Thursday, June 14, 2012

June 14: What I Have Learned About "Howl"

I'm currently at work on a poem for my new collection.  The poem I'm writing is based on Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl."  Thus, I have been reading up on Ginsberg's poem, and I have found out that "Howl" has a history paralleling, in some ways, the evolution of culture in 1960s American (the drug culture, the sexual culture, the political culture).  I thought I'd share some of the information I've acquired since I started this little endeavor, since I'm probably not going to use it anywhere else.  (Most of the background I'm about to relate comes from Wikipedia and a few other online sources.)

Allen Ginsberg wrote "Howl" in 1955 and published it in 1956 in a book titled Howl and Other Poems.  Upon publication, "Howl" made a huge splash in the literary world and established Ginsberg as one of the most important writers of the Beat Generation.  It also spawned obscenity trials and arrests.

Ginsberg wrote the poem (or a good portion of it) in a coffee house in Berkeley, California, called the Caffee Mediterraneum.  He was heavily influenced by Kenneth Rexroth (who told him to "free his voice and write from the heart") and the writers William Carlos Williams and Jack Kerouac.  Eventually, Ginsberg settled on his signature form and style that comprises "Howl."  His style, as described in Wikipedia, is "a long line based on breath organized by a fixed base."  "Howl" is dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met when the two were confined in a mental institution together.  Ginsberg also admitted that the poem deals with his feelings for his mother, who was schizophrenic and, eventually, lobotomized.

Ginsberg first performed the poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955.  His reading left the audience standing in wonder, stunned and cheering.  Soon after this reading, Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Howl and Other Poems through his City Lights Press.

On June 3, 1957, a bookstore manager in San Francisco was arrested for selling the book to an undercover police officer.  Ferlinghetti was subsequently arrested for publishing the book.  His arrest spawned a famous obscenity trial, covered by Time and Life.  Ferlinghetti won the case, with a judge declaring that "Howl" had "redeeming social importance."

"Howl" went on to become the most famous poem of the Kerouac generation, and Ginsberg became the poetic voice of the 1960s.  He died on April 5, 1997, of liver cancer.

That's what Saint Marty's been doing with his spare time:  falling in love with the "Howl" of a magnificent poet.

Ginsberg (left) and his partner of 40 years, Peter Orlovsky

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