Linnea Jönsson;



HOWL
by Allen Ginsberg


- analysis & discussion -





A sounding breakthrough

I maintain that one of the big breakthroughs for American poetry took place during a poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco 1955, where Allen Ginsberg read HOWL for the first time. HOWL is one of the definite highpoints of the Beat movement. It is a long poem, divided into three parts with a footnote at the end. It describes many of the original people that passed through the forties and onwards. In HOWL you meet all the junkies, criminals, visionaries and poets who were the Beat Generation.


A word on the Academies:
poetry has been attacked by an ignorant and frightened bunch of bores
who don’t understand how it’s made, and the trouble with these creeps
is that they wouldn’t know poetry if it came up and buggered them in broad daylight

(Allen Ginsberg, Notes)





This is the advertisement for the now legendary poetry reading at the Six Gallery

in San Francisco 1955, where the, at that time relatively unknown,
poet Allen Ginsberg recited HOWL for the very first time.

On October the 7th, in the dim light inside the gallery, a vivid and colorful poetry reading is taking place. This is the night for some more or less well known poets and authors to read their work at the little stage of the gallery. Even though this is not a calm and serious event, one person can be noticed more than the others. It is the young Jack Kerouac, running round the premises, pouring red wine, shouting approval and commenting on the recitals.
Around 11 pm, a door to a toilet in back of the room opens up with a bang. The people in the gallery avert their eyes from the stage and stare.
A man is sitting on the toilet seat. His appearance is a strange sight. He is wearing a pair of thick spectacles, has distinct features and black wavy uncut hair with a suggestion of a bald spot. His pants are placed neatly around his ankles. It is the twenty-nine-year-old Allen Ginsberg, ready and all set to read his newly written poem
HOWL.
He rises slowly without a sound, turns around and flushes, pulls up his trousers and zips them. Then he slowly but resolutely begins to walk through the surprised crowd, up to the stage.
’Who is he?’ some people in the audience probably think, ‘a drunk fool or a prophet from
The Old Testament?’
The man opens his mouth and with a voice that is sometimes preaching and soft, sometimes rebellious and urging he begins to read:



I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night [...]



Ginsberg

The audience was both shocked and astonished. Some were quiet and listened intensely, others were swept off their feet and screamed with joy and waved their bottles of wine in the air. Ginsberg confidently recited his poem and then left the stage.
This was totally new. No one had ever before done anything similar. Never had anybody written, or for that matter recited, in such a naked manner about drugs, a confused and scary life, obscene and ambiguous sexuality and his innermost, apocalyptically showed, feelings. Neither had anyone before with such anger, fury and strength cursed American politics and norms.

Later, Ginsberg has described the evening at the Six Gallery in several ways, one stating that:



The idea was simply to drink lots of red wine, have fun and behave silly and amateurish.


Another as;


The ambition was to go against the pattern of academic poetry, the official critique, the publishing houses in New York, national soberness and general rules for good public taste.


Jack Kerouac himself described the evening like this in 1958, three years after the reading, in his novel The Dharma Bums:


Scores of people stood around in the darkened gallery straining to hear every word of the amazing poetry reading as I wandered from group to group, facing them and facing away from the stage, urging them to glug a slug from the jug, or wandered back and sat on the right side of the stage giving out little wows and yesses of approval and even whole sentences of comment with nobody’s invitation but in the general gaiety nobody’s disapproval either.



Take a walk on the wild side

To say that the expression and the phenomenon The Beat Generation were born this October night at Six Gallery is no exaggeration. The rumour spread rapidly. Poets and authors from the literary circles realized that this was a historic event and that HOWL was a revolution for poetry as well as for the society without even having read it or having been there. It also was given a lot of attention in the press. Even New York Times observed the occurrence and sent a journalist across the country, to try and grab hold of what was happening.

