first published in Mesh Magazine #11, September/October 2005
HOWL! by Matt Gonzalez
OCTOBER 7TH OF THIS YEAR marks the 50th anniversary of the first public reading of perhaps the most enduring poem of the 20th century. In 1955, Kenneth Rexroth emceed a reading at the famed Six Gallery at 3119 Fillmore Street in San Francisco, while young poets Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen read poetry. In attendance were such beat luminaries as Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neil Cassady, and Peter Orlovsky. In fact, Kerouac is said to have collected money from those in attendance, mostly spare pocket change, to supply the audience and readers with cheap wine.
Few could have predicted the impact this gathering would have on American letters. Gary Snyder, writing a few months earlier to Philip Whalen, who would ultimately join the readers in San Francisco, predicted it would be a “poetickall bomshell.” And he was right.
This was a time public sentiment in America was shifting. Though early Cold War fears still hung over the country, there were signs that things were different. McCarthyism was officially dead, as Senator Joseph McCarthy had been exposed the previous year in Senate hearings and officially censured by his colleagues. The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, had issued its unanimous opinion in Brown vs. Board of Education, officially declaring segregation illegal.
The optimism spilled into the October 7 reading and manifested itself in a new poetic style that directly repudiated the repressed social mores of the time. What these young poets offered was a break away from the staid language of traditional poetry — then popular in academic circles — in favor of a stream of consciousness and confessional voice that spoke to the rebelliousness many young people were feeling. Ginsberg in particular openly discussed matters of sex and drug use. He celebrated, much as Walt Whitman had, himself and the friends who had influenced his life thus far. He spoke openly of homosexuality.
The event began at 8:00 pm. Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia, who was 28 years old, led off the evening by reading the poems of John Hoffman, another surrealist poet who had recently died in Mexico. In many respects Lamantia was the expected highlight of the evening. A native of San Francisco’s Excelsior district, he had already traveled at the age of 16 to New York and was active in the circle of Andre Breton and Parker Tyler. His Erotic Poems had been published by Bern Porter 12 years earlier. That night, however, he was reading with others who, for the most part, had only published poems in a few obscure poetry journals.
Ginsberg did not read until later in the evening, around 11 pm. He was 29 years old and about to change the course of poetry. According to first-person accounts of those present Ginsberg was terrific when he took the stage. He read the only finished part of Howl, what comprises Part I. It was a dark poem, and yet it affirmed what this new generation was thinking and doing.
The first four lines of the poem begins: “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/who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz”.
Its confessional aspect allowed listeners to partake as if they, too, were the subjects. It was liberating. Ginsberg cried as he finished the poem and the audience responded with cheers.
The magnitude of the reading cannot be overstated. Ferlinghetti, the proprietor of City Lights Books in North Beach, telegraphed Ginsberg the next day at the cottage he was staying at in Berkeley congratulating him on his fine reading and soliciting the manuscript for publication. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?” Ginsberg, who was very familiar with Walt Whitman’s life and work, immediately understood the parallels that Ferlinghetti was making with Whitman. One hundred years earlier, in 1855, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written Whitman praising Leaves of Grass saying, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere.”
Curiously, it was the second edition of Howl that was seized by customs officials who took notice of some of the racier lines in the poem. Yet the United States Attorney in San Francisco refused to prosecute. Thereafter, a police Captain from the juvenile division intervened and pursued the matter, stating that he did not believe the book was fit for children. Ferlinghetti, the publisher, and Shig Murao, the store clerk who actually sold the book to police, were tried for selling obscene material. But even the conservative judge presiding over the case who regularly taught a Sunday school Bible class, Judge Clayton Horn, concluded Howl had “some redeeming social importance” and hence, it was not obscene.
While the poem recounts various activities within his circle that included Kerouac, Cassady, and William Burroughs, its origins trace back to Ginsberg’s association with a heroin addict he met in New York City named Herbert Huncke. Ginsberg was then attending Columbia University and experimenting with Benzedrine and marijuana. He allowed Huncke and others to store stolen goods in his apartment, most likely because he liked the excitement of it all. When the cops busted them in 1949, Ginsberg managed to stay out of prison by going instead to the New York State Psychiatric Institute on West 168th Street in Manhattan to undergo “therapy”. He stayed for eight months and while there met Carl Solomon, to whom the poem Howl is dedicated.
Ginsberg would later describe their meeting in an interview. He remembered the day he walked into the Institute as Solomon was just coming from electric shock therapy. Solomon asked Ginsberg who he was, to which Ginsberg replied, “I’m Prince Mishkin,” referring to a Christ-like figure from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Solomon responded, “I’m Kirilov,” referring to a nihilist from Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. Immediately the two realized they had something in common, and they became friends. Ginsberg later moved to San Francisco and wrote Howl from his 1010 Montgomery Street North Beach apartment.
Although some of the biggest literary prizes eluded him, Ginsberg had his share of honors, including a National Book Award for Poetry and a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. More importantly though, as we arrive at the 50th anniversary of the reading of Howl, it is estimated the poem has sold over one million copies in over 20 different languages since its publication in 1956. No public acknowledgement could be more profound.
-Jonah Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004);
-The Beats, A Literary Reference, edited by Matt Theado (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2001);
-Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Horn on Howl’, Evergreen Review, 1, no. 4 (1957);
-Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956);
-Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, edited by Barry Miles (New York: Harper & Row, 1986);
-Herbert Huncke, The Herbert Huncke Reader (New York: Morrow, 1997).