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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

During the 1950’s, American literature seemed to reflect the mood of life in the postwar world. The general ethos of caution, conformity, and complacency that marked the political and cultural climate was reinforced by mainstream writing cited by reviewers and celebrated by academicians. Yet an alternative tradition, as authentically American as the more prominent conservative one, was gaining energy and substance, and the landmark reading at the Six Gallery in 1955 signaled its emergence into public consciousness. The central feature of this event was Allen Ginsberg’s first public performance of “Howl,” a moment recognized by most of those present as a turning point in American literary history.

What Ginsberg accomplished was the creation of a territory for writing that was radically different from the narrow, nearly exhausted modes of expression approved by the literary establishment. By example, he validated a literary possibility that ran counter to, or way beyond, the prevalent positions on form, style, and subject. The ardor of his voice—the overwhelming, unreserved expression of his commitment to a vision of enlightenment—stood in almost shocking contrast to the generally accepted modes of ironic distance, elevated diction, and formal argument. To the critics who reacted with dismay or derision, “Howl” seemed like a regression to a subliterary realm of vulgarity and excess. Ginsberg’s poem, which demanded an oral presentation to achieve its full effect, however, reclaimed the power of the poet’s singing voice from those who emphasized the appearance of the poem in print as its most important placement. He used chants to accumulate rhythmic power and modulated moods through schemes of sound, contributing to an audience involvement that compelled a participation beyond a measured critical evaluation. By devising a structure that was uniquely suited to this purpose, Ginsberg was also forcing a reconsideration of the whole idea of form, an agenda which he shared with Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and others who agreed with Whitman’s idea that “Old forms, old poems here in this land are exiles.”

“Howl” not only captured the spirit of an underground culture but also conveyed it in a specifically American voice, employing not only a version of American vernacular speech but also elements of street slang, the argot of the junkie and the hipster, conversational modes, an amalgam of jazz cadences, and the tempo of several species of sermon. By demonstrating that poetry could include styles of...

(The entire section is 591 words.)