Yet it took some time before Howl was published. Ginsberg’s colleague Lawrence Ferlinghetti ran a small publishing company,
City Lights Publishing, and he had HOWL printed in England. When the novel was taken into America, it caused big problems. The entire edition was confiscated with the motivation that the novel was “obscene”. Ferlinghetti and his publishing company were sued and a long process with trials followed. Soon two sides with different points of view arose. The one, with the beatniks who supported each other and fought for each American’s freedom of speech, and the other side with the authorities and censors who clearly used this specific event to show that there actually existed limits for what a man could do; this far, no further!

Ferlinghetti’s and Ginsberg’s lawyers pointed at two requirements which have to be met for a book to be protected by the constitution: it shall be of social importance, plus have artistic value. Different witnesses proved that
HOWL fulfilled these requirements. The book was acquitted and was finally released in 1956, about a year after Ginsberg’s very first reading at the gallery. This indictment for indecency worked of course as perfect publicity and became one of the main reasons for the huge attention and the newly aroused interest around both HOWL and Ginsberg.

Later Ginsberg often said that he didn’t care that much whether
HOWL would be published or not during the process, but the most important thing was that he with this event, which had attracted so much attention helped to bring forward other works and authors.


I knew it was a good collection of poems. If it was banned, I would admittedly be a great hero, but if it wasn’t going to be banned I would be a hero anyway. The important thing with the trial was that it paved the way for the acquittal of other works. […] I guess I came to play an important role there, in the crime against the American neurosis



The Beaten Generation


Ginsberg & Kerouac

What would come to be called The Beat Generation was founded during a few years in New York by the end of the forties by a little crowd of seeking and pondering human beings who met and learned to know each other, mostly around the Columbia University. The original group consisted of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and they remained the prominent figures in the foreground of what would become a big literary movement.
Their association largely amounted to exploring anything they found fascinating and interesting; criminality, drugs, psychology, religion, jazz and literature. During these years in the forties the friends affected each other very much. Boundaries would be constantly pushed forward, not least within literature. New methods of writing would be drawn up, not seldom with the help of drugs, meditation or hypnosis. A sort of internal competition about being well read and innovative was always going on between the friends.

The small circle of friends lived and created without classifying themselves or their contemporary period. The term The Beat Generation is of course more or less a label attached to them by media.
This group then developed into a whole literary movement which has come to be described as one of American literature’s high points after the Second World War. When it comes to medial attention, it is one of the world literature’s most observed phenomena.
The Beat literature is a genre within the American literature whose originators belonged to a certain generation, namely the post-war period.

Mats Gellerfeldt and Carolyn Cassidy describe the beat generation in an essay in Svenska Dagbladet 1997-04-10:;


The beat generation was a remarkable occurrence. There existed elements of romantic literature, but also of a prophetic tradition. HOWL […] There was also a sweeping and unmanageable social criticism tinged with anarchy, a rebellion against middle class values, puritanical tradition in a historical sense, and against the suffocating atmosphere that at least the intellectuals were aware of in McCarthy’s USA. It was a social criticism which during the Sixties would be partly concentrated in the protests against the Vietnam War, partly emerge into a literally spaced out hippie philosophy.


One rarely senses a political engagement among the early Beat authors and – artists. They certainly removed themselves from the American middle-class dream of owning a house, a freezer and a car, but they were active at least a few years before the civil rights movement and protest singers of the sixties.
The early Beat works are hardly any pieces that can be called avant-garde, and none of the authors were especially revolutionary or interested in changing society to any great extent. It was themselves and their lives they wanted to discover and explore. Later though, the political engagement became more and more central in the Beat Movement, both due to the expansion of the movement, and because of what happened in the world. The beatniks still, however, stand out from other politically active groups with their predilection for literature, Buddhism and drugs – an embryo which gradually developed into the hippie movement.

