While I'm sad that we'll have to leave Kerouac behind, I'm equally excited to be spending the next six classes focusing on the work of Allen Ginsberg, tracing the high points of his poetic career from the 1950s through to his death in 1997. In our first few classes, we'll tackle the three major epic works of his early career — "Howl (for Carl Solomon)," "Kaddish" and "Wichita Vortex Sutra" — while our final classes will jump forward from the late 60s to the late 90s.
First up is "Howl," a poem many would argue is the most influential and groundbreaking poetic work of the 20th century, not only for its aesthetic innovations, but for its revolutionary effects upon the social and cultural discourse — both in the U.S. and worldwide — from the 50s into the 60s and well beyond. The stylistic breakthrough that "Howl" would mark for Ginsberg was a long time in the making. You'll notice, for example, that we'll more or less skip the first 120 pages of Collected Poems, and that's because — much like the massive differences between Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City and On the Road — Ginsberg wrote a lot of poetry in the more traditional modernist mode of his father before he felt empowered to break free and write in his own expressionistic way (however, these works weren't published until much later). Aside from NYC Beat compatriots like Kerouac and Burroughs, another key figure in his artistic development was San Francisco poet Kenneth Rexroth, who critiqued Ginsberg's early poetry as being too formal: "It still sounds like you're wearing Columbia University Brooks Brothers ties," he observed. Yet another unsung hero of American literary history is Ginsberg's psychiatrist, Philip Hicks. Here's Ginsberg's retelling of a liberating exchange between the two after Hicks asked him what he wanted to do with his life:
"Doctor, I don't think you're going to find this very healthy and clear, but I really would like to stop working forever — never work again, never do anything like the kind of work I'm doing now — and do nothing but write poetry and have leisure to spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends. And I'd like to keep living with someone — maybe even a man — and explore relationships that way. And cultivate my perceptions, cultivate the visionary thing in me. Just a literary and quiet city-hermit existence. Then he said 'Well, why don't you?' I asked him what the American Psychoanalytic Association would say about that, and he said . . . if that is what you really feel would please you, what in the world is stopping you from doing it?"
Ginsberg debuted "Howl" at the famous Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco on October 7, 1955 — an event he co-organized with Gary Snyder, and which featured Rexroth as Master of Ceremonies and readings from Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia and Michael McClure. In attendance, among many others, were Kerouac (who describes the scene early in The Dharma Bums), Neal Cassady, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and cofounder of City Lights Bookstore, along with its publishing imprint. Ferlinghetti had already published a few books (including his own Pictures of the Gone World) in the "Pocket Poets" series (small pocket-sized books based on volumes he saw while studying at the Sorbonne in Paris on the G.I. Bill), and he was very excited at the thought of putting out Ginsberg's work — so much so that the morning after the reading he sent him a postcard mirroring Ralph Waldo Emerson's words to Walt Whitman a century earlier: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," and adding "When do I get the manuscript?"
Published in 1956, Howl and Other Poems was seized by officials and subject to an obscenity trial. Ferlinghetti gives his own account of the trial in his essay, "Horn on Howl" [PDF], which I wholeheartedly recommend you read. For more background on the book, I also recommend reading William Carlos Williams' introduction to the volume, which can be found on page 819 of Collected Poems.
The final piece of the puzzle missing so far is Carl Solomon, the person to whom "Howl" is dedicated. Ginsberg met Solomon in Columbia Presbyterian Psychological Institute, a mental institution he agreed to be admitted to in lieu of serving time when he was arrested for allowing thief friends to store stolen goods at his apartment. Ginsberg's time there was a harrowing experience for a number of reasons, including his fears that he shared his mother's mental illness (something we'll discuss in greater depth when reading "Kaddish") and his witness to the defeated Solomon, once a fervent youthful Dadaist who'd surrendered to institutionalization, tired of asserting that it was the world instead that was insane. This distinction forms a central conceit of "Howl," as you'll see.
Here are our readings for Thursday's class (page numbers refer to Collected Poems) — when possible, I've provided links to streaming audio via PennSound:
- In Society (11)
- The Bricklayer's Lunch Hour (12): MP3
- Pull My Daisy (32): MP3
- Stanzas: Written at Night in Radio City (35): MP3
- Bop Lyrics (50)
- In Back of the Real (121): MP3
- Malest Cornifici Tuo Catullo (131)
- Howl (134): (1956 in San Francisco: Intro: MP3 / Poem: MP3) (1995 in NYC: Poem: MP3 / Epilogue: MP3)
- Footnote to "Howl" (142) (note: this is included in the files above)
- A Strange New Cottage in Berkeley (143): MP3 (note: this "strange new cottage," which also is the setting for "Transcription of Organ Music" below, is the very same one that Alvah and Ray share in The Dharma Bums)
- A Supermarket in California (144): MP3
- Sunflower Sutra (146): MP3
- America (154): MP3
- Epigraph and Dedication to "Howl" (809, 810)
William Carlos Williams, “Introduction to Howl” (819)
And here are a few supplemental links on "Howl" for your reading (and listening) pleasure:
- NPR: "Revisiting 'Howl' at 50" [link]
- NPR: "After 50 Years, 'Howl' Still Resonates" [link]
- "To Save America," James Campbell's commemoration of the poem's 50th anniversary in the Guardian: [link]
- Stephen Burt on "The Paradox of Howl" in Slate [link]
- "Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' in a New Controvery," The New York Times, 1988 [link]
- "Classic Beat," Greil Marcus reflects on the poem in The New York Times, 2006 [link]
- A page dedicated to Shig Murao, San Francisco poetry fixture and the City Lights clerk who was actually arrested for selling a copy of Howl and Other Poems. While Murao and Ferlinghetti were co-defendants in the obscenity case, his place in history is at risk of being forgotten (cf. the film Howl, where he's written out entirely): [link]