Friday, May 05, 2006

The Legend of 'Howl'


Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden duly informs us, but when mythology takes over, anything goes. Or so it would seem, to judge by a new collection of essays, ''The Poem That Changed America: 'Howl' Fifty Years Later" (FSG), commissioned by Beat hagiographer Jason Shinder to mark the golden anniversary of Allen Ginsberg's epochal barbaric yawp.

Ever since ''Howl" first appeared in its instantly talismanic City Lights pocket edition in the fall of 1956, it's been hard to reckon where the poetry ends and the mythology begins. The Poem That Changed America? Never mind that there's no parsing such a blunderbuss hypothesis-the startling thing is that any poem at this late date can still have the kind of potent half-life in the collective imagination usually reserved for platinum pop hits.

When the legend becomes fact, runs the imperishable line in John Ford's ''The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," print the legend. In the case of ''Howl," it was a seamless transition: The poem was already legendary before it saw the light of print.

In the standard telling, it all began with a thunderclap on what Jack Kerouac later called that ''mad night" of Oct. 7, 1955, in an erstwhile San Francisco auto-body shop converted to a Boho art gallery. That was the mad night Ginsberg took his turn on the orange-crate podium and declaimed his work in progress to the assembled ''angelheaded hipster" faithful, leaving the throng in an uproar and Beatnik paterfamilias Kenneth Rexroth in tears. That was the mad night that Ginsberg's full-throttle first line-"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked"-burst into the American vernacular as the first and perhaps still unbested of countless generational war cries. That was the mad night that turned a spindly Jewish twentysomething from Jersey into a rock star avant la lettre, prompting ever-canny City Lights impresario Lawrence Ferlinghetti to fire off a telegram the next day that echoed Emerson's storied note to Whitman on the publication of ''Leaves of Grass" exactly a century earlier: ''I greet you at the beginning of a great career."

It's the stuff of fable, and it goes to show that there's nothing like a classic creation myth for industrial-strength staying power. That night has gone down in the annals as the official kickoff of the San Francisco Renaissance as a brand-name literary movement, but that's not the half of it. There was an earthquake that night, and it presaged the birth of the counterculture, the spawning of Sixties youth rebellion, and the annunciation of redemptive transgression as a radical social creed and a libertine fashion statement.

''Howl" was its epicenter, and the fault lines would be redrawn as battle lines practically overnight. By the time the revised text began to circulate far and wide as Beatnik samizdat, complete with a lionizing benediction by Ginsberg's old hometown mentor William Carlos Williams (''Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell"), ''Howl" was already more of a landmark cultural artifact than a mere work of literature, the breakneck lines on the page barely able to keep up with the zeitgeist whirlwind they were reaping.

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