Ginsberg was however very engaged politically mainly during the Sixties and the Seventies, and was the one of the beatniks that constantly was being observed by the media. He did not convey a straightforward and clear message, though. He presented himself sometimes as an anarchist, sometimes pacifistic hippie, profiled himself one day as a wise prophet and poet, the other day as a stoned mystic who advocated legalization of marijuana, and sometimes he vented his spleen upon the capitalist system.
This icon and role model was of course manna for media, which, in retrospect, can seem to have depicted, in some ways, an incorrect picture of the Beat Generation, with Ginsberg at the forefront, as a radical and revolutionary association.


A rebel without a clue

Allen Ginsberg was born in 1926. His parents were Russian Jews who had immigrated to America. His mother was mentally ill and spent most of her time in a mental hospital. Ginsberg has written about his mother and her sickness and time at the hospital in Kaddish, maybe one of his most beautiful pieces. Besides HOWL, Kaddish is the one of Ginsberg’s works that has became most famous. His father also wrote poetry, and Ginsberg often read his poetry at his later readings.

His parents were communists and socialists, and Ginsberg had already as a youth the desire for becoming ”a labor lawyer” and ”fighting the good fight”.
The trial of Howl helped Ginsberg to understand that poetry also could be politics and could be used as a weapon. Maybe he showed this even more clearly when he became one of the key persons in the fight against the Vietnam War.

Ginsberg started to write
HOWL in August 1955, with the purpose to produce, as he has described it later;”a tragic custard-pie comedy of wild phrasing… Like Charlie Chaplin’s walk, long saxophone-line chorus lines.”

His method of writing had its key in Kerouac’s stress on spontaneity, which also Ginsberg later has acknowledged that he tried to both live and write after.


Kerouac's work should never be underestimated. His theory about spontaneity and that the first thought is the best thought was fantastic and very thoroughly worked out. He influenced all of us at that time. […] And he has continued to inspire. Just ask Dylan. We were his pupils.


Ginsberg also explains the importance of a clear rhythm, intonation and phrasing, but at the same time he points out that this wasn’t anything new. A lot of authors had already experimented with this, among them Ezra Pound, Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams:


What I did was to use a more straightforward language to break a stereotyped pattern. […] When it comes to Howl I continued in what had been established by Walt Whitman, with his long lines. After Whitman, Pound and Williams tried to find a different system for the special American language pattern, to a great extent based on the breathing: the different levels of feelings in the breathing, a breathing adapted to the diction and cadence of the English language. Simply a break with the poetics that was taught at the universities. […] My innovation was maybe that I took the long lines of Whitman and combined them with partly Williams’ arrangement with short lines, partly Pound’s ideas of absolute concentration. Then I added parts of the 20th century’s modernism to get a musical, jazzy rhythm


HOWL was written in parts, on several occasions, and when Ginsberg finally was satisfied the poem contained three parts and a footnote.
The first part of Howl flowed out of him over the course of a couple of days. This was also the part he read at the poetry night at Six Gallery. A couple of days after the reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote a letter to Ginsberg where he congratulated Ginsberg to the success and wondered when he was going to receive the manuscript so he could publish it 0through his company,
City Lights Publishing.
Ginsberg immediately sat down and started to finetune his poem. He soon discovered that it didn’t feel finished. The poem’s second part was soon written on his typewriter and it became a diatribe against the evil in the society, here figured in the form of Moloch.

Ginsberg was not completely satisfied yet. A third part was written, in which he almost worships his near friend, Carl Solomon. Carl Solomon was a man who Ginsberg had met at the mental hospital where his mother was treated. Solomon was also a poet, actually it was through Solomon Ginsberg met his partner Peter Orlovsky. Ginsberg and Solomon became good friends at the hospital, and
HOWL is dedicated to him.

Later Ginsberg also wrote the finishing footnote.

The book
HOWL and Other Poems was published in 1956 with a foreword by William Carlos Williams. It became a great success, much because of the trial.

