Yaketayakking in the Supernatural Darkness: Allen Ginsberg and “Howl”

“Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.” Allen Ginsberg

7 October 1955 – Allen Ginsberg gives his first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. The effect upon the audience was electric, and the poem was interpreted as a sharp rebuke to both unbridled American imperialism and pervasive socio-economic inequities in the United States. Its opening lines set the general tone of the work, which is a combination of outrage and awe, savagery and beauty:

“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 . . .”

When “Howl” was published shortly after this reading, Ginsberg was arrested and tried for obscenity, though the articulate Judge Clayton W. Horn sensibly dismissed the charges and added, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?”

Though he is generally regarded as the greatest and most innovative poet of the Beat Generation, a careful reading of “Howl” reveals that Allen Ginsberg was the spiritual and poetic heir of Walt Whitman, especially in the way that both men employed free verse forms to celebrate the self, champion individual liberty, and defend the cause of democracy in America against people and institutions that sought to undermine it. They also had in common a delight in the unabashedly erotic expressions of human life and a desire to investigate all manner of spiritual experiences. Finally, in much of their best poetry, both men admonished their fellow citizens to live up to the lofty ideals at the heart of their Great Republic.

At the close of “Part III” of “Howl,” his fury spent, Ginsberg addresses writer Carl Solomon, whom he had met in a psychiatric hospital and to whom the poem is dedicated, though the lines, which are among his loveliest lyrics, are also an implicit invitation to his readers:

“I’m with you:
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.”

Lovely lines, indeed, and a gentle summons to Americans, not just to read “Howl,” but to study and love their national literature, to study and love their nation’s history, beyond political cant, religious ideology, and corporate poltroonery, and thereby learn to respect and in some authentic and critical way, love themselves. Thank you, Allen Ginsberg

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