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M. L. Rosenthal (review date 23 February 1957)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Rosenthal, M. L. “Poet of the New Violence.” The Nation 184, no. 8 (23 February 1957): 162.

[In the following review, Rosenthal finds some fault with Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems but considers his poetry original.]

The two most striking pieces in Allen Ginsberg's pamphlet Howl and Other Poems—the long title-piece itself and “America”—are sustained shrieks of frank defiance. The themes are struck off clearly in the opening lines of each:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed
by madness, starving hysterical naked …

and

America I've given you all and now I'm nothing.

Isolated quotation, however, will not convey the real tone of these poems, though their drift is not hard to define. We have had smoking attacks on the civilization before, ironic or murderous or suicidal. We have not had this particular variety of anguished anathema-hurling in which the poet's revulsion is expressed with the single-minded frenzy of a raving madwoman.

Ginsberg hurls, not only curses, but everything—his own paranoid memories of a confused, squalid, humiliating existence in the “underground” of American life and culture, mock political and sexual “confessions” (together with the childishly aggressive vocabulary of obscenity which in this country is being increasingly substituted for anti-Semitism as the “socialism of fools”), literary allusions and echoes, and the folk-idiom of impatience and disgust. The “best minds” of his generation as Ginsberg, age 30, remembers them “howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts.” They “scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish.”

Would you inquire? discuss? rebuke? “I don't feel good don't bother me.”

That is to say, this poetry is not “rational discourse,” such as we find in almost all other American literature of dissidence. Nor is it that flaccid sort of negation, too easy and too glib, that so often reduces the charge in the writing of Patchen and others, though it does occasionally lapse into mere rant and scabrous exhibitionism. It is the fury of the soul-injured lover or child, and its dynamic lies in the way it spews up undigested the elementary need for freedom of sympathy, for generous exploration of thought, for the open response of man to man so long repressed by the smooth machinery of intellectual distortion. It is further evidence, the most telling yet, perhaps, of the Céline-ization of nonconformist attitudes in America, or should we say their Metesky-ization? Homogenize the dominant culture enough, destroy the channels of communication blandly enough, and you will have little Mad Bombers everywhere.

Though his style is effectively, sometimes brilliantly, his own, Ginsberg shows the impact of such poets as Whitman, Williams and Fearing in his adaptations of cadence to rhetorical and colloquial rhythms; once in a while he falls entirely into the cadence and voice of one or another of these writers, on occasion—as in “A Supermarket in California”—deliberately. But he does break through as these poets, who are among the men who have most earnestly sought to be true native voices in their several ways, have prepared him to do. Is Ginsberg of the same calibre? Despite his many faults and despite the danger that he will screech himself mute any moment now, is he the real thing?

What we can say, I think, is that he has brought a terrible psychological reality to the surface with enough originality to blast American verse a hair's-breadth forward in the process. And he has sent up a rocket-flare to locate for his readers the particular inferno of his “lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon,” all of them “yacketayacking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospital...

(The entire section is 62,743 words.)