It’s over thirty years since the angry drumbeat of Howl first assembled the dissatisfied tribes of an expanding American subculture, and gave them a name and a voice. The first reading took place at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on 7 October 1955. Michael McClure who also read that night along with Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Philip Lamantia, describes the poem’s impact in Scratching the Beat Surface (1982):
I hadn’t seen Allen in a few weeks and I had not heard Howl – it was new to me. Allen began in a small and intensely lucid voice. At some point Jack Kerouac began shouting ‘GO’ in cadence as Allen read it. In spite of all our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before – we had gone beyond a point of no return – and we were ready for it, for a point of no return.
Ginsberg himself was in tears, ‘driving forward’, as he recalled in his third-person memoir of the event a couple of years later, ‘with a strange ecstatic intensity’, ‘surprised at his own power’, and in the process restoring to American poetry ‘the prophetic consciousness it had lost since the conclusion of Hart Crane’s The Bridge’.
From the first Howl had a kind of totemic significance, partly as a result of its trial for obscenity, and partly because it drew so clearly and cleverly the lines of battle between the hips and the squares, the holy bums and the Establishment’s ‘scholars of war’ and ‘fairies of advertising’ with their ‘mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors’. And when it finally came out in book form in 1956, it attracted exactly the kind of denunciatory press in the leading academic journals that was guaranteed to increase its underground following. It was Ginsberg’s old Columbia colleagues, John Hollander, Norman Podhoretz and Louis Simpson, all cutting their teeth in the New York literary scene under the approving auspices of Lionel and Diana Trilling, who led the charge against the Beats. ‘It is only fair to Allen Ginsberg to remark on the utter lack of decorum of any kind in his dreadful little volume,’ began Hollander in Partisan Review. Podhoretz’s was a more general attack on the know-nothing bohemians of On the Road: ‘This is the revolt of the spiritually underprivileged and the crippled of soul – young men who can’t think straight and so hate anyone who can.’ Among others who leapt to the defence of culture as they knew it were Donald Hall, Herbert Gold, Delmore Schwartz, Truman Capote (on Kerouac: ‘that’s not writing, that’s type-writing’), Robert Brustein and James Dickey (‘Howl is the skin of Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer thrown over the conventional maunderings of one type of American adolescent, who has discovered that machine civilisation has no interest in his having read Blake’). Riding the waves of this kind of adverse publicity, the Beats broke through to an enormous audience extraordinarily quickly. Within a few years, long articles had appeared in Time and Life depicting them as savage, anarchistic enfants terribles, but they were soon repackaged for national consumption more as whacky misfits than existential destroyers; up-to-date hostesses could rent-a-Beatnik to spice up their parties, and, without upsetting its audience at all, a popular soap-opera introduced a bearded, sandal-wearing dope loosely modelled on media images of Ginsberg. By 1958 Ginsberg was even well enough known to earn a magisterial put-down from Edith Sitwell in the course of a reading tour in America. ‘My, you do smell bad, don’t you?’ she is supposed to have said on being introduced. ‘What was your name again? Are you one of the Action Poets?’
Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs weren’t the only ones alert to the repressions simmering within the Cold War mentality of the ‘tranquillised Fifties’, as Lowell called them. Mailer’s ‘The White Negro’, for instance, has a Faustian hipster jealous of the black man’s intenser and more frequent orgasms and scornful of the puritan virtues of self-containment: ‘A stench of fear has come out of every pore of American life, and we suffer from a a collective failure of nerve.’ Ginsberg and Kerouac, too, tended to idolise blacks without really knowing many, and jazz was obviously the seminal influence on the development of their ‘spontaneous bop prosody’. ‘Blow as deep as you want to blow’ is No 7 on Kerouac’s list of ‘The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose’, and Ginsberg discovered in this advice the necessary impetus for Howl. ‘I realise how right you are,’ he wrote to Kerouac in a letter accompanying the manuscript: ‘that was the first time I sat down to blow.’
Nonetheless, looking back on the lives of the Beats and their heroes in the Forties and early Fifties, and on the ‘crazy’ feats which they performed and which Howl and On the Road immortalise, one is most struck by how very literary they all were. Ginsberg arrived at Columbia wanting to be a labour lawyer who would fight for blue-collar rights, but under the influence of Burroughs and Lucien Carr he soon began to see himself as a poète maudit and Nietzschean transgressor. Burroughs handed out reading-lists that included Gide, Rimbaud, Dostoevsky and Lautrèamont, and introduced into their set as a live existentialist hero the low-life Herbert Huncke – a 42nd Street junkie, pusher and small-time thief in and out of Riker’s Island for much of his life. Jack Kerouac one night wrote out his undying dedication to the novelist’s art in his own blood. Even Neal Cassady wasn’t immune. ‘I’m not the N.C. you know,’ he wrote to Ginsberg. ‘I’m not N.C. anymore. I more closely resemble Baudelaire.’
