I’ve ALWAYS wanted to visit San Francisco, primarily because its synonymous with the Beat writers, who I was obsessed with as a teenager. Every year, I revisit Kerouac’s On The Road, but I realised it’s been a long time since I picked up Ginsberg’s Howl. Wondering if it still held the same magic to thirties me as it did teenage me, I pulled it off the shelf (the iconic front cover whipping me back twenty years) and dived in…
I’d forgotten just how energetic ‘Howl’ is, a manic whirlwind of sound and cultural references in the first part, pages and pages of lurid descriptions of these “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” and their antics, an eleven page caper that makes the Hangover seem like an Austen tea party. As a teenager, I was gripped by the vitality and marvelled at how wild these characters seemed, so interesting and filled with the conviction of their art, misunderstood by a drab society that sought to pin them down and punish them for their unconventionality. Now, I feel vaguely ill at the thought of embarking on a drug and alcohol-fuelled examination of philosophy and reading this at speed feels a little like stepping onto an hallucinogenic rollercoaster, but… taken more slowly and digested more carefully, the beauty in his language shines out – “yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes” pales next to “an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio” and I’m blown away by his twisted, nonconventional verb usage.
The second part of ‘Howl’ is much shorter, but not much less manic, filled with anger against urbanisation and I’m struck by how relevant this poem is more than sixty years later with its rage against “Robot apartments! invisible suburbs!” Transport this poem into the present and there’s much that we can still feel angry about, particularly the references to “Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks!” The third part straddles both the first and second parts, filled with abstract images and the same rage from the second part, culminating in a sense of madness that is difficult to define.
I have difficulty with long poems that lack easily defined concrete messages, which is why I’ve found it hard to fully engage with some of the American poets and this collection is no different. As with Frank O’Hara, I can appreciate just how ground-breaking some of these works are and how they completely broke the mould of the more traditional forms. However, I do feel that they are probably best understood when drunk or in some sort of ecstatic transcendental state. That said, I have always loved the simplicity of ‘America’ and reading it again, I’m struck by how little has changed – it’s almost like a paean to the news and it feels like reading history (albeit in a very fun and energising way).
Poems like ‘Sunflower Sutra’ are filled with beautiful images like “…surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery. The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky” and hold a timelessness missing from other poems like ‘Wild Orphan’, which is very much of its time with lines like “the father grieves in flophouse complexities”.
Re-reading the collection, I still found much of interest, although these were definitely different than the things that kept me entranced as a teenager. As a collection, it stands the test of time and holds its own as a piece of history.