â€œA Lost Batallion of Platonic Conversationalistsâ€:
â€œHowlâ€ and the Language of Modernism
published in Jason Shinder (ed.), The Poem that Changed America: â€˜Howlâ€™ Fifty Years Later (New York: Farrar Straus, 2006),Â 24-43.
In 1957, just a year after the publication of the City Lights edition of Howl, Louis Simpson wrote a poem called â€œTo the Western Worldâ€:
A siren sang, and Europe turned away
From the high castle and the shepherdâ€™s crook.
Three caravels went sailing to Cathay
On the strange ocean, and the captains shook
Their banners out across the Mexique Bay.
And in our early days we did the same,
Remembering our fathers in their wreck
We crossed the sea from Palos where they came
And saw, enormous to the little deck,
A shore in silence waiting for a name.
The treasures of Cathay were never found.
In this America, this wilderness
Where the axe echoes with a lonely sound,
The generations labour to possess
And grave by grave we civilize the ground. [i]
Simpson had been a classmate of Ginsbergâ€™s at ColumbiaÂ University in the late forties. He was older and â€œwiserâ€â€”a World War II veteran who had served in the 101st Airborne Division in Europe.Â When the newly celebrated author of Â«HowlÂ» returned to Manhattan in 1956, he sought out Simpson, who was then editing, with Donald Hall and Robert Pack, New Poets of England and America, which was to become the standard anthology used in undergraduate classrooms.Â Ginsberg recalls giving Simpson Â«this great load of manuscripts of [Robert] Duncan’s, [Robert] Creeley’s, [Denise] Levertov’s, mine, [Philip] Lamantia’s, [John] Wieners’, [Gary] Snyder’s, [Philip] Whalen’s, [Jack] Kerouac’s, even [Frank] O’Hara’s â€”everything.Â And he didn’t use any of it.Â» [ii]
Two decades later, when Simpson reviewed Ginsberg’sJournals: Early Fifties Early Sixties for the New York Times Book Review, he admitted he had been wrongâ€”Â«not merely wrong, obtuse,Â» to have ignored Ginsberg’s poetry in the fifties.[iii] Indeed, antithetical as the two poets wereâ€”the GI-Bill graduate student who already had ties with the Establishment versus theÂ Beat poet, one of those Â«who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skullÂ»– Simpson, according to Ginsberg himself, makes a cameo appearance in Howl in strophe 55:
who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot
forÂ EternityÂ outsideÂ ofÂ Time,Â Â &Â alarmÂ clocks
fell on their heads every day for the next decade[iv]
In Ginsbergâ€™s note for this passage we read:
As author remembers anecdote, friend Walter AdamsÂ visited poet Louis Simpsonâ€™s high-floored apartment near Columbia in 1946:
L.S.:Â Do you have a watch?
L. S.:Â Can I have it?
W. A.:Â Here.
L.S. (throwing watch out of window):Â We donâ€™t need time, weâ€™re already in eternity.
In letter November 21, 1985, kindly responding to query from author, Louis Simpson writes:
It seems this does apply to me.Â I say â€œseemsâ€ because I donâ€™t remember doing this, but a man whose word I could trust once wrote me a letter in which he said that I thought â€œthat technology had destroyed time so that all lives ever lived were being lived simultaneously, which was why you should ask Walter Adams for his watch, throw it out the window and remark that we didnâ€™t need such instruments any more.â€
This must have happened shortly before I had a â€œnervous
breakdownâ€â€” the result of my experience during the war.Â There may have been other causes, but I think this was the main.Â I have no recollections of the months preceding the breakdown, and if people say I threw watches out of windows, OK.Â (HH 134)
It seems that, for a brief moment, Simpson too was one of theÂ â€œangelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection.â€Â Like Ginsberg, for that matter, he was an outsider at Columbia, a native of the West Indies who was half-Jewish.Â But to become a poet, in postwar New York, meant to give up the â€œstarry dynamoâ€ in the â€œtubercular skyâ€ in favor of the formal (and indeed political) correctness that would characterize the Hall-Simpson-Pack anthology.Â By the time Simpson published his first book Good News of Death and Other Poems (Scribners, 1955), he had mastered the genteel mode almost perfectly.
