From The Believer
Fifty years ago this month, City Lights Books debuted Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems — a collection of ranting, ecstatic verses that challenged the conservatism of Eisenhower-era America. Within a year of its publication, “Howl” had become the focus of an obscenity trial that ultimately redefined the limits of free expression in America. Considered by many to be a triumphant literary precursor to sixties counterculture and youth rebellion, Howl went on to sell over more than a million copies and influence a generation of poets.
This month, City Lights is commemorating Howl’s fiftieth anniversary with the publication of Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression, a Bill Morgan–edited anthology that collects correspondence, commentaries, and photographs documenting the publication and defense of Howl. Another anthology commemorating “Howl,” Jason Shinder’s The Poem That Changed America, debuted earlier this year, and fiftieth-anniversary celebration galas are slated (or have already happened) in places like San Francisco, Montreal, and London.
Amid the festivities, however, it’s easy to forget how dated “Howl” can sound in 2006. Fifty years removed from the social constraints that made it seem scandalous in 1956, Ginsberg’s poem has become a victim of its own success — a quaint reminder that profane, stream-of-consciousness verse is no longer shocking or significant. Written as a Whitmanesque ode to id in an era of repression, “Howl” now brings to mind reality-TV programming — a drug-addled, homoerotic variation of “Jackass,” wherein Ginsberg gleefully recounts how he and his Ivy League buddies slummed it with the impoverished and the insane, “burned cigarette holes in their arms,” “walked all night with their shoes full of blood,” “jumped in the filthy Passaic,” “threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers,” and “threw up groaning into the bloody toilet.”
No doubt “Howl” will continue to be recognized as an essential twentieth-century poem, but if we aspire this year to recognize the anniversary of a Ginsberg poem that still seems relevant and challenging, we should fast-forward ten years to 1966, when the iconic Beat poet penned “Wichita Vortex Sutra” — an antiwar lament that carries an observational honesty not present in the MTV din of “Howl.”