Howl has became one of the most famous American poems of the 20th century. The book is constantly printed in new editions and several translations have been done. At the time of writing (December 2004) it has sold about a million copies.
The poem became so famous and discussed that Ginsberg sometimes a bit sadly regretted that no one seemed to pay any attention to his other poetry.


Discussion

A free interpretation of HOWL


”look in the mind and eat the monsters there”

HOWL is a long poem written in form of free verse. It exemplifies Ginsberg’s idea to write freely and spontaneously from the mind, a method that is called “stream of consciousness”.
HOWL became one of the most important causes for an emancipation of the, to a certain extent, stagnated American literature and the conservative politics during the Fifties.
Howl also is a document of a generation and one of the most important reasons for the huge
attention that the Beat Generation got and still receives to this day.

HOWL consists of three parts with a footnote at the end. When Ginsberg read at Six Gallery only the first part was written, the other parts were written later. HOWL then was published in its final version in Ginsberg’s first collection of poems called HOWL and Other Poems.

When I read
HOWL I interpret the parts like this:

The first part presents a nightmarish vision of the world and an image of a generation which has gone mad, which is running and running;


I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…


A generation which feels split apart:;



…the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword…


But insanity is also alluring, a possibility to hide in a bitter and hard world. And with this attitude the irresponsible way of life becomes possible, a tribute to an alternative lifestyle;



…with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls…


The second part is a sort of prosecution against the elements in society that makes it destructive, mainly elements as materialism and conformism. It also describes the hard attitude in America during these times, an obvious answer to the cold war. Evil is here named Moloch, the Old Testament’s name of a false god, to whom, it is said, children were sacrificed.
Ginsberg asks himself in the beginning of the second part “what sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”


Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisable suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs


The third part is a kind of worship to his friend Carl Solomon, to whom the poem is dedicated. This part shows an intense picture of friendship.


Carl Solomon! I'm with you in Rockland
where you're madder than I am
I'm with you in Rockland
where you must feel strange
I'm with you in Rockland
where you imitate the shade of my mother

[…]

I'm with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night


The conclusion of the poem is a footnote (Footnote to Howl; HolyHolyHoly!). Whether the footnote is a simply a footnote to the poem or a part of the poem is probably the reader’s decision. During readings of HOWLl Ginsberg sometimes read the footnote, sometimes not. I consider the footnote to be a part that is needed for the poem to function as a unit.
In the footnote the word “holy” is constantly repeated.


Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!
The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand
and asshole holy!

[…]

Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours!
bodies! suffering! magnanimity!
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent
kindness of the soul!


It becomes like a prayer or a form of mantra for holy living. It is so well connected to the first part’s nightmarish and apocalyptical visions and gives the reader hope and strength with its message: The world is holy thanks to the love between human beings, therefore defy the nightmare! In other words - the classic fight between good and evil.

To sum it up – I see
HOWL as a poem which describes many of the beaten and maladjusted people who have passed in review during the forties and onwards. Here are all the junkies, criminals, visionaries and poets who were the Beat Generation.
In many ways the poem is so brilliant and ground-breaking. Something that never could be written again. If you have read some American literature though, you can notice influences, the most prominent from Walt Whitman.
The poem, probably because of its apocalyptical visions, also sometimes sets a Biblical tone, in those parts where the Bible is more aggressive.
But even if you relatively easily can find Ginsberg’s models, he probably mostly resembled himself. And that is not a bad mark for a poet!

Why Ginsberg became the one that could write this epos which so many took to their hearts is worth discussing. I think it is about Ginsberg’s ability to give out his thoughts one hundred percent.
His life and poetry were two sides of the same silver dollar. He showed his own wounds and injuries as America’s own, presented a country’s bad sides by displaying the monsters of his own psyche.
Ginsberg’s openness with his inner world becomes a public critique, which enables him to point his finger at America by pointing it at himself. Obviously this was something that Ginsberg was aware of. In his poem
America from 1956, I read:


It occurs to me that I’m America.
I am talking to myself again


By doing this the pain and feeling of being shut in becomes yet more obvious than if it had been pointed directly as a critique against contemporary society. It is a clever move of the author. By taking it down to the private perspective, the self that also works as a mirror for the reader, the message hits home more effectively than if it had been written as some form of manifesto.

