The following first appeared in Howl for Now: A Celebration of Allen Ginsberg's Epic Protest Poem, edited by Simon Warner for Root Books (2005)
have to be inspired to write something like that . . . You have to have the
right historical situation, the right physical combination, the right mental
formation, the right courage, the right sense of prophecy, and the right
When I met Allen Ginsberg, he was
fifty years old; I was twenty-one, and so was Howl. Now the poem and I are
over fifty, and the poet has been gone near fifteen years. We worked together for two decades. At the outset, we promised to tell each other all our secrets. He was
big on vows, "Who fell on their knees in hopeless cathedrals praying for each
other's salvation and light and breasts, until the soul illuminated its hair
for a second." He used to tell people that I taught
him music and he taught me poetry. There's some truth to this, but I got the
better part of the bargain. I came of age in his company.
We were well matched musically from
the moment I joined him on stage at my college to improvise an accompaniment to
his songs. We liked the same things, Beethoven, brass bands, old ballads, the
blues and all that proceeded from it, and singing. Singing was our great
pleasure. He had the basso and I the high baritone. Some serious types didn't
like his singing, but he was in tune, on time, and fearless about it. He could
harmonize, make the changes, and not get lost. "Solid," he would say. In
performance, he was solid, committed, all there. There was a peculiar elegance
to his delivery, and when he went ecstatic, he was as true as the best of them.
Early on it struck me that although
Allen was older than my father, he spoke as I did. His cohort had bequeathed
the language that my generation assumed it had invented. Howl was part of a
broad, mid-century democratization that links the Montgomery bus boycott and
the people's stopping a war in South East Asia with a president's wife shaking
her money maker at the Electric Circus. That the most widely known poem of the
twentieth century had its premier in a converted garage was a signal instance
in a larger trend.
One major thread running through
this "democratization" (Ginsberg's term) was African American music. US culture's (and counterculture's)
debt to African America will never be adequately expressed. For present
purposes, I'll note that jazz was mainstream popular music during Ginsberg's
formative years, and that all his life he studied the blues. Howl's opening
riff, "I saw the best minds of my generation," might be conventionally
described as two dactyls and a trochee, but could also be heard as a measure of
12/8 blues. Allen tended to favor compound meter, like 12/8, because it swings.
There's a recording of Elvin Jones drumming along with his reading of a later
poem, Hum Bomb. They were a natural match. I think of Howl as a saxophone solo
("and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of
the band and blew the suffering of America's naked mind into a an eli eli lamma
lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio");
it takes a tenor man's lungs to blow it.
Allen's father, Louis Ginsberg, was
a teacher of English literature and a respected lyric poet. At seventeen
(1943), Allen was accepted into a university with a first-rate English
department. During his second term, he met Lucien Carr, with whom he read the
French symbolists, and who introduced him to Jack Kerouac and William
Burroughs; together they concocted a "New Vision" based in Rimbaud's idea of
the poet as seer. In 1950 (at 24), Ginsberg introduced himself to William
Carlos Williams, who became a friend and mentor. Allen also connected with
Charles Reznikoff who for decades, beginning in the 19-teens, walked around NYC
noting anecdotal poems where events in the lives of ordinary people take on
cosmic resonance. In this sense, Ginsberg is closer to Reznikoff than to
Allen was a city boy — born in
Newark, raised in Paterson, schooled in New York, premiered in San Francisco,
went native in Benares, played the capitals of Europe, retired to a teaching post
in Brooklyn, died on the Lower East Side. He spent most of his life in the
downtown tenements that had housed his mother after she fled the pogrom.
Ginsberg was the rare twentieth-century American male who had never driven a
car. All his life, he walked around cities with companions, "Who talked
continuously seventytwo hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to
the Brooklyn Bridge." His work came of this.
Loneliness figures also. Howl is full of loss, abandonment, and
solitude, friends who jumped from tenement roofs, fell out of subway windows,
or "vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey,"
but these losses echo a larger one. Howl is a prelude to Kaddish in more than a
chronological sense. Beneath Howl is the protracted process of losing his
mother. Naomi didn't die until Allen was thirty (the year Howl was published),
but she began her spectacular exit when he was a child. I had the impression
that he felt himself very much alone. There's a passage in Howl that speaks to
this. On a good night, he'd let it loose in a weeping roar: "Moloch in whom I
sit lonely! [breathe] Moloch in whom I dream angels! [breathe, wipe your nose]
Crazy in Moloch! [breathe] Cock sucker in
Moloch! [breathe, go fortississimo] Lacklove
and manless in Moloch!"
Howl is about family, friends,
lovers, nations that go mad, or die, or try to. Mother checked out, and so will everyone else. (It's hard to
be with someone who assumes that you are about go completely unreliable.) Maybe
this is where the vows came from. If he wanted your companionship, he'd want
promises, mutual confessions, to try to make it stick. It makes sense that his
breakthrough work was addressed to the first guy he'd confessed to, who didn't
hate him for being queer. Allen lost his mother, but found Jack Kerouac and
friends. The magnitude of the loss meant that the find couldn't simply be an
inspired group of intimates; it had to give birth to something, it had to
change the world. In a sense, it
did. Howl is also Naomi's vindication. "The fascist national Golgotha"
is real. There are wires in the
ceiling. The secret police are
reading your email.