If we want to understand just how extraordinary a poem Howl was at the time of its performance and publication, we might profitably read it against a poem like Simpsonâ€™s â€œTo the Western World.â€ Sound is the first differentium:Â Simpsonâ€™s poem is divided into three five-line stanzas rhyming ababa. The regularity of its iambic pentameter from
/Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /
A siren sang, and Europe turned away
to the final:
/Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /
And grave by grave we civilize the ground
distinguishes this midcentury poetry sharply from its more daring Modernist antecedents, whether the syncopated rhythms of Eliot, where â€œthe ghost of a meter . . . lurks behind the arras,â€ to the open tercets of Stevensâ€™s The Auroras of Autumn, the syllabics of Marianne Moore, or, of course, the free verse of Pound and Williams, the latter serving as a model for Simpson in his later poetry.
Within this tight form and its perfectly chiming and conventional rhymes (â€œsameâ€/ â€œcameâ€/ â€œnameâ€; â€œfoundâ€/â€soundâ€/â€groundâ€), the poet presents us with a carefully depersonalized capsule history of American imperialism. Irony and indirection are all: like Odysseus, â€œEurope,â€ it seems, â€was seduced by a siren,â€ and this Europe, the synecdoches of line 2 tell us, was turning away from the â€œhigh castleâ€ of its medieval aristocracy as well as the â€œshepherdâ€™s crookâ€ of its then dominant peasant population.Â The â€œthree caravels went sailingâ€ on a â€œstrange oceanâ€– strange because it was the wrong one and also, no doubt, because the journey that led them not to the longed-for Cathay but to Mexique Bay took place on the stormy Atlantic.
In the second stanza, â€œtheyâ€ merge with â€œwe,â€ as the poet compares the Conquistadores to â€œourâ€ Pilgrim ancestors, who in their â€œearly days . . . did the same,â€ crossing the sea to â€œa shore in silence waiting for a name.â€Â To complicate things, Simpson introduces, in line 7, a buried allusion to Ferdinand in Shakespeareâ€™s Tempest, â€œweeping again the king my fatherâ€™s wreck,â€ a line appropriated by Eliot in The Waste Land, where it provides contrast to the tawdry present in the collage of â€œThe Fire Sermon.â€
But despite the double allusion, â€œTo the Western Worldâ€ is perfectly straightforward thematically.Â â€œThe treasures of Cathay were never found,â€ we are told somewhat redundantly in stanza 3.Â Butâ€”and here is the moralâ€”â€œweâ€ are still at it: our â€œgenerations labour to possessâ€ â€œthis America, this wilderness.â€Â Â The poemâ€™s final line provides the punch line: â€œAnd grave by grave we civilize the ground.â€Â The only way we seem to be able to build a â€œcivilizationâ€ is by killing, whether killing off the Indians who owned this wilderness or, by implication, killing our enemies in the recent wars.Â No wonder â€œthe axe echoes with a lonely sound.â€
â€œTo the Western Worldâ€ is a well-made poem on a theme that no doubt resonated in the wake of the atomic bomb and the Korean War–the imperialist path that prompted the original discovery of America as well as its later settlement, is still with us; ours is a civilization built on death.Â Truth, it seems, is accessible to the poet, the point being to express that truth with measured irony: â€œAnd grave by grave we civilize the ground.â€
Irony, indirection, third- rather than first-person reference, allusion, moral discrimination, tight metrical form:Â these constituted the Hall-Pack-Simpson signature, in contradistinction to the poems collected in Donald Allenâ€™s oppositional The New American Poetry, published just three years later and featuring the Beats, Black Mountain, New York poets, and the San Francisco Renaissance.Â But The New American Poetry unwittingly gave rise to another mythâ€”the myth, put forward by Allen himself in his preface– that the central conflict of the day was between â€œclosedâ€ and â€œopenâ€ verse, between the formal and the improvisatory-spontaneous, the â€œcookedâ€ and the â€œraw.â€Â Â I say myth because the irony is that Ginsberg (like many of the â€œNew Americanâ€ poets) was probably a much truer Modernist than were mandarin poets like Louis Simpson or Donald Hall.Â Â Indeed, Ginsberg had so thoroughly internalized the aesthetic of the Modernists he reveredâ€”Eliot, Pound, Williams, Hart Crane,â€”that â€œHowlâ€ unwittingly makes the case for showing rather than telling, for the inseparability of form and content, and even for Cleanth Brooksâ€™s theorem that â€œthe language of poetry is the language of paradox.â€ [v] Even Ginsbergâ€™s fabled rejection of metrics for what was ostensibly the mere piling up of â€œlooseâ€ free-verse or even prose units can be seen, from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, as formal continuity rather than rupture: the use of biblical strophes, tied together by lavish anaphora and other patterns of repetition. [vi]
