Edited by Jason Shinder
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pages, $30
Of Robert Browning’s notoriously incomprehensible poem “Sordello” — which begins “Who will may hear Sordello’s tale told” and ends “Who would has heard Sordello’s tale told” — Browning’s fellow Victorian, Lord Tennyson, is supposed to have said: “I only understood the first and last lines, and they were lies.”
The first lines of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its publication this year, are as famous as any bit of poetry written in the 20th century, but they are lies too.
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 …
“The best minds of my generation” — by which, as the subsequent catalog of putative destructions show, he meant his friends and himself — goes way beyond mere exaggeration, as does “destroyed,” which for the most part seems to mean only “engaged in some self-destructive acts.” Yet no one seems to notice the obvious falsehood or to care about it if noticed.
I think this is because to Ginsberg it felt as if they were the best minds and had been destroyed, and the intensity of this feeling was what he was conveying to his audience. Factual information, along with other kinds of truth, regularly fell away, leaving nothing but the subjective and the emotional, which were all that mattered to him.
The subjective and the emotional are not nothing, but when thus cut loose from more strictly accountable kinds of truth they take on that special Ginsbergian quality of hysteria and self-pity. Originally the word “hysterical” in the first line was “mystical,” but Ginsberg thought it not, well, hysterical enough. Anyway, for him the hysterical was the mystical.
In this sense, the premise of the essays in “The Poem That Changed America,” edited by Jason Shinder and produced to commemorate the poem’s anniversary, is surely correct. “Howl” has changed not just America but the world.
For not only has poetry since Ginsberg tended to concentrate on emotional truth to the exclusion of other kinds, so has the popular culture. “Howl” is the direct ancestor of every self-pitying rock ballad ever written. Indeed, practically every line turns up a potential rock-group name: The Angry Fix (which actually exists), The Angelheaded Hipsters, the Starry Dynamos, the Machinery of Night.
What do all these locutions have in common? Evocative meaninglessness. Their meaninglessness is their meaning. Ginsberg thought of that device — though obviously he owed a lot to Dada and the surrealists before him — when he named his poem after a cry of pain or (less likely) joy without semantic content.
Evocative meaninglessness has since become a cliché, a foundation stone of our culture. Today even ordinary people talking about ordinary things like politics expect us to understand that their words are intended to convey emotional rather than other kinds of truth, as when liberal blogger Maryscott O’Connor told the Washington Post last week that her writing was “one long, sustained scream.”
Scream or howl, the point is the same. What is supposed to interest us about the inarticulate cri de coeur is not what is said but the emotion behind it. “I’m insane with rage and grief,” Ms. O’Connor told the Post, as if this were a reason to take her seriously instead of a reason not to take her seriously.
There goes another best mind destroyed by madness — except that now the best minds seek out such madness as a way of demonstrating to others that they are the best, or at least the most authentic. That, too, we owe to Ginsberg.
“Howl” caused a sensation when it was published. Written in free verse and long lines, and using the argot of jazz musicians, it struck many then — and strikes many still — as a prophetic utterance, combining bits of Blake, Whitman and the Bible to express an agenda of radical non-cooperation with America’s official culture.
To this culture “Howl” assigns the name Moloch, after the Canaanite deity in the Bible that demanded child sacrifice. Ginsberg’s father was a socialist, his mother (who really did go insane) a communist, and at times he attempted to add a bit of political sophistication to his vision of Moloch by talk of “capitalism” or the atomic bomb.
But what he really means by the child-devouring monster is the ordinary responsibilities of adult life, from which he, like his successors in the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, remained in headlong flight all his life.
Robert Pinsky’s essay in “The Poem That Changed America” makes an interesting case for “Howl” as “the world’s least postmodern poem” because of the sincerity of its emotion and its lack of irony. But it makes more sense to see the poem’s jackhammering away at the connection between rhetoric and reality as postmodernism in embryo.
Many of the book’s contributors stress the finality of Ginsberg’s break with traditional poetic ideas. Rick Moody was drawn to Ginsberg because his poetry “didn’t sound like the emotionally fraudulent, artificially constructed bull- Robert Frost poetry.” Sven Birkerts says of his first reading of “Howl” that it “straightaway burned off much of the acreage of what had been there before.” The poet Billy Collins, referring to 19th-century worthies like Tennyson and Browning as “the Metrical Lads, bless their hearts,” claims that “Howl” “closed the door” on “all that.”
They have a point. Once you legitimize the unreal in poetry, you delegitimize the real. “Howl” is thus an act of exclusion, clearing from the house of art all the useless lumber of the past that has become part of the oppression from which the poem seeks to liberate itself and us. Although Ginsberg is said in his personal life to have been welcoming of all points of view, in his poetry he is exclusive, even elitist. If you’re attached to the way things are, instead of to his vision of the way things should be, you’re out, buddy, along with Robert Frost and “the Metrical Lads.”
People used to speak of Victorian poetry as “sustaining.” They read it and memorized it because it offered them a combination of moral truth, spiritual comfort and beautiful language. It got them through the daily struggle with Moloch. Ginsberg’s adolescent pretense — that Moloch can simply be repudiated — robs poetry of that sustenance. All that’s left is guilt that we haven’t, like him and his fellow “best minds,” transcended reality with some spectacularly imagined act of self-destruction. That’s a big change, all right, but not one that anyone out of his teens should welcome.
— Mr. Bowman is the author of Honor: A History, just published by Encounter.