- The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later
It has been fifty years since Allen Ginsberg's Howl was released, and to commemorate the occasion Jason Shinder, a friend and coworker of Ginsberg's, has compiled a collection of essays on the poem and its writer. These responses, from celebrated artists and critics as varied as Amiri Baraka, John [End Page 165] Cage and Luc Sante, attempt to trace the poem's impact from its first reading in October of 1955 until today.
Certainly there is reason to be optimistic about such a project. Howl was legitimately famous, and not just within the walls of the academy. The assault on Howl was one of the last highly publicized obscenity trials, making it a legal, if not a literary, successor to Ulysses. And finally, Howl was a genuinely important poem, widely read and widely discussed. It was a poem about alienation and fear, and its corporate villain Moloch seems as fearsome today as in Eisenhower's America.
Unfortunately, the collection is thin, and one finishes it knowing strangely little about poet, author or audience. There is, of course, the problem of redundancy. As it turns out, many of the writers here have overlapping favorite passages, and, to make matters worse, few of them have a particularly novel reading of them, so that other than to say that the first few lines of the poem touched the writer personally and profoundly (it felt like he was speaking to me!) these critics have very little to say about the words on the page. Frank Bidart's piece is one of the few that actually considers the poem itself.
Instead of insight, what we have are personal reflections on how these contributors came to the poem, and what happened when they did. And what is really interesting in reading this collection is the sense that Ginsberg's most famous work has become something of a Rorschach for critics, all seeing in it something of themselves, so that each writer's own particular brand of juvenile alienation (one's Jewishness, homosexuality, socialism) becomes the solitary lens through which the poem is interpreted. Quite often the very same line speaks to several alienated readers of very different issues. It is a tribute to the poem that it can mean so personally to so many disparately disenfranchised.
But just as the words in the poem don't change because of the lens, the recollections here are too alike. The writers are near unanimous in their admiration for the poem's courage, for the poet's humanity, for the rhythm and energy of the writing: all good things, none worthy of three hundred pages. Strangely, there is a lack of historical or biographical perspective in a project whose conceit is looking at a poem fifty years later. Neither the writers nor the editor place the poem within its specific period; none discuss how Ginsberg came to write the poem or edit it. There isn't nearly enough about the trial, and there's no attempt to look specifically at how the relevance of this poem has morphed as America's problems have shifted, and ultimately [End Page 166] shifted back. There are twenty-six contributions to this collection, all good, but too often overlapping in scope and perspective. This book would have offered a perfect opportunity to include not only personal recollections by the eloquent and famous but real insight into the poem and poet. It is unfortunate also that no response could be included from the major Beats themselves, all of whom are now dead.
Finally, it has been fifty years, yet Shinder allows no room for dissent. Howl, for all of its popularity, was not a universally loved poem in its time. Critics, scholars, poets reviled it not only for its vulgarity but for what they deemed to be its amateurishness and its lack of control. Surely some of those who originally bashed it are still alive. Wouldn't it have been interesting to see how fifty years, and a place...