Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Paradox of Howl


"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked": Few lines or phrases by any American poet retain the iconic status of those first few clauses of Allen Ginsberg's Howl. Composed in a frenzy (and then painstakingly revised) in 1955, published in 1956, this poem of mental hospitals, jails, secret and overt gay sex, drug-taking, and transcontinental Bohemian fervor gained immediate and lasting notoriety. In Jason Shinder's The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later, a compilation of essays and short memoirs, poets, novelists, and essayists as unlike as Mark Doty, Philip Lopate, Robert Pinsky, Andrei Codrescu, Rick Moody, and Eileen Myles admire the poem as liberation, artifact, invitation, and talisman, praising Ginsberg himself as "lusty spiritual comedian" (Mark Doty), "dangerous Beat guru, bearded and druggy" (Sven Birkerts), "authentic made-in-America holy fool" (Vivian Gornick), and simply "an icon" (Luc Sante).

To follow Howl through the commemorative volume is to see how it can be all things to all readers, but also how thoroughly it has come to represent an enduring counterculture, a set of young rebels—the Beats, and then their successors—who dress oddly, speak their own argot, and hold straight, square, and old bourgeois ways in fiery contempt. (Most of the writers in Shinder's collection remember reading Howl when they were themselves teens.) And yet to look hard at the poem itself is to see a paradox: The poem that announced the coming of a new culture, an end to the dead habits of the past, is itself deeply intertwined with that past.

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