From time to time these literary fantasies lurched disastrously into reality. In 1944, for instance, Lucien Carr made their fantasies of romantic doomed youth come true by stabbing to death his homosexual admirer Dave Kammerer. ‘His sense of himself and his friends as Nietzschean outlaws was confirmed,’ Kerouac later commented in Vanity of Duluoz. Arrested and brought to book, Carr went into court with a copy of Rimbaud and Yeats’s A Vision under his arm. The following year Ginsberg himself was suspended for a year from Columbia for writing ‘Fuck the Jews’ and ‘Butler has no balls’ in the grime on his window pane. (‘But he is a Jew,’ the Dean puzzled.) He was only allowed back with a note of clearance from his psychiatrist.
A couple of years later, in 1949, Ginsberg found himself sharing his East Side apartment not only with Huncke, who had shown up on his doorstep one night fresh out of jail, his ‘shoes full of blood’, but with Huncke’s partners Little Jack Melody and Priscilla. As the rooms rented in his name slowly filled up with stolen goods, Ginsberg grew nervous, and finally insisted they move them. On their way to Long Island Little Jack took a wrong turn down a one-way street; he was chased by the police and crashed the car. When they’d all been arrested, the Daily News ran a large picture of them entering court on its front page. ‘The whole thing was transformed from the hermetic, cosmic, nebulous Dostoevskian thing that it was, with like real people involved, into this total stereotype of a giant robbery operation – six-foot marijuana-smoking redhead, three-time loser pariah criminal, boy-wonder mastermind,’ Ginsberg was later to complain.
While the others went to jail, Ginsberg pleaded insanity and went to Columbia Psychiatric Institute where he met Carl Solomon. Solomon was heavily under the influence of Gide and Artaud, and had been committed for various actes gratuits which he perpetrated after reading Lafcadio’s Adventures. He stole a sandwich from a cafeteria and showed it to a policeman. In what he called a Dadaist ‘illustration of alienation’ he threw potato salad at the novelist Wallace Markfield while he was lecturing on Mallarmé, and he often used to pretend he was Auden, and sign autographs in Auden’s name. A worthy disciple of Artaud, he even demanded his own lobotomy. Their meeting at Columbia Psychiatric Institute is now legendary. Solomon was being wheeled through the ward as he emerged from an insulin-shock coma. ‘Who are you?’ he asked Ginsberg. ‘I’m Prince Myshkin,’ said Ginsberg. ‘I’m Kirilov,’ Solomon replied.
Most of Ginsberg’s poetry of this period isn’t particularly interesting, but it illustrates well the deathly effect of the New Critical orthodoxies on a free spirit like his. A lot of it is in the pastiche Metaphysical vogue which was popular in the academies, with archaic spelling and rhyme (‘I may waste my days no more/pining in spirituall warre’), and these clash disastrously with the burning guilts and desires which anxiously lurk beneath the poem’s surface, desperate to be confessed. It wasn’t until he met Williams in 1950 that he realised poetry could be written in everyday English, and then he immediately went to the opposite extreme, writing flat monochrome slabs describing New Jersey sewage works and factories. Williams showed these to Marianne Moore and she thought them ‘terribly depressing’.
Ginsberg was a long time finding both his poetic voice and his ‘real self’. Throughout his twenties, working in New York as a copyboy, a market-researcher, in advertising, and still not fully out of the closet, he was oppressed by a ‘Kafkian sordidness of self’, as he put it in a letter he wrote, but never sent, to Wilhelm Reich, whose orgone boxes were all the rage in the Village. He had soul-shattering visions of Blake in which the Master’s spirit appeared in his room in East Harlem and declaimed ‘The Sunflower’ and ‘The Sick Rose’ in an unearthly voice. A lot of people thought he’d gone mad. As late as 1952 he was hoping a new analyst would ‘cure’ him of his homosexuality and help him integrate into society. But in 1954 he moved to San Francisco where he found a new type of analyst who advised him to do exactly what he wanted. He met Peter Orlovsky and they exchanged lovers’ eternal vows. He gave up his girlfriend and his job, started taking heavier doses of Peyote and began to trust the messianic stirrings in his soul.
