Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997), like his fellow poets of the Beat Generation, existed on society’s parameter fighting its most conforming postwar forces: sexual repression, militarism, and capitalism. Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems is a collection of his most influential work.
Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl,” published in 1956 (and introduced in this publication by Ginsberg’s mentor, William Carlos Williams), was an era-defining poem for those who had survived the War but struggled to survive the aftermath.1
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
The poem is highly autobiographical. Ginsberg assumes the role of witness, confessor, and victim. There is a personal redress, a mournful cry for his life, and a platonic love for Carl Solomon, a friend Ginsberg had met while in a mental institution.
who lounged hungry and lonesome through Houston seeking jazz or sex or soup, and followed the brilliant Spaniard to converse about America and Eternity, a hopeless task, and so took ship to Africa, who disappeared into the volcanoes of Mexico leaving behind nothing but the shadow of dungarees and the lava and ask of poetry scattered in the fireplace Chicago…
Referring to Ginsberg’s poetry as “era-defining” is limiting. There is a rotational nature of humanity, and most eras are not without precedent. 2
In Ginsberg’s case, an all-too-powerful government structure, the repression of certain individuals, a society scarred from war and that life-ennobling sound that begins from beneath the gut, ignites the soul, and forces the last vestiges of action. It seems familiar, doesn’t it?
who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium
who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment of cliff-banks of the Hudson under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall be crowned with laurel in oblivion.
But of course, “Howl” was highly unique when it occurred. It launched an obscenity trial because it described then-criminal homosexual acts. The judge ruled for Ginsberg: “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?”
Freedom of speech will always be tested; today is no different. It seems everyone wants to limit or expand it to their own means. Ginsberg’s work calls attention to this preposterous fight and the isolation one feels when deeply part of it. From “Song”: 3
The weight of the world
Under the burden
under the burden
the weight we carry
Who can deny?
in human –
Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems also includes the deeply mournful “Transcription of Organ Music,” one of my favorite poems. It constructs a virtual prison of pain, the only antidote a momentary existence among flowers.
My books piled up before me for my use
waiting in space where I placed them,
they haven’t disappeared, time’s left its remnants and
qualities for me to use—my words piled up, my texts,
my manuscripts, my loves.
I had a moment of clarity, saw the feeling in
the heart of things, walked out into the garden crying.
Saw the red blossoms in the night light, the sun’s
gone, they had all grown, in a moment, and were wait-
ing stopped in time for the day sun to come and give them…
Flowers which as in a dream at sunset I watered
faithfully not knowing how much I loved them.
from “Transcription of Organ Music”
Ginsberg’s place, path, and time diverge from mine—from yours, too, I imagine—but his pain is familiar. Because pain connects everyone.
More writing from this nerve, the personal diaries of the great Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky capture a man in such great pain as he slips out of consciousness and into a schizophrenic psychosis. Or visit the self-portraits of Ginsberg’s contemporary, Francis Bacon, and understand what drove Bacon to direct such emotion into people’s nerves.
Emotions are knowledge, a root to understanding. Ginsberg’s work exemplifies their exquisite power.