But in 1956, critics and fellow-poets were sidetracked by the nasty subject matter of â€œHowl,â€ its angry diatribes and metaphoric excesses, and its use of four-letter words and slangy diction.Â Not surprisingly, formalist poets such as John Hollander, another of Ginsbergâ€™s Columbia classmates and a poet included in The New Poets of England and America, took an instant dislike to Howl.Â In his now infamous review for Partisan Review (1957), reprinted in Appendix 1Â of the Harper facsimile edition, Hollander declares:
It is only fair to Allen Ginsberg . . . to remark on the utter lack of decorum of any kind in his dreadful little volume.Â I believe that the title of his long poem, â€œHowl,â€ is meant to be a noun, but I canâ€™t help taking it as an imperative.Â The poem itself is a confession of the poetâ€™s faith, done into some 112 paragraphlike lines, in the ravings of a lunatic friend (to whom it is dedicated), and in the irregularities in the lives of those of his friends who populate his rather disturbed pantheon.
And, having quoted the poemâ€™s first two lines, Hollander shrugs, â€œThis continues, sponging on oneâ€™s toleration, for pages and pagesâ€ (HH 1961).
Among the major critics of the period, Hollanderâ€™s view was to prevail.Â In 1961, Harold Bloom pronounced both â€œHowlâ€ and â€œKaddishâ€Â â€œcertainly failures,â€ lacking all â€œimaginative control over the content of [the poetâ€™s] own experience.â€Â Similarly, Denis Donoghue declared that in â€œA Supermarket in California,â€ â€œGinsberg has done everything that is required of a poet except the one essential thingâ€”to write his poem.â€Â And in Alone with America (1980), Richard Howard observed that â€œGinsberg is not concerned with the poem as art.Â He is after the poem discovered in the mind and in the process of writing it out on the page as notes, transcriptions.â€ [vii]
None of the above seems to have changed his mind in the intervening years.Â Meanwhile, other prominent criticsâ€”Frank Kermode, Hugh Kenner, Geoffrey Hartman, not to mention theorists like Adorno or Derrida or Julia Kristevaâ€”have simply ignored Ginsbergâ€™s poetry.Â We have, then, the anomaly of a poem that has become iconic around the world (Howl and Other Poems had sold over 800,000 copies and been translated into at least twenty-four languages by 1997, the year Ginsberg died, [viii] even as the book continues to be dismissed, or at least ignored, in discussions of postmodern poetics.
To rectify this curious situation, we might shift the discourse from the biographical/cultural preoccupation, which continues to dominate most studies of Ginsbergâ€™s work, to a close look at the actual texture of â€œHowl,â€ especially vis-Ã -vis its earlier drafts, as presented in Barry Milesâ€™s elaborate Harper & Row edition of 1986, lavishly annotated by Ginsberg himself and including a wealth of relevant documents.
Part I of the City Lights edition opens with the lines:
IÂ saw theÂ bestÂ minds of my generationÂ Â destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancientÂ heavenly
connection toÂ the starry dynamo in the machin-
ery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyedÂ and high sat
upÂ Â Â smokingÂ Â inÂ theÂ supernaturalÂ darkness of
cold-water flats, floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazzÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (H 9)
Frank Oâ€™Hara, hearing Ginsberg declaim these lines in the Manhattan of 1956, evidently turned to his neighbor and whispered, â€œI wonder who Allen has in mind?â€ [ix] But extravagant as the poetâ€™s claim may be, we now know, thanks to Ginsbergâ€™s own annotations and those of his biographers, just whom he did have in mind, beginning with William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and Herbert Huncke.Â Â Â Again, the poetâ€™s careful choice of place names–Fugazziâ€™s bar on Sixth Avenue in the Village or the neighboring San Remoâ€™s or the â€œParadise Alleyâ€ cold-water-flat courtyard at 501 East 11 Street, cited in line 10 aboveâ€”give â€œHowlâ€ its air of documentary literalism (see HH 125).
