City Lights Books developed as a project of the City Lights bookstore. The store had opened in June 1953 at the beginning of what would become known as the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Run by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights was the first bookstore in America devoted to selling quality paperbacks, and once Ferlinghetti had bought out his original partner, Peter Martin, he began publishing a paperback series titled The Pocket Poets. Allen Ginsberg's Howl and other Poems was the fourth book in the series.
A native of Paterson, New Jersey, Ginsberg had arrived in California in 1954, and originally tried to interest Ferlinghetti in the manuscript of a collection he called "Empty Mirror." These were poems written in the style of William Carlos Williams, with whom Ginsberg had begun a correspondence in March 1950 (part of which Williams included in book IV of his poem Paterson. Ferlinghetti was lukewarm to these poems, but expressed great interest in a poem Ginsberg had begun in early August 1955 in which he adapted Williams's three-step line to the long lines of Whitman, the interest in Whitman being a return for Ginsberg to his style of the late 1940s. Added now, along with the interest in Williams's ideas on measure, was Ginsberg's reading of the surrealists.
What Ferlinghetti saw was the first of the four sections of "Howl." The work-in-progress brought Ginsberg local fame, and even more interest from the publisher, at a legendary reading at the Six Gallery (a converted auto-repair shop) on October 7, 1955. This was Ginsberg's first public reading, and the poem's chanting rhythms, iconoclastic language, and accumulating energy had the audience weeping and cheering. The other three sections of the poem were finished within a year. When Howl and other Poems was published Ginsberg was serving on a merchant ship off of the coast of Alaska. The book was favorably reviewed on the west coast, and when he returned to New York in 1957 Ginsberg worked tirelessly and mostly with success to get reviews from the New York literary establishment. He was helped in this task through an important article by Richard Eberhart that had appeared in September 1956 in The New York Times, identifying Ginsberg as the major talent of the emerging group of west coast poets. But what propelled the book and its author to national fame was the decision of US Customs in March 1957 to impound 520 copies of the second printing (the book was typeset in England) and to prosecute the book for obscenity. Even before the subsequent not guilty verdict the book had gone on sale in an edition typeset in the United States, and the Evergreen Review had reprinted "Howl." By the time the trial had ended, a book about which Ginsberg had wondered upon its publication whether it would sell a thousand copies had ten thousand copies in print, and became in effect a handbook of the Beat generation. Ferlinghetti later wrote: "It would have taken years for critics to accomplish what the good [Customs] collector did in a day, merely by calling the book obscene."
The volume is dedicated to Ginsberg's closest writer friends, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and the then unpublished Jack Kerouac. The dedication originally also included New York friend Lucien Carr, but was removed at Carr's request to be able to have "a certain anonymity in life." Carl Solomon, to whom the title poem is dedicated and addressed, later regretted some of the public notice that the poem brought him, concerned as it is with his period in a mental hospital.
The 64-page booklet carried a two-page introduction by Williams, to whom Ginsberg had sent "Howl" and some of his other recent work in 1956 (Williams included parts of Ginsberg's accompanying letter in Paterson V in 1958). In the introduction, Williams's stroke-impaired memory confuses the first and second world wars when he writes of his own correspondence with the poet, but he praises "Howl" as "a howl of defeat. Not defeat at all for he has gone through defeat as if it were an ordinary experience, a trivial experience." For Williams, "Howl" is the triumph of an affirmation of love coming out of defeat, the theme, he might have said, of his own long poem of the mid-1950s, "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower."