In which way did HOWL affect the age in which it appeared??

A beginning of an openness

You can hardly get away from Ginsberg’s thoughts and experiences when it comes to sexuality in his works. It’s a element which is constantly present and his descriptions concerning sex are desperate, aggressive, defiant and euphoric. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes almost vulgar.
Personaly I think that his constant obsession with sex can get a bit annoying, but I guess I must see it as a distinguishing and deliberate feature of his art. Ginsberg was open with his homosexuality and was even bisexual. His openness and liberal views on this subject were of course shocking to many.


Peter Orlovsky & Allen Ginsberg

With HOWL he created an unheard-of racket and Howl was confiscated because of its perceived obscenity.

A couple of extracts from
HOWL;


…with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls…


and


…who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy…


HOWL blasted through a barrier and this led to others gradually daring to write plainly and candidly. It’s not about HOWL being brutal, cold or even pornographic, certainly not. Maybe that is easier to see today, fifty years later when sex hardly is something holy or taboo. But in 1956 it caused a moral outrage among the conservative Americans. I consider the openness with which sexuality is treated in HOWL to be one of the main reasons for Howl paving the way for a brand new literature in the USA.
If you ignore shocked academics, frightened politicians and petty bourgeois parents who detested
HOWL and most of all wanted it to burn in hell, you’ll see those who felt relieved and made courageous by HOWL, and this goes for authors in their writing profession as well as for ordinary people in their lives. I believe that Ginsberg through HOWL helped others to ignore fears and throw away their masks.

It is remarkable that Ginsberg and other beatniks were open with their homosexuality – after all we’re talking about USA in the Fifties – the homophobia was extreme and totally accepted. And even if homosexuality isn’t completely accepted yet today, especially not in America, I do believe that Ginsberg, with
HOWL as the starting-shot, was among those who got the discussion about homosexuality started.

A prominent figure and a mentor

Most likely there were other factors that contributed to the impact that HOWL had.
I believe that, if
HOWL had been written by a person without the outgoing and exhibitionistic personality that Ginsberg had, it probably wouldn’t have caused all that stir. One also should not forget the enormous interest by media that Ginsberg was exposed to from the very start.

On the one hand I think that Ginsberg, in spite of his open and frank artistic expression, was a man who didn’t reveal much of himself – he is more of a mystical person, like a bearded and tousle-haired poet of the Old Testament, lost in his own mind and in the mystique of his words - is it really possible to understand him?
Despite this, maybe even thanks to this, many people gathered around Ginsberg, and more often than not he received them with open arms. Ginsberg seemed to be taking it as his duty to both keep the underground movement alive through his art and also to work as a mentor for younger talent. He always carried his address book in which he wrote down phone numbers of people he saw playing on the streets, reading at the cafés and so on.

He became a mentor and a prominent figure for those youngsters with dreams of becoming an author, something which must have felt relatively hopeless in America at the time. With
HOWL, Ginsberg showed that it was possible to write about anything you liked and not let oneself be locked in by rules but let your creativity flow freely.
I do believe that I can say, without telling a lie, that
HOWL became the starting point in many other people’s art.

There are many examples of poets and authors who were, and still are inspired by
HOWL and Ginsberg.

Bob Dylan tells us about when he encountered the poetry that was entirely new and fascinating for him, and made him wake up;


There were always a lot of poems recited – […] -T.S. Eliot, e.e. Cummings. It was sort of like that, and it kind of woke me up…it was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Ferlinghetti – […] - oh man, it was wild - 'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness' - that said more to me than any of the stuff I'd been raised on. […] it all left the rest of everything in the dust.