But Oâ€™Hara was on to something important: persons and places in â€œHowlâ€ are so much larger than life that they come to occupy a mythic, rather than everyday, domain.Â The effect is achieved, I would argue, by a consistent use of tropes of excess–catachresis, oxymoron, transferred epithet–as well as rhetorical figures of incongruity such as zeugma and the catalogue of seriatim items containing one discordant member, all these laced with self-mockery and deflation, as in â€œwho plunged themselves under meat trucks looking for an egg,â€ or â€œwho scribbled all night rocking and rolling over lofty incantations which in the yellow morning were stanzas of gibberish.â€™Â Â This peculiar paradox–the â€œlofty incantationsâ€ that are also â€˜stanzas of gibberishâ€â€”is established at the very opening of the poem.
Consider, for starters, the adjective string â€œstarving hysterical nakedâ€ in line 1.Â The first version read â€œstarving mystical naked.â€Â Ginsberg notes:
Crucial revision: â€œMysticalâ€ is replaced by â€œhysterical,â€ a key to the tone of the poem.Â Tho [sic] the initial idealistic impulse of the line went one way, afterthought noticed bathos, and common sense dictated â€˜hysteria.â€Â One can entertain both notions without â€œany irritable reaching after fact and reason,â€ as Keats proposed with his definition of â€œNegative Capability.â€Â The word â€œhystericalâ€ is judicious, but the verse is overtly sympathetic. . . . The poemâ€™s tone is in this mixture of empathy and shrewdness, the comic realism of Chaplinâ€™s City Lights, a humorous hyperbole derived in part from Blakeâ€™s style in The French Revolution. . . .HH 124)
When I first read this commentary, I found it somewhat irritating:Â isnâ€™t it pretentious of the poet to inform us that the replacement of a single word is â€œcrucialâ€ and â€œjudicious,â€ creating the â€œmixture of empathy and shrewdnessâ€ found in Chaplin or Blake?Â But rereading â€œHowlâ€ in 2005, I think Ginsbergâ€™s explanation is quite just.Â Paul Breslin, in an essay otherwise quite critical of â€œHowl,â€ was perhaps the first to remark how odd the use of the phrase â€œstarving, hysterical, nakedâ€ is in context since all three adjectives designate bodies, not â€œminds.â€ [x] â€œHystericalâ€ derives from the Greek hystera (womb), and Freud, who wrote so much about hysterics, considered it a somatic illness, usually of women.Â It thus is a more accurate term than â€œmystical,â€ the three-adjective unit providing a graphic image of a mental hunger so intense as to seem literally physical. The consonance of â€œ starvingâ€ and hysterical,â€ moreover, intensifies the coupling of these adjectives.
The second line underwent a similarly judicious revision.Â In the original version, it reads, â€œwho dragged themselves thru the angry streets at dawn looking for a negro fix,â€ (HH 13).Â Â Ginsbergâ€™s note tells us that he had in mind his pathetic friend Herbert Huncke, â€œcruising Harlem and Times Square areas at irregular hours, late forties, scoring junkâ€ (HH 124).Â But the revision exchanges the adjectives so that it is the streets that are â€œnegroâ€ and the fix â€œangry.â€Â Why?Â Perhaps because â€œnegro fixâ€ resorts to the clichÃ© that it is blacks who are drug users, and the streets are perhaps too predictably those of the â€œangryâ€ poor.Â Â More accurately, the scene is the â€œnegro streetsâ€ of Harlem, and now it is the â€fixâ€ that is â€œangryâ€ in its defiance of the social order by which it is outlawed.Â And the third strophe sets up the paradox that permeates the poem.Â The â€œhipstersâ€ are â€œangelheaded,â€ the starry sky a â€œdynamo in the machinery of night.â€Â Â On the one hand, the yearning for spirituality, for mystical knowledge, on the other, the clear-eyed recognition of the fallen technological world in which we live.Â And again, the sound structure is carefully wrought, â€œangelâ€ chiming with â€œancient,â€ â€œhipstersâ€ with â€œheavenly,â€ â€œdynamoâ€ leads to â€œnight,â€ the heavy trochaic rhythm revising itself in the anapests of:
/Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â /
angelheadedÂ hipstersÂ burning for the ancient heavenly connection
And further, in the fourth line, Ginsberg introduces the syntactic peculiarity that becomes a kind of signature in â€œHowl.â€ Instead of saying, â€œwho poor and ragged and hollow-eyed and high. . .â€Â Â he ungrammatically juxtaposes nouns and adjectives:
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high. . . .
