Fifty years ago, an unpublished 28-year-old American poet came into the United States at Mexicali dreaming of literary glory. His name was Allen Ginsberg, and after traveling from New York to Havana and through the jungles of Mexico, he was eager to write the great American poem. It was time for him to take his rightful place, or so he thought, with Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams in the poet pantheon.
In California in 1954 -- the year the nation began to emerge from McCarthyism, the Korean War and legal segregation in the South -- Ginsberg began to shed his New York skin and cast himself as a wild West Coast poet. He wanted to write an explosive, apocalyptic poem befitting the Atomic Age. He would sing of himself and his country, with its “infernal bombs,” “industries / of night” and “dreams / of war.” Nothing would stop him, not his own “solitary craze” and certainly not the conformity of the times -- the Eisenhower era, the Cold War -- that seemed so antithetical to rebels with or without causes.
The first draft of “Howl” poured out of him. But for nearly a year afterward, Ginsberg revised, reorganized and reshaped it, section by section, word by word. When he was done, he knew he’d created the great American poem he’d set out to write. It was a personal coming-out, and to the hipsters of the 1950s it announced the liberation of an entire generation.
“Howl” was overtly antiwar and anti-capitalist. It mocked the FBI, condemned “scholars of war” and, at the dawn of the age of Hugh Hefner’s suave playboy, celebrated the male sexual outlaw who made love in “empty lots & diner / backyards.” It also challenged the conventional poetry of its day. It was boldly lyrical, intensely personal, ironic, ambiguous -- and very funny.
Not surprisingly, Ginsberg’s poem electrified audiences everywhere. In San Francisco, where he performed it for the first time in 1955, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, proprietor of the fledgling City Lights Books, promised to publish it in the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. In Hollywood, after the poet disrobed and stood naked before a shocked crowd, Anais Nin applauded him as a genius and celebrated his work as a masterpiece of surrealism. Indeed, “Howl” practically screamed surrealism in phrases like “hydrogen jukebox” and “drunken taxi cabs.” And, beneath its raucous surface, an astute reader might also hear the cosmopolitan voice of T.S. Eliot.
Of all the outrageous words in the poem, it was the F-word and the S-word that drew the ire of authorities. The little book was seized by U.S. Customs -- Ferlinghetti had contracted with British printers, hoping to circumvent censorship -- and then the San Francisco police stepped in. In 1957, Ferlinghetti went on trial for obscenity, while Ginsberg, who had left for Europe in 1956, promoted the book shamelessly everywhere he went. Back home, the American Civil Liberties Union came to the rescue. Judge Clayton Horn ruled for “Howl” and the 1st Amendment. Suddenly the poem that began as a personal statement and an individual vision turned into a bestseller. It was translated into more than two dozen languages and read around the world as a cry against everything that wasn’t cool.
From the opening line -- “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving / hysterical, naked” -- to the last peaceful image of a “cottage in the western night,” “Howl” inspired generations of artists, musicians and nonconformists, from Bob Dylan to Patti Smith, from hippies to punk rockers to today’s rappers. The outlaw poem made it into the standard anthologies. And it helped liberate American literature from European traditions, making room for the American vernacular, mythologizing American places and people.
Ginsberg never wrote another poem as original as “Howl,” but he still produced decades of memorable, often inspired, work. And he went on defying the established order -- protesting against the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons, censorship and intolerance.
And in the age of the Patriot Act, weapons of mass destruction and U.S. Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, “Howl” is just as subversive, seductive and irreverent as ever. Were Ginsberg alive today -- he died in 1997 at age 70 -- he would demand an end to war and declare the imminent advent of paradise. He would make poetry matter again, as he did with “Howl” half a century ago.
Jonah Raskin’s book “American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation” (University of California Press) will be published in March.