My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I read this—and I don’t think I’ve ever read this volume as a volume before, though I’ve read most of its contents, some multiple times over the years—to see if my longstanding judgment upon it holds up to maturer reconsideration. Stereotypically, one is supposed to be besotted with Ginsberg in adolescence and reject him in maturity, but this stereotype doesn’t apply in my case, and I doubt it’s even broadly true anymore.
For one thing, the title poem has endured, even in academia where it appears on more syllabi than you might imagine (and in The Norton Anthology of American Literature), so it deserves careful scrutiny.* And for another, I personally thought in adolescence that the Beats were slovenly ravers and ranters, promoters of a lifestyle brand for would-be bohemians who wanted the druggie trappings of counterculture credibility without having to learn to write—or to develop a cultural critique with any nuance or care; but maybe I was just a priggish young fogey. So does my judgment hold up? And does Howl deserve its increasingly secure place in the canon?
The title poem is certainly full of arresting imagery that gives a picture of a whole era seen from the perspective of a disturbed and deracinated demimonde. The poem’s protagonists are “the best minds of [the poet’s] generation”—essentially, the artistic class, self-exiles from the prosperous postwar working and middle classes who refused to bow to the Protestant work ethic and capitalist standards of productivity and procreation, and who were, in Ginsberg’s account, both ennobled and destroyed by their marginality and the appetites it gave rise to, an appetite for drugs and other forms of maddening psychedelia above all. Ginsberg is scrupulously clear about this in the poem, as he carefully distinguishes his “angelheaded hipsters” from “the negro streets” they prowl. So the poem is more self-aware and possibly (it is a slim possibility) self-critical than I gave it credit for being in my youth.
Howl is formally interesting as a structure: the entire long first part is one sentence formed by a series of descriptive clauses beginning with “who” and modifying “minds” in the first line’s independent clause, a simple but compelling syntactical invention. And the list of these minds’ attributes, which seemingly asks to be read quickly as if in obsessional raving, imposes by force and accumulation the poem’s visionary landscape. The poem’s second section is an apostrophic set of accusations against “Moloch,” denounced over and over as the destroyer of Ginsberg’s heroes; Moloch is the administered society of postwar capitalist America, devouring lives in its robotic maw of loveless, sexless, bodiless rationality: “Moloch whose name is the Mind!” (This section was partially inspired by Lynd Ward, for whom see here and here.) The final section asserts solidarity with the poem’s dedicatee, languishing in a psychiatric hospital: “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland…” The poem is not carelessly written: it advances by initially meaningless but actually apt combinations of words, nearly surreal: “unshaven rooms,” “paint hotels,” “pubic beards,” “peyote solidities,” etc., a technique reminiscent not only of Whitman’s startling combinations (“loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine”) but also those of Hopkins (“Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls”).
There is really no single line or set of lines to quote, though—Howl and other Ginsberg poems work by the power of their whole presence or they don’t work. Speaking of English-class pedagogy, Howl is not a poem that can be parsed either New Critically or deconstructively because it is not held together by paradox or torn apart by aporia; Marxism and psychoanalysis will bounce off it because its politics and its sexuality (“cock and endless balls”) are up on the surface. It is a process and an energy that is enacted in its recitation rather than strictly read. Perhaps to damn with faint praise, I respect this as an intention and an achievement; but still, it’s a dangerous thing to denounce the mind itself as a child-devouring god.
Ginsberg cites Blake, but where is Blake’s complicated dialectic between innocence and experience? (Ginsberg seems to think that experience can be innocent, which may be the trouble with his sexual politics—see my footnote.) He cites Whitman, but where is Whitman’s death-haunted despair, existential rather than sociopolitical in nature (compare the anguished “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” to the simplistic and sermonic “Sunflower Sutra”), where is Whitman’s love and pity for those unlike himself (from the voyeuristic spinster in Song of Myself to the Civil War soldiers tended in and by “The Wound-Dresser”)? Other poets with similarly dystopic attitudes toward modernity still write rings around Ginsberg. These poems, whether in the pesudo-Biblical denunciations of Howl or the tiresome sarcasm of “America,” offer nothing as complicated as Yeats’s figuration of revolution as an obdurate stillness, a stone in the stream, in “Easter, 1916” or Eliot’s literally impotent longing after a shattered tradition in The Waste Land.