The shift underscores the artifice of the passage:Â this is hardly, as Ginsbergâ€™s critics have often complained, unformed speech.Â No one, whether rich or poor, sober or stoned, New Yorker or foreigner, talks this way; no one, to take another example, says, â€œwho were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skullâ€ (line 7).Â Not, â€œfor crazy behaviorâ€ or â€œcrazy pamphletsâ€:Â â€œcrazyâ€ can apply to just about anything these â€œangelheaded hipstersâ€ do.Â And, as in the case of â€œpoverty and tatters,â€ the syntactic distortion and ellipsis remind us that this is a poem, not real life, that this text is very much a made object.
Indeed, the unsettling clash of nouns and adjectives, with the heavy compounding of words like â€œangelheaded,â€ â€œhollow-eyed,â€ and â€œBlake-light tragedy,â€ played out in the syncopated rhythms of the anaphoric â€œwho . . .â€ clausesâ€” produces an air of gridlock.Â Loading and oxymoronic jamming: these give â€œHowlâ€ its particular feel.Â Contrary to Hollanderâ€™s stricture, the poem does not just ramble on and on, but, as perhaps that first audience at the Six Gallery in San Francisco understood better than Ginsbergâ€™s mentor, Lionel Trilling (who pronounced â€œHowlâ€ just plain â€œdull,â€ â€œall rhetoric without any music,â€ HH 156), its larger structure depends on semantic /rhetorical suspension that produces continual surprise and hence demands re-reading.Â Take strophe 7 again:
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing
obscene odes on the windows of the skull
The allusion is evidently to Ginsbergâ€™s own sophomoric prank, his inscription on his dorm window of the phraseÂ â€œButler has no balls,â€ with its reference to Nicholas Murray Butler, Columbiaâ€™s revered octogenarian president (see Raskin 60).Â But in the poem, the â€œwindowsâ€ oddly become those, not of the Columbia dorm or storefront, but of the skull, as if to say the graffiti permeate the very being of the poet.Â Such extravagant conceit characterizes â€œHowlâ€ throughout.Â â€œMohammedan angels stagger on tenement roofs illuminated,â€ the â€œincomparable blind streetsâ€ are full â€œof shuddering cloud and lightening in the mind,â€ and the â€œcrack of doomâ€ emanates from the â€œhydrogen jukebox.â€
The elaboration of such devices can be quite complex, as in strophe 57:
who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually hap-
pened and walked away unknown and forgotten
into the ghostlyÂ dazeÂ of Chinatown soup alley-
ways & firetrucks, not even one free beerÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â (H 17)
Again, Ginsberg is thinking of a real incident: in 1945, his friend Tuli Kupferberg made a drunken suicide attempt by jumping off Brooklyn Bridge but was saved by the crew of a passing tugboat (see HH 128).Â But in â€œHowl,â€ the victim who â€œwalked away unknownâ€ recalls not Tuli but the poet most significantly associated with the Brooklyn Bridge, Hart Crane, who was, of course, one of Ginsbergâ€™s heroes.Â TheÂ dreamlike â€œghostly daze of Chinatownâ€ gives way to the realism of â€œsoup alleyways & firetrucks,â€ and then to the absurd conclusion of â€œnot even one free beer,â€ as if such a state of affairs could actually prompt people to jump off bridges.
