Tuesday, May 23, 2006

HOWL celebrates fifty years!

(quote and photos from The Boston Globe. Thank you, Carter Monroe for pointing out this gem!)

Allen Ginsberg, above left, reading in San Francisco on Nov. 20, 1955, and above center, in New York City's Washington Square Park on Aug. 28, 1966. At right, the City Lights Pocket Poets edition of "Howl and Other Poems."

This fascinating article about Howl's role in the life of poetry in our country can be read in it's entirity in this Boston Globe article, which ends with this question...

So are ''Howl"'s latter-day adherents succumbing to false nostalgia in proclaiming the poem as a national monument? Not at all: The nostalgia is genuine. It's surely wishful thinking to imagine that poetry was ever close to the center of American public life, but in the clear light of hindsight it sure looks like it was within closer hailing distance once upon a time than seems remotely plausible today. If Ginsberg's message has stood the test of time better than his medium, that may be the real secret as to why his dirge still touches such a raw nerve. Poems don't set our ears on fire like that anymore, and they know better than to even try.

Do you agree with this article's conclusion?

And a personal question. Do you remember the first time you ever read Howl and how it impacted you? I was 20, living and working the summer in Manhattan before graduate school. The love I had for poetry had been drummed out of me by my college poetry professors. I remember someone handing me a copy of Howl. First of all you have to be aware of the setting, the times. It was the sixties. Past the time of the Beats, but their footprints were all over the city, from its coffee houses with jazz playing to those feelings of abandon and freedom the Village still gave you strolling the streets. When I read Howl, suddenly poetry was alive for me again. I read it and reread it, then read more Beat poetry. It was like finding something I'd lost. History has had a lot to say about Howl, including how terrible it was, but, for me, it was a gift. For that alone, I honor it!

If you haven't read Howl, do so.


Lyle Daggett said...

The Boston Globe article (I followed the link and read the full article) struck me as a fairly typical slightly bored and cynical magazine piece. I don't agree with the author's conclusion.

To me it seems that the article treats the history of those years (1950's) and the early "Beat" movement superficially and without much critical insight.

A few years ago Lawrence Ferlinghetti was in Minneapolis to do a reading, and during the day he talked and answered questions from whoever showed up. Somebody in the room asked him something about the San Francisco Renaissance, and he said flatly (not harshly, but without hesitation), "There was no San Francisco Renaissance. They were all carpetbaggers from New York. Ginsberg went to Columbia. I was from New York." He mentioned a couple of other of the poets also from the east coast.

Poet Diane DiPrima, at a reading in Minneapolis a few years back -- in response to a question from the audience -- also said flatly, "There was no Beat movement."

I understand that each of them was trying gently to shake the audience out of the mindset of easy classification and received wisdom. Of course they each had a sense of the value of the work they and the other poets of those years had done.

I first read "Howl" during Christmas vacation when I was 17, my last year in high school. It was December 1972. (The same week I also read Ferlinghetti's "A Coney Island of the Mind" and a couple of Ferlinghetti's other books.)

I'd been writing poetry for a little bit by then, and was in a poetry writing class -- a good one -- that gave me a circle of poetry writing friends to connect with. I liked "Howl" well enough, though it didn't really shake my world open, it wasn't a revelation -- certainly I didn't find it shocking. The world had changed enough in the years since Ginsberg wrote and first read the poem that though I liked it, it wasn't the first time I'd read something like it.

I don't mean this in any way to diminish the importance of the poem, and I likewise encourage anyone who hasn't read "Howl" to read it. Also a lot of other poems, though I won't start listing them here because the list would get long... ;~)

The last sentence of the article seemed to me particularly insipid: that poems "don't set our ears on fire like that any more, and they know better than to even try."

It's not easy to see what's coming on the horizon, not easy to know what germinates in the earth, waiting to blossom across the world. How many people saw Ginsberg coming in, say, 1953? (A few did, but anybody at the Boston Globe or New York Times?) But a couple of years later he sounded the howl heard round the world.

Lee Herrick said...

I first read "Howl" as I was entering graduate school around 1991. I distinctly recall a lot of Southern Comfort and cheap beer from those years, and mostly I remember Nirvana. "Howl" resonates across generations, of course, so I was eager to read it having heard of it from many a poet-friend, cool folks who had laready been publishing poems of their own.