(Bob Dylan in the Biograph booklet)



It’s quite obvious that Ginsberg and HOWL inspired Bob Dylan a lot. Dylan and Ginsberg started to spend time with each other in the middle of the Sixties and remained good friends until Ginsberg’s death in 1997.
Ginsberg can be seen in the famous video for Dylan’s
Subterranean Homesick Blues. Dylan also invited Ginsberg to be part of his 1975 tour, The Rolling Thunder Revue.
Later Dylan has helped Ginsberg when he wanted to produce an album and put music to his poetry.

Dylan began his career in the early Sixties when he came to New York and profiled himself as a protest singer. He soon became famous with songs as
Blowin’ In The Wind and The Times They Are A-Changin’.
In the middle of the Sixties, though, he changed his style. He laid down his acoustic guitar and his protest songs and started to write long, mystic, dreamlike songs. Some of these I consider to be very strongly inspired by
HOWL.
Dylan also liked to hang around with the beatniks, especially Ginsberg who became a sort of mentor for Dylan. After Dylan’s motorcycle accident in 1966, Ginsberg was the one who decided which literature Dylan ought to read during his recuperation.


Dylan & Ginsberg

Already in Dylan’s early songs you can notice the influences from HOWL. A striking example is A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall in which Dylan, just as Ginsberg in HOWL, is using a form of visionary pattern; “I saw”.


I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…


Ginsberg then begins each new sentence with the word “who”.

From
Hard Rain;


I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it…


Dylan then continues by beginning the following verses with “I saw”,” I heard“ or “I met” and so on.

How does HOWL affect today?

So, how does Ginsberg’s poetry and his epos HOWL in particular stand up today?

Mats Gellerfeldt, author and critic, is writing about Ginsberg and his poetry, especially
HOWL, in an article in Svenska Dagbladet 1997-04-10:


… So how does Ginsberg’s poetry stand up today? Personally I would say that it has aged shockingly fast. (…) Everything is written in an extremely typically manner for its time. But it brims over with rhetoric without reaching that aphoristic pointedness of e.g. Whitman’s poetry. (…)


(Gellerfeldt uses a Swedish expression, which is difficult to translate, to put his point across. His point being, if I understand correctly, that HOWL never reaches some kind of neat conclusion.)

I read this and I’m astonished. Seeing, as I do, myself as a passionate reader of Ginsberg’s work as well as that of many of the other greats of the Beat Generation. Am I a nostalgic? Am I trying to, by disappearing into the lines of for instance
HOWL, get a sense of something that happened a long, long time ago? Should I spend my time looking at what’s happening around me, instead of being, figuratively speaking, curled up in a dusty shelf among old, dusty books in the basement of the library?
Isn’t
HOWL supposed to be essential here and now?

Let’s back up a little. Ginsberg cried out his
HOWL for the first time in 1955. A barrier had been busted. The question wasn’t “can I scream in society?” but ”where in society can I stand up and scream?”

Ten years later the echo of
HOWL resounds. The myth of the street and longing for freedom from stagnation still gets people to raise their voices and scream.
In 1966, Dylan cries out his aggressions and demons of his mind and settles the score with the folk puritans and a society that wants meanings in everything. ”Because something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, mr Jones?” he hisses to the grey crowd who can’t understand what’s going on. People are booing – and cheering.

Another ten years later, a new generation of young people with flowers in their hands stand in line, fervent to get their message through. In 1975
Born To Run is released, Springsteen makes an album of a generation, which once again pours out strength in another gigantic HOWL.

And the scream lives on. Ginsberg’s
HOWL and Kerouac’s On the Road are reprinted over and over again in new editions.
Ginsberg and Kerouac and many others of the Beat authors seem to be the very core of inspiration for lonely youngsters as well as for authors who need to express their anxiety and dissatisfaction in society. And this goes for generation after generation.
If I look at Sweden, our greatest Beat writer is probably Sture Dahlström (1922–2001). His early novels from the Sixties are what could be called typical Beat, they are about precipitately heading south, to Spain, Portugal or Morocco, in ramshackled cars with a thirst for freedom and dreams of being an author. It’s about jazz, sunshine, whisky and love. His novels from the seventies, though, are more original – written in what is known as the distinctive Dahlström style.
But even if these novels are more individual they’re still about the classic Beat ingredients; a furious pace, stream of consciousness, creating an alternative world and conquering the earth with, among other things, sex and kindness.