Part of Ginsberg's intention in these poems is to be true to actual events, and to bring an immediacy to the record of the authentic experience through the apparent spontaneity of the speaking voice, and the extremity of the passion behind the reciting of events. There is nevertheless a range of intensity, sometimes urgent, sometimes quiet, within the poems. Ginsberg also wants to short-circuit the usual processes of logic and categorization, which for him are the weapons of a dehumanizing culture that represses the sexual and creative potential of the individual. The erasing of such boundaries through - for example, the long lists, particularly in "Howl," that refuse to use the grammar of subordination - is to be followed by a lifting of the reading consciousness into a realm of greater physical, imaginative, and spiritual freedom. Such a condition was signified for Ginsberg particularly in the poetry of William Blake. Thus the first section of "Howl" is one long, chanted sentence, its almost 80 verse paragraphs of varying lengths set off from one another by their arrangement on the page, and by commas - as in the famous opening lines:
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,
The "I saw" is key to the poem's claim to authority - the events cataloged are a recital of the adventures and tragedies of Ginsberg, his family, friends, and acquaintances in the years leading up to the poem. This first section towards its end identifies with Carl Solomon, 3,000 miles away on the east coast in the mental hospital that the poem later identifies as Rockland (although Solomon was actually institutionalized in another hospital): "ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe." The mystical state of mind that the poem wants to induce means breaking free from the imprisonment of material values and the oppressive mores of convention. These latter are among the qualities of section II's "Moloch," the force threatening insanity by its demands for standardization. Breaking free of Moloch allows the crossing of physical boundaries so that at the end of section III the narrator can address Carl Solomon:
I'm with you in Rockland 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
The short section that follows is a "Footnote to Howl" rather than a 'section IV,' Ginsberg has explained, because in its assertion of what is "Holy" it is a counter to section II's refrain of "Moloch" rather than an additional section of the poem. For some critics, however, this is the weakest part of "Howl."
The booklet contains five additional poems from the same period as "Howl." "A Supermarket in California" describes a vision of Walt Whitman in the "neon fruit supermarket." The two poets to walk together, each solitary, "never passing the cashier," and the contemporary poet addresses and finds reassurance - sexual and creative - from the older master. "Transcription of Organ Music," "Sunflower Sutra," and (included at Ferlinghetti's behest) "In the Baggage Room at Greyhound" make explicit the mystical visions that conclude the processes they describe, seeing, as the first of these three puts it, "the feeling in the heart of things." The last of the five poems, "America," displays the inventive, sardonic wit that is also an important part of "Howl" and like that poem is more of a direct assault upon the reader. The poem acknowledges the poet's own inevitable complicity in the "Time Magazine" version of America, but this complicity is ironically accepted in order to challenge such falsity from within.
Four "earlier poems" complete the book, and to various degrees they are pastiches of Williams's style. "An Asphodel," uses a central image that Williams himself developed in "Asphodel, that Greeny Flower." "Song" is reminiscent of Williams's poetry around 1920, "Wild Orphan" takes its argument from Williams's well-known "To Elsie," and "In back of the real" is a dress-rehearsal for "Sunflower Sutra" but in the Williams vein. The poems are instructive of Ginsberg's journey towards the innovative line of "Howl," and illustrate what he gained by returning to the long catalogs of Whitman, while retaining the particular immediacy and directness that he had found in Williams.
The reviews of the book generally acknowledged the excitement generated by the poems and the importance of this new voice, and it has gone on to become the quintessential poetic text of the 1950s counterculture. There were some dissenting voices. John Hollander in Partisan Review accused the book of "sponging on one's toleration for pages and pages," and proclaiming "in a hopped-up and improvised tone, that nothing seems to be worth saying save in a hopped-up and improvised tone." Hollander later modified his view, but Ginsberg's poetry had its detractors throughout his career, some of whom see Howl and other Poems more important as a cultural event than as poetry, while others point to what they see as the lack of any significant poetic development in Ginsberg's subsequent work.
In 1986 Harper & Row published an edition of "Howl" annotated by the author. Many accompanying period photographs and reprinted contemporary documents provide a very useful history of the poem, its composition, and reception. Among the "model texts" that Ginsberg reprints as "precursors" to "Howl" in this edition are poems by Christopher Smart, Shelley, Hart Crane, and Williams. In 1994 Rhino Records issued an early, 1956, recording of Ginsberg reading "Howl" in San Francisco, which adds a dimension to the poem not to be missed.
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