The literal (â€œthis actually happenedâ€) bumping against the â€œghostlyâ€:Â Â Ginsbergâ€™s â€œlanguage of paradoxâ€ is found within lines as well as between them, as in strophes 59-60:
who barreled down the highways of the past journeying
toÂ each otherâ€™sÂ hotrod-GolgothaÂ Â Â jail-solitude
watch or Birmingham jazz incarnation
who droveÂ crosscountryÂ seventytwoÂ hours to findÂ out
if I had a vision or you had a vision orÂ heÂ had
a vision to find out Eternity.Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (H 17)
HereÂ â€œbarrel[ing] â€œdown the highway is juxtaposed to the ascent up Golgotha, literally, the hill of the skull where Christâ€™s Crucifixion took place. â€œHÃ³trÃ³d-GÃ³lgÃ³tha jÃ¡il-sÃ³litÃºdeâ€ â€“a nine-syllable unit that has seven primary stresses and intricate alliteration of lâ€™s and assonance of oâ€™sâ€”describes the suffering of â€œhotrodâ€ drivers, who have been placed in â€œjail-solitude watch.â€Â But the phrase also â€œjuxtaposes the hotrod â€œspeedâ€ and pleasure of the open road and the quietude of Christ on the Cross.Â And further: the â€œBirmingham jazz incarnation,â€ far from being parallel to the â€œjail-solitude,â€ is its antithesis: if youâ€™re lucky, the poem says, you may achieve the former rather than the latter.Â The word â€œincarnationâ€ is carefully chosen: it is the afterlife of Golgotha, the redemption that follows the Passion.
Butâ€”another opposition–this densely packed, clotted, allusive passage now gives way to the simplicity and ease of strophe #60, the poet chuckling, so to speak, as he recalls the mad scramble of the Beats to get away, to transcend the daily round, to find â€œif I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find eternity.â€Â Â The desperation is almost comic, but as the catalogue continues, the poem darkens, turning to the world of the mental hospital:
and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin
MetrazolÂ Â Â electricityÂ Â Â Â Â Â hydrotherapyÂ Â Â psycho-
therapyÂ Â occupationalÂ Â therapyÂ Â Â Â Â Â pingpongÂ Â &
amnesiaÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (strophe 67)
In the notes, Ginsberg tells us that â€œAuthor received hydrotherapy, psychotherapy, occupational therapy (oil painting) and played Ping-Pong with Carl Solomon at N.Y. State Psychiatric Institute, July 1948-March 1949â€ (HH 131).Â The poem complicates the therapy list by the absurd inclusion of ping pong as well as by the addition of particular drugs (â€œinsulin,â€ â€œMetrazolâ€), the substitution of theÂ neutral term â€œelectricityâ€ for â€œelectro-shock-therapy,â€ and the non-parallel item â€œamnesia,â€ as if to suggest that the final result of the terrifying treatments catalogued will indeed be no more than this.
The mental hospital thread continues, culminating in the listing of â€œlastâ€ things (â€œthe last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window, and the â€œlast door closed at 4 A.M. and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply. . . .â€), only to explode suddenly with a parenthetical address to Carl:
ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and
now youâ€™re really in the total animal soupÂ of
timeâ€”Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â H 19)
Here, after all the hyperbole, all the anaphoric phrasing and hallucinatory imagery, the poet interjects a low-key moment of ordinary intimacy between two friends, who know theyâ€™re in this â€œanimal soupâ€ together.Â Â It is the poemâ€™s epiphany, and so, in the last few strophes, Ginsberg introduces his poetics directly:
and who therefore ranÂ throughÂ the icyÂ streetsÂ obsessed
withÂ aÂ suddenÂ flash of theÂ alchemyÂ ofÂ theÂ use
of the ellipse the catalog the meterÂ &Â theÂ vibrat-
ing plane. . . . [xi]
The â€œvibrating planeâ€ and, in the next line, â€œthe syntax and measure of poor human proseâ€â€”these give way, in Part II (â€œMolochâ€), to a simpler, incantatory invective against cultural and political evil, but in Part III, the mode of the opening section returns in the brilliant counterpoint of refrain and exemplum, shifting from the comic burlesque of:
Iâ€™m with you in Rockland
where youâ€™ve murdered your twelve secretaries. . . .