Even the novel
Jack by the Swedish singer, author and poet Ulf Lundell is a clear example of Kerouac’s, Ginsberg’s and others’ incredible strength during the years. Jack is very influenced by Kerouac, and it has been described as the Swedish generation novel of the seventies.

But alright, let’s accept the fact that
HOWL is typical for its time – would be pretty strange if that wasn’t the case, wouldn’t it? A generational poem which is not coloured by the times in which it was written?
What speaks against Gellerfeldt’s statement (that it is out of date) is the very core in
HOWL; I do not tolerate my own time! I must break free! I must be able to scream!
Nobody had done anything similar before. It’s true that both Rimbaud at his time expressed a contempt for both time and establishment, and that Kerouac described an America filled with euphoria if you just dared to grab it and to cast norms aside – but no one blasted the barriers as completely as
HOWL did.
The word that turns up in my brain when I read
HOWL is liberation. A liberation of yourself as a human being. Does it sound like a cliché?
Well, to me all this talk about
HOWL being something enormously important for people’s liberation concerning sex and so on sounded a bit like a cliché. I mean, I wasn’t there then. I’ve been raised in a society where the possibilities within culture are almost unlimited. Or? Maybe they aren’t.
Don’t even today clear directives exist what you, as an artist, should and shouldn’t do? What is proper and what is not. Artistic freedom is a concept that each man can talk of – yet some are deported to a place in the shadows.
Art, and in this case poetry, still draws away from a straightforward and clearly stated expression of feelings.

With that, I don’t mean that it’s as traditional today as way back in 1956. But there still is something that makes especially
HOWL just as essential today. It represented, and according to me still represents, a liberation of the opportunities to write straightforwardly and completely honestly about one’s emotional life. This becomes a mirror for the reader’s own situation.
And that is just what I believe art is about.
When someone asks me why I listen to Bob Dylan, I answer “because he shows me the path I walk everyday but never am able to se”.
True, isn’t it?

Teenagers are still confused. Can’t feel their own pain. An effective medicine for this is to get proof of their own sorrow. Black on white. Poetry or music, whatever. Rimbaud, Whitman or Ginsberg. Then Dylan, Bukowski, Dahlström, Lundell, K Öijer, or Bob Hansson. They are all there. In the echo of
HOWL.

So sure. You can describe
HOWL as a poem that doesn’t reach a neat conclusion.
But perhaps with another meaning than Gellerfeldt did…

A restlessness and a breaking-up, a manifestation for freedom and longing for the adventures of life, I have very hard to imagine that to end with a neat conclusion. Wasn’t that exactly what Ginsberg objected against?


Poets of the stage

With Ginsberg’s appearance at the Six Gallery, poetry seemed to have stepped out and left the printed book page, and begun a new life as performance, theatre, happenings on a stage. I hardly believe we would have had the kind of poetry slam and similar events where the appearance is as important as the poem without this first step.
Examples of this are our Swedish poets Bob Hansson and Bruno K Öijer. They are both big fans of Ginsberg and his spirit is easily noticable in their respective poetry. Those who have attended a reading by those artists/poets also know that it isn’t a question of any especially calm events, no, for them a spectacular performance is as important as the quality of their texts. Both also seem to see the way they read their poems as essential for getting their message across. The same also goes for Ginsberg, with his starting point in
HOWL, but he kept working at his way of performing and reading his poetry. Neither shall we forget that it to a high degree was in the performance that HOWL’s full potential was delivered and understood.
With both Hansson and K Öijer you can see the noticeably important significance of breathing, phrasing, intonation and emphasis in their respective readings.
Not just anyone can get up and read one of Hansson’s poems. It is obviously also very difficult to recite
HOWL.