Allen told me he wrote Howl to try
to get to Kerouac. Howl was, of course, much more than a note to a friend, but
it's important to touch on this. Kerouac was
immense for Ginsberg — an American
indeed, most American of Americans for a queer commie awkward kid perpetual
exile son of a mother driven mad by the pogrom and the stifling rooms of
Newark. Jack was the solid
exemplar of confident and serious writerly commitment, ideal poet aesthetician,
football hero, able seaman, bop aficionado, and first Buddhist teacher, an
instance of American manhood not rejected,
laughed at, nor beaten up by the rough boys, and beautiful, Jack was beautiful.
And he was kind to Allen before the drink turned him mean. So Jack's language
is in Howl, particularly in the first part — angel headed ancient heavenly
machinery boxcars is pure Kerouac. When one petitions a loved one, one imitates
Ginsberg habitually presented a
three-part directive to younger poets: go to the first flash of perception
("What were you thinking before you thought you were writing a poem?"), feature
the details (from Blake: "Labour well the Minute Particulars"),
and say the secrets that everyone recognizes but dares not speak (which he
associated with Reznikoff's "each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no
In the ‘50s, cutting to the first
flash was in the air, its music was bop. As Zen priest and beat affiliate
Philip Whalen wrote (in his "A Press Release for October, 1959"), "This poetry
is a map of the mind moving." He could as well have been speaking of jazz or
action painting. While Ginsberg
was reading the objectivists, Kerouac was saying, "Don't think of words when
you stop, but to see the picture better." Allen's lifelong interest in
photography makes sense in this regard. There is also a Buddhist
connection–meditation as direct observation of ordinary mind rather than
spacing out in some spiritual romance fit with Ginsberg's objectivist roots.
Meditation was to see what one thinks; writing was to say what one sees. Allen
summed up the poetical program in 1984, when William Carlos Williams visited
him in a dream and wrote:
No need/ to dress/ it up/ as
beauty/ No need/ to distort/ what's not/ standard/ to be/ understandable/ . . .
Take your/ chances/ on/ your accuracy/ Listen to/ yourself/ talk to/ yourself/
and others/ will also/ gladly/ relieved/ of the burden-/their own/ thought/ and
grief./ What began/ as desire/ will end/ wiser.
The final catalyst for Howl was
resignation. Allen got Howl from resigning his last attempt at denying his
queerness (leaving his girlfriend's apartment in December '54 and moving in
with Peter Orlovsky in February '55), and resigning his job in market research
(May 1 ‘55) to devote himself to poetry. Finally (in August), the
twenty-nine-year-old failed poet resigned his literary ambitions and sat down
to relate a vision of their shared history to a kindred soul. Prior to writing
Howl, Ginsberg had shown his work to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in hope that the
older poet and publisher would take him on as a City Lights author, but
Lawrence declined. Then, in the autumn of 1955, Allen gave up on what he later
called "literary chatter," and "delivered my sermon to my soul and Jack's soul
too" (to borrow a line from Sunflower Sutra). And Ferlinghetti did publish
Howl, and got busted for his efforts. And the rest, as they say . . .
The photo is of Allen and me, circa 1976, taken by Terry Sanders. I have tried to contact Sanders, but had no luck. (Terry, if you see this, please email [email protected])
quoted from a 1982 interview in Michael Schumacher. 1992 Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. NY: St. Martin's Press.
 Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, etc. Barry Miles, ed. NY: Harper Collins, 1986. Part I: line
62. p. 5.
 Ibid. Part
I: line 77, p. 6. Ginsberg never said that Howl is a sax solo. I think of it
that way because the metaphor comes up a lot in beat writing. Kerouac referred
to his Mexico City Blues poems as a
series of 242 improvised saxophone choruses, and at the start of Kaddish part
2, Allen portrays Naomi's "history" as "a few images/ run thru the mind-like
the saxophone chorus of houses and years." Allen told me that jazz was black
speech, and he described his poetics as "bop prosody." The beats' language was,
rhythmically at least, largely an adaptation of 1940s Harlem jive. Finally,
from reading Howl aloud, I get the impression of a virtuoso piece requiring a
wind player's lungs.
 Ibid. Part I: line 16. p. 3.
 Ibid. Part
I: line 20., p. 3.
 Ibid. Part
III, line 107, p. 7.
 Blake: Jerusalem, chapter 3, line 51.
 See Kerouac,
Jack. "Belief & Technique for Modern Prose" in Anne Charters, ed. 1992. The Portable Beat Reader. NY: Viking
Penguin, p. 59.
"Written in My Dream by W. C. Williams" in Selected
Poems, pp. 357-58.