Iâ€™m with you in Rockland
where your condition has become serious and
is reported on the radio. . .
to the pathos of
Iâ€™m with you in Rockland
where fifty more shocks will never return your
soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a
cross in the voidÂ Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (H 24-25)
and comingÂ full circle, with the final Whitman reference, to the actual scene of writing in Berkeley:
Iâ€™m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk drippingÂ fromÂ aÂ Â Â sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears
to the door of my cottage in the Western night.[xii] (H 26)
â€œHowl,â€ I have been suggesting, is in many respects a poem that honors the principles of Modernism– le mot juste, the objective correlative, the use of complex semantic and rhetorical figuresâ€”even though the critics , put off by its â€œbad taste,â€ didnâ€™t see how fully Ginsberg was working within the tradition.Â â€œIt is a howl,â€ wrote Richard Eberhart in the New York Times Book Review, â€œagainst everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit, assuming that the louder you shout the more likely you are to be heardâ€ (HH 155).Â Here Eberhart reinforces Hollanderâ€™s critique of the poemâ€™s â€œutter lack of decorumâ€ (161).
From the distance of fifty years, the â€œbop kabbalahâ€ â€œHowlâ€ can be seen as a natural development out of Modernism.Â But there is another aspect of â€œHowlâ€ that continues to be misunderstood.Â This so-called Cold War poem, with itsÂ â€œhowlâ€ against the Moloch of â€œskeleton treasuries!Â blind capitals! demonic industries! . . . monstrous bombs!â€ (H 22), must be understood, I would argue, as very much a poem of World War II, the war Ginsberg, born in 1926, narrowly missed.Â Â Unlike Simpson poems such as â€œThe Battle,â€ which recounts how â€œAt dawn the first shell landed with a crack, / Then shells and bullets swept the icy woodsâ€ (CP 53), â€œHowlâ€ is not overtly about combat, but it is surely the presence of that war, at its height when young Allen arrived at Columbia in 1942, and studied in classrooms and dorms filled with returning GIs, that accounts for the displaced violence at the heart of â€œHowl.â€
Consider the strangeness of the poemâ€™s diction.Â Here human beings donâ€™t walk:Â they â€œdrag themselves,â€ â€œstagger,â€ â€œcower,â€ â€œleap,â€ â€œchain themselves to subways,â€ â€œjump off the Brooklyn Bridge,â€ â€œpick themselves up out of basements,â€ â€œplunge themselves under meat trucks,â€Â â€œbarrel down highways,â€ and â€œcrash through their minds in jail.â€Â Â Again, these â€œangelheaded hipstersâ€ donâ€™t meditate or contemplate; they â€œburn for the ancient heavenly connection,â€ â€œbare their brains to Heaven under the El, â€œhallucinate Arkansas,â€ â€œlisten to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,â€ â€œhowl on their knees in the subway,â€ â€œsing out of their windows in despair,â€ and spend their day â€œyacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes.â€Â Â And sex in â€œHowlâ€ is always related to demonic energy and violence: â€œwho copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer . . . and fell off the bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall,â€Â â€œwho went out whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars,â€Â â€œwho balled in the morning in the evenings in rose-gardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whomever come who may.â€
It is usual to say that such violenceâ€”the violence of those â€œwho burned cigarette holes in their armsâ€ or â€œbit detectives in the neckâ€– was endemic to the protest against â€œthe narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalismâ€ (H 13).Â But in 2005, capitalism is more ubiquitous than ever and yet no one today writes this way; indeed, Ginsberg himself, in his later Zen period, wrote a much more muted poetry.Â Rather, from the distance of fifty years, we must understand â€œHowlâ€ as at least in part a reaction to those, like Louis Simpson, who had been there and wrote odes to the â€œheroesâ€ who â€œwere packaged and sent home in partsâ€ (CP 54).Â If others could write of chained prisoners, Ginsberg would celebrate those â€œwho chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine.â€Â If others, trained as war pilots, crashed their planes, the â€œheroesâ€ of â€œHowl,â€ â€œcrashed through their minds in jail.â€
The violence of the war heroes was honored by the public; the violent acts of Ginsberg and his Beat friends, with their drugs and daredevil adventures, were often ridiculed.Â Indeed, the poet himself laughs at the exploits of those