Ginsberg accordingly created a new technique when it concerns the performance of poetry which is used diligently even today. He did not only create the most practical and rhythmical way to have the energy to read a poem that lasts circa half an hour, but also knew how he could play with vocal pitch and phrasing to create the right feeling for the different passages. Besides this, he was the forerunner for scenic art in relation with poetry for getting the audience’s attention. In most cases, he did this in the most spectacular ways. He used to use instruments and accompanied himself, often with a harmonium, some sort of organ that you place in you lap. Sometimes he also used musicians on stage.
Of course it also was about doing provocative things to get attention, mainly during the sixties and seventies. For example, Ginsberg developed a tendency to take his clothes off on stage. Bob Hansson stripped naked during a poetry reading in Stockholm city in the summer of 2003. Hansson also has an intense presence on stage where he spits out his words so that the foam almost splashes over the audience.


Ginsberg

Without a doubt Ginsberg is the pioneer and the inspirer behind many of today’s poets of the stage, Swedish as well as foreign


2004 – Still indecent

I read in a fairly recently published biography on Ginsberg (Screaming Of Joy – The Life of Allen Ginsberg - Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999), of how HOWL is perceived in contemporary America, and was surprised to find that it is apparently still not possible to broadcast readings of HOWL on TV during daytime, as it is still viewed as being obscene. I found that strange. Can that really be true? Obviously America is extreme in many ways and opinions may differ when it comes to its views on censorship and related subjects, but HOWL? Considering the amount of rubbish shown on TV, it doesn’t seem necessary to place any particular importance on the alleged obscenity of HOWL. Adding to that the recognition given to both HOWL and the Beat Generation and its importance today in American literature it doesn’t seem reasonable to view it as X-rated material.

The book relates an event which occurred in 1987.


In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission restricted the broadcast of "indecent" material to a so-called "safe harbor" period between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Their thinking was that such a watershed would minimize the risk of minors being exposed to "obscenities" such as HOWL.
(...)
At the time of writing, any daytime broadcast of
HOWL - a poem that is one of the most widely anthologized works in American letters - is forbidden by law. Ginsberg's verse still belongs to the midnight hours


I checked this on the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) homepage.
What FCC calls ”obscenity” is prohibited all 24 hours of the day. If, on the other hand it is deemed ”indecent” it can be broadcast between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. What is indecent is decided arbitrarily by the FCC.
It obviously has to do with a fear of being fined. Measures taken to avoid risking this can grow to absurd proportions. One recent example is that 66 channels voluntarily refrained from showing the movie
Saving Private Ryan out of fear of being fined. The reason? That the soldiers occasionally use the word ”fuck”.
So if all these channels won’t show a Spielberg movie, we can’t really expect them to offer the American public
HOWL. No matter if this is poetry and was written by a, to use the hackneyed phrase, spokesman for his generation.
Then we can only continue to be astonished by the double standards of America.

It should be noted that these rules apply to the major channels. Obviously there are underground channels that transmit without being governed by the directions of the FCC.

A document of its times

I can conclude by asserting that few poems have been of as great importance in the history of American literature as HOWL.
It has without a doubt gained recognition and received a position in history. So has the phenonemon and lifestyle we know as Beat. Today Beat fanzines and websites filled with information on the Beat Movement mushroom. America proudly guards its literary and cult status and it is even possible to take courses on the Beat era in the universities

So what does the growing interest in
HOWL and the Beat culture tell us about our own times? If nothing else that there is still a need for rebellious poetry like HOWL.

HOWL is, and in my opinion will always be, an unsurpassed document of its times, but also a touching document of a man finding his own voice, namely Ginsberg himself.




Linnea Jönsson




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