Song of himself

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

ON Oct. 7, 1955, at a converted San Francisco car repair shop called the Six Gallery, five young and unknown poets held a reading that has since taken on the weight of myth. Organized by Allen Ginsberg, who shared the stage with Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia, this event helped launch a new literary counterculture, one with roots equally in the visionary tradition of Walt Whitman and the fragmented realities of Cold War America.

It was, notes Jack Kerouac, who described the evening in his novel “The Dharma Bums,” “the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o’clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem ‘Wail’ drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling ‘Go! Go! Go!’ (like a jam session) and old Rheinhold Cacoethes the father of the Frisco poetry scene was wiping his tears in gladness.” Cacoethes is Kenneth Rexroth, who emceed the reading, and Goldbook is Ginsberg, whose performance made him a star. Afterward, City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to Whitman a century before. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Ferlinghetti wrote, adding: “When do I get the manuscript?”

The manuscript to which Ferlinghetti was referring is, of course, “Howl,” a poem that went off (in its author’s words) like “an emotional time bomb,” changing the cultural landscape in a way few works of literature ever do. First published in November 1956, “Howl” has sold nearly a million copies; a postcard distributed by City Lights shows a group of Virginia Military Institute cadets reading it in class in 1991. More to the point, the 1957 “Howl” obscenity trial helped break down barriers against free expression, forcing American society to reassess what was and wasn’t acceptable to say.


It’s no stretch to argue that without “Howl’s” graphic celebrations of homosexuality, gay literature as we know it might not have evolved. By the same token, Ginsberg’s ardent antiestablishment stance laid the groundwork for both the upheavals of the 1960s and the marketing juggernaut we call “youth culture” today. “ ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,’ ” Bob Dylan once said, quoting the poem’s famous first line. “[T]hat said more to me than any of the stuff I’d been raised on.” Yet for all such a statement tells us about the poem’s influence, it also suggests its limitations, since Dylan is, like Ginsberg, an icon of an era past. As “Howl” marks its 50th anniversary, then, it seems important to ask how (or whether) it continues to resonate, what it has to offer a new generation.

These questions reside at the center of “The Poem That Changed America: ‘Howl’ Fifty Years Later,” a collection of mostly original reminiscences and commentary edited by Jason Shinder, Ginsberg’s former assistant who is now director of the Sundance Institute Writing Program. Featuring writers such as Vivian Gornick, Amiri Baraka, Sven Birkerts and Jane Kramer, the book seeks to address “Howl’s” legacy.

For critic David Gates, that’s a loaded issue. In “Welcoming ‘Howl’ Into the Canon,” one of the collection’s most provocative essays, he argues that “Howl” is “a radically offensive poem, or used to be -- offensive even to received notions of what poetry is, and it needs offended readers whose fear and outrage bring it most fully to life.” The catch, though, is that we are no longer shocked by it -- that we can’t be, given the culture “Howl” has helped foment. “It would be madness,” Gates concludes, “and not in Ginsberg’s visionary sense, to hope for a new era of censorship just so ‘Howl’ could get its street cred back .... Yet something’s been lost by our welcoming ‘Howl’ into the canon: the possibility of another ‘Howl.’ ”

“Welcoming ‘Howl’ Into the Canon” is just the sort of effort you’d hope to find in a book like this one, cutting to the heart of the poem’s status then and now. Unfortunately, too much of “The Poem That Changed America” lacks Gates’ insight. Besides his essay, the closest we get to a contrarian perspective is Phillip Lopate’s “ ‘Howl’ and Me,” which asks: “What about all those working stiffs who would not end up raving lunatics, who could not afford to drop out, were we automatically judged mediocre and condemned to a lower status than ‘the best minds,’ by dint of neglecting or refusing to fall apart?” Too many pieces fall prey to self-indulgence, as writers like Gordon Ball, Kurt Brown and Rick Moody tell us what “Howl” means to them. On the most basic level, that’s an editing issue, yet it does grow tiresome all the same. “The year ‘Howl’ was published was the same year that I leaped headfirst into the great swimming hole of adolescence,” recalls former poet laureate Billy Collins -- a sentiment echoed, with only the slightest variation of pitch and chronology, again and again throughout the book.

To be fair, this sort of first-person impulse is a legacy of Ginsberg’s writing, which begins and ends as a Whitman-esque song of the self. That’s its draw, its great achievement -- the mythologizing of individual experience, the notion that, as Ginsberg proclaims in “Footnote to ‘Howl’ ”: “everyday is in eternity!” At its best, such a process can be transformative, making legend out of mundane fact. Friends transmogrify into “angelheaded hipsters,” while his own college prank (writing offensive phrases in dust on a dirty dorm room window) becomes a mythic moment, encompassing those “who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull.”

Still, if “Howl” has an essential lesson, it is that even as Ginsberg aspires to the universal, his sensibility isn’t, nor can it be, transferable. He speaks from a single imagination rather than a collective mind. Robert Polito may be right when he claims in the essay “Holy the Fifth International” that “ ‘Howl’ aims to create a community, a society, a new nation,” but it is equally the case that, as Mark Doty argues, Ginsberg “created some zone of permission and distinction for himself that seemed to make all things possible, and he seemed to occupy a category all his own.”


Ultimately, it is the tension between the individual and the universal that propels “Howl,” although this is only hinted at in Shinder’s book. In his essay “A Cross in the Void,” Frank Bidart writes that the poem is “animated by a world view, a passionately held vision of the failures inherent in serious human life.” That’s a key point, the central message of “Howl” and, indeed, of Ginsberg’s career. Transcendence, after all -- or in Ginsberg’s eloquent phrasing, “the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” -- cannot help but be a fiction, since eternity gets every one of us in the end. The best we can hope for is a momentary glimmer, to connect, for just an instant, to something bigger than ourselves. This was the promise of the Beats, and also their great failing. “Four people,” Beat poet Gregory Corso once said archly, “do not a generation make.” *