Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ has one of the most jolting, staggering opening lines in poetry. But before you get there, it’s worth knowing about two things that precede it.
The first is the story of the publication of Howl and Other Poems in 1956. It wasn’t easy. The poet and bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti had decided that this little-known kid, Ginsberg, would be the fourth writer spotlighted in his “Pocket Poets” series of books – but the authorities had other ideas. They didn’t like the freewheeling profanity of ‘Howl’, its constant allusions to sex, drugs and the gutter. A shipment of copies was seized in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti’s shop was raided by police. Then began a trial that was among the most significant in 20th-century pop culture; a test of the US Supreme Court’s insistence that material could only be considered obscene – and therefore suppressed – if it were “utterly without redeeming social importance”. Was ‘Howl’ of social importance? The judges said… yes. Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg had beaten the rap.
The second thing to know is that ‘Howl’ is dedicated to Carl Solomon, a writer whom Ginsberg had met while they were both being treated at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. The poem itself borrows incidents from Solomon’s life – “who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism…” – although he would later dispute some of the details. It also mentions, in a separate dedication, another handful of writers: Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady.
Which brings us crashing into that opening line: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…” Ginsberg’s talking about Solomon, of course, but also the rest of them: all those artistic souls who had washed up on the other side of America’s recent wars and weren’t satisfied with the peacetime consensus of cars and lawns and plenty. They were so dissatisfied, in fact, that they were filling up the psychiatric hospitals. This was a terrifying vision, and the telling of it required terrifying language. ‘Howl’ is, as its name suggests, more primal scream than poem.
Across its three sprawling sections and one “footnote”, Ginsberg went from describing his compatriots (“who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits”) to lamenting the American condition (“Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars!”) to drawing up a prescription (“the typewriter is holy”). But it was also a unifying vision. A year after the publication of Howl and Other Poems, and with the release of Kerouac’s novel On the Road, Ginsberg’s generation would get a name: the Beat Generation.
From the perspective of the 21st Century, there is a lot that’s not ideal about the Beats: they were, it should be said, a very masculine movement (although Joyce Johnson’s excellent memoir Minor Characters did do something to rebalance the scales). But they were also a powerful – and at times sublime – force, pushing literature towards new priorities of spontaneity, honesty and feeling. ‘Howl’ was both a starting point and a high point for all that. And, crucially, the beat went on. You can see the influence of ‘Howl’ in the company that Ginsberg kept after the 1950s. He’s there in the background of the video for Bob Dylan’s 1965 song ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. He appears in the chapter of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels that deals with a legendary, raucous meeting between the leather bikers and Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. He ran with the Beatles, Andy Warhol, Patti Smith.
So much of what we describe as “counterculture” began with the Beats, and that began with ‘Howl’. The starving, the hysterical and the naked finally had a credo.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill