The Poem That Changed America
Allen Ginsberg’s controversial rhapsodic poem “Howl” has been called the most influential American poem since T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). “Howl” was first presented to the public at the now-legendary reading on October 7, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, an event that is described in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums (1958). Howl, and Other Poems (1956) was published in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Pocket Poet series, with an introduction by William Carlos Williams, and sold close to one million copies in the fifty years after its first appearance in print. Soon after its publication it became the subject of a widely publicized obscenity trial, which ended with an acquittal for Ginsberg and his publisher on the grounds that, despite the objectionable expressions it contained, the poem was not totally without redeeming social importance.
Ginsberg’s reading of the poem launched his own career and established “Howl” as the most widely read and discussed poem of the post-World War II era in the United States. Immediately after the reading, Ferlinghetti indirectly compared Ginsberg to Walt Whitman by sending him a congratulatory telegram, using almost the identical words Ralph Waldo Emerson had used to praise Whitman upon the first publication of Leaves of Grass (1855) exactly one hundred years earlier.
In order to commemorate and to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the poem’s first appearance in print, editor Jason Shinder has collected twenty-six essays by various writers, critics, and friends of the poet. The hardcover edition of the collection also includes a CD of Ginsberg reading the poem at the Town Hall Theater in Berkeley in 1956.
Although the geographical details of the poem situate “Howl” firmly on the East Coast, its rise to fame is not conceivable without its genesis in the more congenial San Francisco Beat scene and without acknowledging the efforts of its California publisher. It is doubtful that the poem would have been originally as well received in New York.
By chance, The New York Times Book Review had sent the well-established poet Richard Eberhart to California to write a report on the lively West Coast poetry scene, and his glowing review of Ginsberg’s Howl, and Other Poems spread the poet’s fame to the East Coast more rapidly than he could have otherwise expected. Thus it is surprising that most of the essays the editor has selected for inclusion in the collection are by members of the East Coast literary establishment. Although the book is dedicated to “the 6 Poets at the 6 Gallery Reading . . . : Philip Lamantia, Mike McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Phil Walen, and Kenneth Rexroth,” there are no contributions by Walen or Snyder, nor are there more than epigrammatic blurbs by McClure and Ferlinghetti. Diane DiPrima and Ishmael Reed are also absent. Indeed, it might have been beneficial to have some contributions by politicians, businesspeople, and other professionals, even if they had asserted that the poem had “changed America” in a negative way.
The book contains an essay by Ginsberg himself, curiously in the middle of the collection, in which the author describes the genesis of “Howl” while he lived in a furnished room in San Francisco in 1955, just after a period of psychotherapeutic treatment. He claims to have finished the work over the following few months, seeking to “leave behind after my generation an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness in case our military-industrial complex solidified into a repressive police bureaucracy.” Judging from the title of the collection, Shinder’s intention is to prove that Ginsberg was successful in making such an explosive impact on American society.
As it stands, The Poem That Changed America surprisingly does not deal very often with how “Howl” changed the United Stateseither in social or in literary terms, but the vast majority of the contributions describe the impact the poem had on the lives of the individual authors. As one might...
(The entire section is 1700 words.)