who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccess-
fully, gaveÂ up andÂ wereÂ forced to openÂ antique
storesÂ Â whereÂ theyÂ thoughtÂ they wereÂ growing
oldÂ and cried . . . .Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â (H 16)
â€œDenver,â€ we read a page later with reference to Neal Cassady,Â â€œis lonesome for her heroes.â€Â And not only Denver:Â â€œHowlâ€ is itselfÂ â€œlonesomeâ€ for its heroes, those â€œheroesâ€ willing to take on the â€œshocks of hospitals and jails and wars.â€Â Ginsbergâ€™s great hyperbolic-comic-fantastic- documentary poem thus memorializes that brief postwar moment when the lyric imagination, however exuberant, wild, fanciful, or grotesque, was subject to the reality check of actual events, the urge to assure the audience that â€œ this actually happened.â€Â Â The trope of choice continued to be that of Ginsbergâ€™s New Critical contemporaries–paradox.Â But in â€œHowl,â€ paradox no longer goes hand in hand with the impersonality and indirection of late Modernist poetics.Â Indeed, Ginsbergâ€™s is a paradox curiously devoid of irony.Â The litany of Part IIIâ€”â€œIâ€™m with you in Rockawayâ€– concludes, after all, with the poetâ€™s extravagant dream that his friend Carl Salomon has crossed the continent and arrived at Â«the door of my cottage in the Western night.Â»Â Â It is the mythic promise of that Â«arrivalÂ» that, fifty years after its publication, continues to captivate its readers.
[i]Louis Simpson, Â«To the Western World,Â» in Collected Poems (New York: Paragon House, 1988), p. 90.Â Â The poem is included in Donald Hall, ed., Contemporary American Poetry, revised and enlarged edition (Baltimore: Penguin, 1972), p. 117.
[ii] [ii] See Allen Ginsberg, Journals Mid-Fifties 1954-1958, edited by Gordon Ball (New York: HarperCollins, 1995), p. 176.
See Barry Miles, Ginsberg (London: Virgin, 2000), p. 470. In his memoir North of Jamaica (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), Simpson recalls the furor triggered by New Poets and explains, Â«we had not intended to imply that these were the only poets in England and America.Â We were trying to make a representative selection.Â»Â Â As for Â«Howl,Â» Simpson notes that Ginsberg’s poem had not yet been published when the Hall-Pack-Simpson anthology was being put together (pp. 176-77). Later, in A Revolution in Taste: Studies of Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath, and Robert Lowell (New York: Macmillan, 1978), Simpson writes sympathetically of such early poems as Â«PatersonÂ» and of Kaddish.
[iv]Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights, 1956), 16.Â Â I use the City Lights text, subsequently cited as H, so as to reproduce the original typography of Howl but for documentation, line numbers, and notes, see Howl: Original Draft,Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Versions edited by Barry Miles (New York: Harper & Row, 1986). Subsequently cited as HH. Simpson describes his stay in the mental hospital in North of Jamaica, chapter 25.
[vi] In its first draft, the poem that was to become Â«HowlÂ» was called Â«STROPHES.Â»Â In 1956 Ginsberg told Gary Snyder, Â«these long lines or Strophes as I call them came spontaneously as a result of the kind of feelings I was trying to put down, and came as a complete surprise to a metrical problem that preoccupied me for a decadeÂ»( HH 154).
[vii] See Harold Bloom, Â«On Ginsberg’s Kaddish,Â» The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 213-14; Denis Donoghue, Connoisseurs of Chaos (New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 49; Richard Howard, Alone with America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), p. 149.
[viii]See Jonah Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), pp. xxi-xxii.
[ix] See Marjorie Perloff, Â«A Lion in Our Living Room,Â» in Poetic License: Essays in Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1990), p. 199, and chapter 10 passim.
[x] Paul Breslin, The Psycho-Politcal Muse: American Poetry since the Fifties (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 24.
[xi] In the Final Text, 1986, this line becomes Â«and who therefore ran through the icy streets obsessed with a sudden flash of the alchemy of the use of the ellpsis catalog a variable measure and the vibrating plane,Â» HH 6.Â Â«A variable measureÂ» is Williams’s term, and Â«ellipsisÂ» clarifiesâ€”perhaps overclarifies–the meaning of Â«ellipse.Â»