Poems are not novels; they do not need to feature contending voices or disputing ideologies. The lyric poem after Petrarch or after Wordsworth (depending on your literary historiography) is the utterance of a single sensibility; but it should be an interesting, complicated sensibility at variance with itself. Yeats said that out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric, while out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry. Ginsberg is too impressed with himself and his elective self-mythologized generation to make poetry in this sense. In branding it this way, in preparing the way for the capitalization of dissent by peddling simplicities, he becomes part of the Moloch he claims to despise.
To end on a more affirmative note, I do like “A Supermarket in California.” Its depiction of the supermarket as an almost utopian place, a temple of abundance where the poet may cruise Whitman and encounter fellow citizens even “at night,” a bower of “peaches” and “penumbras”—this is all more interesting than Alex Jones-style ravings against “Moloch.” It is a sweet poem whose emotion feels earned and whose energy is spontaneous.
* By the way, for those of you interested in “harrowing tales from PC academe” clickbait: the last whispers in the academic corridor I heard about the teaching of Howl reported frustration or at least surprise at certain responses. One student rebuked a teacher for not emphasizing Ginsberg’s importance to queer culture or the poem’s status as queer discourse—for, in short, falsely universalizing or all-lives-mattering the poem and thus being insensitive to the particularity of its subcultural context and its influence on the broader culture. (It is somewhat difficult to imagine, where I am anyway, a student protesting on similar grounds about a neglect of these poems’ Jewish context, despite Ginsberg’s intimations: “America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.”) Another student reproved Ginsberg for being a “baby-rapist” who ought to go unread, this in somewhat exaggerated reference, presumably, to the poet’s support for NAMBLA. I was reminded of the confrontation between Ginsberg and Andrea Dworkin, and reminded too that uneasily united under the banner of progressive counterculture are hopelessly irreconcilable concepts of the good life:
IN her new memoir, “Heartbreak,” Andrea Dworkin describes a dust-up she had with Allen Ginsberg at the bar mitzvah of a mutual friend’s child. The two writers were very publicly on opposite sides in a contentious debate: Dworkin was rejoicing in a recent Supreme Court decision that, in her words, “had ruled child pornography illegal”; she saw Ginsberg as “a pedophile . . . exceptionally aggressive about . . . his constant pursuit of under-age boys.” Atypically anxious to avoid a scene, Dworkin tried hard to elude Ginsberg at the party, but, she says, he would not leave her alone. “He followed me everywhere I went. . . . He photographed me constantly with a vicious little camera he wore around his neck. . . . Ginsberg told me that he had never met an intelligent person who had the ideas I did. . . . I couldn’t get rid of Allen.” Finally the encounter got really ugly when Ginsberg complained that the political right wanted to throw him in jail. “Yes, they’re very sentimental,” Dworkin replied. “I’d kill you.”
I actually once taught Howl myself, during my first year teaching; I was a T.A. in an American lit. survey designed by an older professor who included the poem on his syllabus (again, it was and is in the Norton). Not knowing what to do with the poem in my discussion section, I used a tactic I sometimes still resort to when teaching poetry: we go around the room and every student takes one line of verse and finds some comment to make on it, whether about its form or theme or context. With this method, everyone gets a chance to talk, and many conceptual windows open upon the text. Anyway, this happened almost ten years ago, so all I remember is that the student who had to read the line that included the phrase “pubic beards” pronounced it as “public beards.” Unusually, I had the presence of mind to characterize this in the moment as a “reverse Freudian slip,” which the class—and the student herself—seemed to find amusing.