‘The only poetic tradition is the voice out of the burning bush. The rest is trash and will be consumed,’ Ginsberg wrote soon after finishing Howl, but the notes and appendices published along with this facsimile of the working sheets reveal a much cannier awareness of the poem’s methods. Howl is a unique mishmash, as much mock-heroic as epic, or to use Ginsberg’s own words in his note to the first ‘crucial’ revision (changing ‘mystical’ to ‘hysterical’ in the first line): ‘The poem’s tone is in this mixture of empathy and shrewness, the comic realism of Chaplin’s City Lights, a humorous hyperbole derived in part from Blake’s The French Revolution. “If you have a choice of two things and can’t decide, take both,” says Gregory Corso.’ Ginsberg of course takes his own prophetic denunciations absolutely seriously (‘Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men!’) and under the right conditions these can seem powerful and even wise, but the poem’s appeal rests much more on the wild picaresque of its anecdotes and phrasing. In the same way, nothing Dean Moriarty says ever makes much sense, but we respond strongly to his exploits and endless rambling speech. ‘Everyone in Ginsberg’s book is hopped up on benzedrine, reefers and whisky, and is doing something as violently and loudly as he can, in “protest” or “fulfilment”,’ Dickey remarked sourly, but Howl is one of those poems that seem to soar on the wings of a collective fantasy beyond the reach of this kind of responsible criticism, even though, or perhaps especially because, these are the visions of a single individual. It might be argued that something similar happens in early Auden, or the infinitely more self-conscious myth-making of Yeats.
Consider Ginsberg in full flight:
who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,
who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,
who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge,
a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon ...
The lines have an obvious charm and seem grounded in an authentic innocence – which transforms what were probably dreary incidents in real life into an intense and glamorous myth. (Bickford’s, for instance was a 42nd Street cafeteria where Ginsberg was mop-boy for a season.) When Howl first came out people were upset by lines like ‘who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,/who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean love’ (supposed to be a reference to Hart Crane), ‘who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens’, and the offending words were bowdlerised in various reprints of the poem. Yet all this is closer to the realms of pastoral inconsequence than it is to real sex or obscenity. Ginsberg is like his great precursor, Whitman (‘a mountain too vast to be seen,’ he often wrote in letters), in whose work sex is similarly Orphic and unerotic, more like a healthy purge.
Howl pays its own price for walking naked in its peacock-way, but its vulnerabilities register less in the form of reprimands from the society its heroes defy than as a kind of organic exhaustion, like coming down from a trip, or burning oneself out. In a similar way Ginsberg exhausts his own store of anecdotes, expanding each one in a single driving line to its moment of vision ‘eluding the last gyzym of consciousness’, before moving on. The poem’s effect is cumulative rather than structural, and although – to the disgust of Kerouac, who believed a writer should never revise – Ginsberg wrote innumerable drafts of the different sections (there are 18 for Part II alone), the drafts themselves are largely interchangeable. He continually sharpened the focus of the poem, rearranging the order and improving the wording, but there are no decisive interventions like Pound’s in The Waste Land manuscript. It’s all pretty much as he wrote it in single bursts of inspiration during the summer and early autumn of 1955.
The appendices added here include various accounts of the poem’s reception, a bizarre compilation of ‘sources’ ranging through Smart and Shelley to Kurt Schwitters and Lorca, much of Ginsberg’s correspondence from the mid-Fifties, and a history of Howl’s ludicrous trial for obscenity in the San Francisco courts – the best the prosecution could muster was a private English tutor called Gail Potter who attested: ‘You feel like you’re going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff.’ Ginsberg is mainly in triumphant mood, playing off the costive disapproval of the squares – Trilling: ‘I’m afraid I have to tell you I don’t like the poems at all. I hesitate before saying that they seem to me quite dull’ – against his own copious justifications of his work, including an excerpt from the brilliant letter he wrote in self-defence to Hollander, which is quoted in full in Jane Kramer’s Allen Ginsberg in America (1969). In the textual notes he shows painstakingly how he arrived at elliptical formulations like ‘hydrogen jukebox’ or ‘total animal soup of time’ via haiku and Cézanne. Carl Solomon, who wasn’t particularly happy at his vicarious rise to fame, is given a say at last, but his comments on the individual lines aren’t always enlightening. ‘Crap,’ one of them begins. ‘Sorry Allen. Also “heterosexual dollar” is crap; much of our literature is crap. And so on ad infinitum. Howl is a good poem but poetry isn’t life.’ Also published here for the first time are the absurdist letters they wrote together from Columbia Institute to T.S. Eliot and Malcolm de Chazal.
