Poet and anthologist Shinder (Tales from the Couch, 2000) rounds up two dozen literati to reflect on the revolutionary impact of Allen Ginsberg’s most famous work.
“Howl” has been outraging the squares and enrapturing the alienated ever since Ginsberg first read portions of it at a San Francisco gallery in 1955. Published in the famous City Lights paperback edition in 1956, it overcame obscenity prosecutions to spread its subversive message overseas (Andrei Codrescu recalls reading it in Romania as a teenager) and across the generations (Alicia Ostriker, Marge Piercy and Eileen Myles are among the younger poets who write here of being inspired by it to break free from literary constraints). “Allen Ginsberg is responsible for loosening the breath of American poetry,” Helen Vendler once wrote; Shinder’s introduction points out that it loosened up a whole lot more. Amiri Baraka captures—in jazzy Beat prose—the poem’s status as a quintessential Beat document; Mark Doty investigates it as an expression of queer sexuality (but not an icon of the gay movement); Rick Moody proclaims its relevance to the punk-rock crowd; and Eliot Katz rather drably explains its political relevance, then and now. Thank goodness for Marjorie Perloff’s excellent explication of its formal qualities, or we might forget that “Howl” is, first and foremost, a truly great poem. (Doty also does a nice job of reminding us how funny it is.) But Ginsberg’s cry of revolt and embrace of excess has always burst the bounds of literature, promising ecstasy and liberation to all kinds of people, from Robert Lowell to Bob Dylan, 1960s radicals to New Age spiritual seekers. It was, perhaps, “the last poem to hit the world with the impact of news and grip it with the tenacity of a pop song,” as Luc Sante notes with characteristic acuity. Variable in quality though they are, taken as a whole the essays here offer a plethora of reasons why.
A moving tribute to Walt Whitman’s truest heir.