From there I began to read other poets of that time, including many of the New York school such as Frank O'Hara. I still occasionally teach On the Road, and although the rather frenetic, sprawling style confuses some students, they appreciate its larger point.

Oh, fun side note: when I was in China about five years ago, I bought a copy of "Howl" translated into Mandarin Chinese.

And, yes, when I visit SF and go to City Lights bookstore, I always stop in at Vesuvius for a beer (it's where those fellows used to drink). Cool bar.

Pris said...

I always enjoy reading your thoughts and insights. One thing you said, in particular, about the close of the article...basically, that we don't know what's coming around the bend till it's there. The article ends on such a negative note. I agree with you. We don't know what the next winds will bring in terms of poetry exciting nonpoets again.

Lee, in Chinese? That must've been a real trip, in both senses of the word. Ginsberg is everywhere!

Endment said...

I am a product of the 60's - an activist who never read Howl until a very few years ago. A lot of people talked a lot and a few people worked a lot... Change happened with or without "Howl"

Carter Monroe said...


I'm always interested in student reactions to On The Road. When I gained web access in late '99, I reconnected with one of my old college profs who was then teaching at the University of North Florida. During the 25 years that had passed, we'd only been in contact a couple of times with the last time being about 15 years earlier.

I had just completed a novel at the time and he told me pretty quickly that he was inundated with manuscripts from former students. Of course, I wasn't married to the book and hadn't even thought about sending it to him. It was more a matter of pride in terms of having finally mustered the discipline to complete such a project after so, so many years.

That bit of nothingness aside. Over time he and I became really good friends. He was in the twilight of his teaching career (has since retired) and mentioned that he was considering teaching OTR for the first time. Wanted to know if I had any "materials" that might help. As opposed to scattering papers from boxes filled with papers that only the most pretentious among us would consider to be archives, I simply took advantage of my newly acquired research tool and as we say in the South, "had at it."

This was an upper level American Literature course and the class was supposed to study the ten greatest novels from American writers in the 20th Century. The class was actually given a rather large and inclusive list of books and asked to vote on which ten they wished to study. OTR came in at number 10 and if memory serves me was actually tied with another book and my prof friend made the decision to use it.

I felt that his task would be very difficult simply because OTR (in my mind) is as much about time, place, and culture than, say, The Great Gatsby, which is a story that could be rewritten in a different period in history with largely the same effect. I'm reminded as I write this of a recent discussion I had with Pris in terms of the difference between understanding something intellectually compared to emotionally. In other words, how would today's college students "feel" this work?

Summarily, he undetook the task and upon completing it, sent me all of the written comments from his students about that book as well as the other nine. The class as a whole did not like it. Several of the members noted in their comments that they wished they hadn't voted to read it. If I remember correctly there were two favorable comments. One of them was an almost offhand comment, but the other, ironically, was from a student in her early 40's who had been accepted into the graduate writing program at the University of Iowa. She understood the significance of the work within the context of the time and the culture and noted that it made her consider her fear of "taking risks" as s writer.

Other than that you had the ever present comments regarding the demeaning of women, etc. much in the same manner as you might with Hemingway. All in all, I think my prof friend was more disappointed than I. Still, with all of that having been written and said, it's amazing how that book continues to sell steadily. Don't even mention that on occasion I see threads on discussion boards regarding favorite Kerouac books and rarely is OTR one of them. I tend to brush that aside thinking that many of the participants are more interested in presenting the extent of their reading. It's like, "Everybody's read On the Road, so I'll list Some of the Dharma" or some such. Even stranger is the fact that I've yet to see one list The Subterreans as the favorite.


michi said...

i think i first read howl in my mid-twenties, and i was amazed by it, the language, the breathlessness. but the poem really came alive for me when i first heard a recording of ginsberg reading it, which i still have and listen to every once in a while.


Pris said...

I've not been getting my post notifications for some reason, so missed this great discussion. Endment, yes, things would've gone on without Howl, but that wasn't what any of us were saying, though. It was more about Howl's place in time and the significance it had to those who read it, particularly early on.

Pris said...

As you know, I'm blitzed with this antibiotic right now, but sometime I want to write to your comment about taking risks as a writer. To me, that was a turning point on my journey towards becoming a poet.