I am Prince Mishkin

Mark Ford

  • ‘Howl’: Original Draft Facsimile by Allen Ginsberg, edited by Barry Miles
    Viking, 194 pp, £16.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 670 81599 3
  • White Shroud: Poems 1980-1985 by Allen Ginsberg
    Viking, 89 pp, £10.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 670 81598 5

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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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