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...

(The entire section is 591 words.)