The fall-out from Howl was immense, and not entirely benign. For a start, the San Francisco renaissance that had been quietly brewing for several years under the watchful guidance of Rexroth and Duncan suddenly became a New Yorker’s one-man show, though Ginsberg himself was tireless in promoting his fellow ‘break-through artists’. Squabbles broke out. Rexroth lost not only his status as West Coast King of the Cats, as Yeats would have put it, but his girlfriend as well, to Robert Creeley, who, along with other Black Mountain poets, quickly arrived, wanting in on the kill. Ginsberg himself shipped out as a Merchant Marine to the Antarctic for a few months, and then travelled around Europe with Peter Orlovsky on his earnings, and over much of the globe: Central America, South America, Israel, where they met with Martin Buber, and then India and the Far East in search of more forthcoming gurus. Ginsberg had become a household name – the Daily Mail paused to label him ‘one of the most vicious characters in America’ – and his quests for enlightenment, as related in the voluminous Journals he has published from these years, show a certain kind of public spirit: Ginsberg as the arrowhead of a generation that has conclusively rebelled, but has yet to find a permanent alternative base on which to establish itself. Whereas Kerouac was emotionally destroyed by the first breath of fame and hostility, Ginsberg managed to accept with humour and courage his role as public spokesman, creating a relationship with his colossal audience comparable only to Kipling’s this century. Unlike Kipling, however, he’s taken to be as much catalyst as reflector of social change, and there were plenty of people ready to lay the numerous casualties of the Sixties at his door. On phone-ins middle-aged women would ring up only to scream: ‘Ginsberg, you’re nothing but a douche-bag.’ His poetry after Kaddish mellowed, even sagged in many places, perhaps because, as he laments in a poem in his new volume White Shroud, he became ‘a prisoner of Allen Ginsberg’. From his middle years, the work inspired by the Vietnam War is always moving, and there are occasional jewels like ‘Eclogue’ and Bixby Canyon to Jessore Road, but no one could deny there are also huge trackless wastes in Collected Poems (1984), ‘a panorama of valleys and plateaus with peaks of inspiration every few years’, as he engagingly puts it in his introduction. Well, those peaks are fewer and further between than ever now, but White Shroud contains at least one or two good poems to set alongside his best.
Ginsberg’s involvement in Eastern religions during the Sixties and since has been one of his most publicised and intriguing idiosyncrasies. When he visited Pound in Rapallo in 1967, he not only insisted on playing him the latest Dylan and Beatles albums, but chanted Hare Krishnas at the silent sage for hours on end. He got a more positive response when leading the sit-down at the Democratic Convention in 1968, and claims to have defused the confrontation between police and protestors simply by chanting his favourite mantras over and over again. More recently, he co-founded, with the Tibetan lama Trungpa, the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, the only accredited Buddhist college in the Western world, where he still teaches. But for all that, and the tranquillity of ‘undifferentiated consciousness’ which his poetry so proudly displays, there is, as Bellow’s Shawmut points out in the story ‘Him with his Foot in his Mouth’, something irreducibly Jewish about Ginsberg, an inescapable urge for ‘comic self-degradation’ which none of his conversions can disguise.
A rich and famous Buddhist schlemiel? That’s the impression White Shroud conveys, even though quite a few of the poems present him in extremely enviable circumstances, as a fêted celebrity in China – where he goes down with bronchitis – or putting the boot into the Moral Majority, or in bed with one of the adoring golden-haired disciples who come to pay homage to their ‘poetry master’. In this last genre, there are no more fantasies of the ‘Please, Master’ or ‘Sweet Boy, Give me Yr Ass’ kind, but descriptions, both pathetic and obscurely touching, of events that obviously happened exactly the way he says they did:
I enter slow, he’s soft
no pain, he raises his behind
no hard on, hips aloft
I push, he doesn’t mind.
My trouble is, I’m old
and tho this young kind boy
gives me a chance for joy
I’m not hard enough to be bold.
Before it was plastic dildos: now he can’t get it up. Bellow sees in this kind of thing a ‘crazy simplemindedness’ but also an affinity with the traditional Jewish role of humorous self-abuse found in his own novels, and those of Roth, Heller, Malamud and so on. In White Shroud this is best exploited in the delicate balance achieved in the title poem between, on the one hand, Ginsberg’s sense of his own present success, and, on the other, the more deeply ingrained fear of victimisation he inherited from, among other sources, his mother’s prolonged and painful insanity.
Diana Trilling, in her supercilious account of the Beats’ reading at Columbia in 1959, attributes all to Naomi’s madness: ‘This was the central and utterly persuasive fact of this young man’s life.’ Ginsberg himself has suggested almost as much – for example, in the preface-note accompanying the publication in 1976 of another long letter about Howl from the mid-Fifties, this time to Eberhart. ‘What I didn’t say to Eberhart: Howl is really about my mother, in her last years at Pilgrim State Hospital – acceptance of her, later inscribed in Kaddish detail.’ Two poems here directly confront this theme, both using a dream form. It was Ginsberg himself who finally signed the papers authorising Naomi’s lobotomy and in ‘Black Shroud’ this guilt surfaces in a nightmare narrative in which he decapitates her in the bathroom: society, mindful of his ‘Collected Works’, exonerates him. The much more powerful ‘White Shroud’ has him revisiting a bustling West Bronx full of street dogs, baby carriages, shoppers at Macy’s, ‘mankind thriving in their solitudes in shoes’. Here he stumbles on a bag-lady living in ‘a niche between buildings with tin canopy/shelter from cold rain’, surrounded by pots and pans and plates, on her head a ‘motheaten rabbit-fur hat’, her teeth no more than ‘hard flat flowers arranged around her gums. Of course it is Naomi, and he launches into a fantasy of domestic bliss: with this the dream fades and he wakes up back in Boulder, Colorado, with Peter Orlovsky downstairs watching the early-morning News.
Ginsberg’s own sanity is more strongly marked in White Shroud than ever, and perhaps this is why so many of the poems in it are so low-key, even dull. Throughout his career Ginsberg has appealed to the world as a heroic eccentric, and it is hard not to think that it is the absurdity of his enterprise that has taken him so far. For, where at the heart of Lawrence there is an unassailable spiritual dignity, or of Blake an almost deadly clarity of intent, something much slushier and less interesting is at the centre of Ginsberg’s achievement. As a prophet he has fathered no self-sustaining vision or system – which is obviously why he fails to win a pedestal in Bloom’s pantheon of anxious repressives. In a sense, Ginsberg is far too healthy, even too saintly, to be a great poet. His poems divulge their secrets automatically, without asking. If the publication of the Howl drafts is intended to evoke a comparison with The Waste Land, then Ginsberg is way out of his depth. While Eliot’s reticence and privacies grow more compelling and elusive with each reading, Ginsberg’s impact depends on an awesome lack of ambiguity. While Eliot plumbs the ‘cunning passages’ of literature and history, Ginsberg abolishes them altogether. He does so in the name of the present, of ‘raw beauty’, unable even to assume the chuckling deceptiveness of Whitman, who once described himself, in the third person, as ‘furtive, like an old hen’. Ginsberg, on the other hand, is always making remarks like the remark he made to Mark Van Doren in his Columbia years: ‘I want to be a saint, a real saint when I am still young, for there is much work to do.’ This kind of upfrontness has been found both embarrassing and liberating, and it is in complete opposition to the deep ‘quarrel with ourselves’ which activates so much of the great poetry written since the Romantics. The emotional pressure behind Howl and Kaddish makes them his most inspired and energetic performances, but it’s also true they happen all at once: probing beneath their surfaces reveals nothing.
It is this lack of deviousness which has made Ginsberg such a success. When he visited the analyst who helped him break free from convention in 1955, he couldn’t help asking him: ‘But what if I get old?’ ‘Oh, don’t worry, there will always be people who will like you,’ the analyst replied. No prediction could have come truer. Perhaps the most accurate testimony to Ginsberg’s qualities comes from Terry, a follower of Sonny Barger, president of the Oakland Hell’s Angels. Hunter Thompson relates how the Angels were planning to stomp a peace march Ginsberg and the flower-power children of Berkeley had organised against the Vietnam War. Ginsberg, hearing of this threat, went to plead with Barger – they had already met at Ken Kesey’s – and won a promise that this time the marchers would be left alone. Terry was outraged:
That goddam Ginsberg is gonna fuck us all up. For a guy that ain’t straight at all, he’s about the staightest son of a bitch I’ve ever seen. Man, you shoulda been there when he told Sonny he loved him ... Sonny didn’t know what the hell to say.