Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg

For recent clubs, I have started trying to introduce the reading of a little poetry. I don’t read enough of it, and so a club week is the perfect excuse. Today’s book is one I’ve owned for decades; it was second hand when I got my copy, and is in a bit of a grungy state; but it was an early acquisition for me of a Beat poet, and has stayed with me since my teens. The book is “Howl and other poems” and the author Allen Ginsberg.

Ginsberg has already made an appearance here on the Ramblings; back in 2016, I covered volume 5 in the Penguin Modern Poets series, where he was joined by two other Beat poets, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I shared then my delight at re-encountering Ginsberg and the musicality of his poetry; and that element was certainly present in “Howl”.

The long title poem is probably the poet’s most famous and notorious work, and was banned and then subject to a long court trial, finally being judged to be not obscene. It dealt with subjects like sex, drugs, mental health and homosexuality, so was of course bound to cause controversy. And the opening lines are justifiably famous:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
     starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for
     an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
     to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking
     in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating
     across the tops of cities contemplating jazz…

(I reproduce the layout and line endings as they appear in my edition)

The poem is a strikingly vivid and multi-layered, full of autobiographical allusions to fellow authors like Burroughs, Kerouac and Neal Cassady, as well as events from Ginsberg’s life. It’s a stunning and memorable work and I can understand the impact it had at the time.

Allen Ginsberg 1979 (Dijk, Hans van / Anefo / CC0 – via Wikimedia Commons)

Other poems in the volume include “A Supermarket in California” and “Sunflower Sutra” , both of which appeared in the Penguin volume. These share the musical quality of much of Ginsberg’s verse, and as I commented at the time, it’s not really surprising he recorded his own work, whether in poetic or song format, as well as appearing on an album with The Clash.

As I mentioned above, I first read Ginsberg (and indeed all the Beats) back in my teens; I’ve not revisited many recently and there is always that question of how well the work will hold up and how much it’s dated (also bearing in mind that when I first read the books some of the writers were alive, and some only recently deceased – we’re talking quite a while ago…) With “Howl” itself, whilst I loved the lyricism, I picked up elements of misogyny lurking to which I might have been less sensitive in the past. The lauding of Neil Cassady because of the number of women he screwed and then abandoned isn’t something I’m particularly comfortable with; and there is an element of scorn for women at times which may stem from Ginsberg’s own sexual preferences.

However, putting that caveat aside, I found much to love in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. There is some really powerful and beautiful imagery, a sense of despair at the state of the world and, I think, a plea for understanding and the tolerance of individuality. In these modern times where conformity is ever more expected, we could all do with a little more empathy with our fellow humans.