in “America” (1956) that “I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” his humor works as both a defense against a hostile world and as an expression of his modesty beneath his almost epic claims. In addition, the comic moods of his poems are often a product of his sheer delight in the weirdness of existence, another aspect of his ultimately optimistic and even exuberantly enthusiastic response to the world.
A major part of Ginsberg’s world has always been his friends and literary companions, and they, too, figure prominently in his poetry. Cassady, Orlovsky, Kesey, and Burroughs are mentioned in various poems and dedications to collections, but the poem that unites generations of artists with a similar sensibility is “Death News” (1963). Ginsberg, upon learning of William Carlos Williams’s death, recalls an earlier occasion when he, Kerouac, Corso, and Orlovsky sat “on sofa in living room” and asked for “wise words.” Williams’s wisdom—“There’s a lot of bastards out there”—moves Ginsberg toward a celebration of the older poet in which he recognizes Williams’s ability to retain humaneness in his life and art even though he is aware of the “bastards.” From this lesson, Ginsberg proceeds to a series of reconciliations, including the theological (conflicting religious backgrounds), the local with the eternal, and most important in this context, the generational, as there is a mutuality of feeling and respect between the poets of two ages.
A similar Whitmanic generosity of spirit is displayed in “Who Be Kind To” (1965), a poem in which Ginsberg goes beyond the sympathy he extends to his friends to offer love to an often hostile environment. The community of underground artists with whom Ginsberg began his writing has broadened to include many members of the more traditional cultural enclaves, but there is still a very destructive force at large in the United States that Ginsberg has always opposed; in poems such as “Bayonne Entering NYC” (1966) or “Death on All Fronts” (1969), the ugliness and lethal pollution of the world is presented as a sickness to be challenged with the mind-awakening strength of the soul. This is what Ginsberg always tried to do in his poetry, beginning with “Howl,” which identified and described the psychic disaster, on through all the other poems that have uncovered and examined fears and desires denied and repressed and have then demanded that these impulses be accepted as a part of the totality of human experience.
First published: 1956 (collected in Howl, and Other Poems, 1956, 1996)
Type of work: Poem
The poet laments the loss of sensitive young people destroyed by society, castigates the forces behind the destruction, and concludes in a spirit of affirmation.
When Ferlinghetti heard “Howl” for the first time, he wrote Ginsberg a note asking for the manuscript so that he could publish it and repeated Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to Walt Whitman upon the publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Many others shared his enthusiasm.
The tremendous energy that Ginsberg had generated with his images and gathered with his rhythmic structure was impossible to avoid, but while those who were open to all the possibilities of “language charged with meaning” (in Ezra Pound’s famous phrase) were excited and inspired by the poem, a very strong counterreaction among academic critics and others frightened or appalled by Ginsberg’s subject matter and approach produced some very harsh criticism.
Norman Podhoretz attacked “Howl” for “its glorification of madness, drugs and homosexuality, and . . . its contempt and hatred for anything and everything generally deemed healthy, normal or decent.” Ginsberg felt that the poem spoke for itself in terms of his ideas and attitudes, but what bothered him was how the poetic qualities behind its composition seemed to have been overlooked in the furor. Even if he saw himself as a poet who, in the ancient sense, was a prophet who offered insight which could guide his race, he was, initially, a poet. Therefore, it was his “craft or sullen art” (as Dylan Thomas put it) which he offered as his proclamation of intention, and when it was misunderstood, Ginsberg explained or taught the poem himself.
His work prior to 1955 had consisted primarily of imitations of earlier poets or variations on early modernist styles. Then, in a crucial moment of self-awareness, he decided “to follow my romantic inspiration—Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath.” His plan was to write down (or “scribble”) images flashing across his perceptual circuits in an overview of his entire life experience. From the famous first line, “I saw the best minds of my generation . . . ,” Ginsberg compressed or condensed the life stories of his acquaintances—students, artists, drop-outs, madmen, junkies, and other mutants deviating from the conventional expectations of the muted 1950’s into what he called “a huge sad comedy of wild phrasing.” He used the word “who” to maintain a rhythmic pulse and to establish a base from which he could leap into rhapsodic spasms of language:
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