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Song of himself

The Poem That Changed America "Howl" Fifty Years Later Edited by Jason Shinder Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 290 pp., $30

April 09, 2006|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

ON Oct. 7, 1955, at a converted San Francisco car repair shop called the Six Gallery, five young and unknown poets held a reading that has since taken on the weight of myth. Organized by Allen Ginsberg, who shared the stage with Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia, this event helped launch a new literary counterculture, one with roots equally in the visionary tradition of Walt Whitman and the fragmented realities of Cold War America.

It was, notes Jack Kerouac, who described the evening in his novel "The Dharma Bums," "the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o'clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem 'Wail' drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling 'Go! Go! Go!' (like a jam session) and old Rheinhold Cacoethes the father of the Frisco poetry scene was wiping his tears in gladness." Cacoethes is Kenneth Rexroth, who emceed the reading, and Goldbook is Ginsberg, whose performance made him a star. Afterward, City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson's words to Whitman a century before. "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," Ferlinghetti wrote, adding: "When do I get the manuscript?"

The manuscript to which Ferlinghetti was referring is, of course, "Howl," a poem that went off (in its author's words) like "an emotional time bomb," changing the cultural landscape in a way few works of literature ever do. First published in November 1956, "Howl" has sold nearly a million copies; a postcard distributed by City Lights shows a group of Virginia Military Institute cadets reading it in class in 1991. More to the point, the 1957 "Howl" obscenity trial helped break down barriers against free expression, forcing American society to reassess what was and wasn't acceptable to say.

It's no stretch to argue that without "Howl's" graphic celebrations of homosexuality, gay literature as we know it might not have evolved. By the same token, Ginsberg's ardent antiestablishment stance laid the groundwork for both the upheavals of the 1960s and the marketing juggernaut we call "youth culture" today. " 'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,' " Bob Dylan once said, quoting the poem's famous first line. "[T]hat said more to me than any of the stuff I'd been raised on." Yet for all such a statement tells us about the poem's influence, it also suggests its limitations, since Dylan is, like Ginsberg, an icon of an era past. As "Howl" marks its 50th anniversary, then, it seems important to ask how (or whether) it continues to resonate, what it has to offer a new generation.

These questions reside at the center of "The Poem That Changed America: 'Howl' Fifty Years Later," a collection of mostly original reminiscences and commentary edited by Jason Shinder, Ginsberg's former assistant who is now director of the Sundance Institute Writing Program. Featuring writers such as Vivian Gornick, Amiri Baraka, Sven Birkerts and Jane Kramer, the book seeks to address "Howl's" legacy.

For critic David Gates, that's a loaded issue. In "Welcoming 'Howl' Into the Canon," one of the collection's most provocative essays, he argues that "Howl" is "a radically offensive poem, or used to be -- offensive even to received notions of what poetry is, and it needs offended readers whose fear and outrage bring it most fully to life." The catch, though, is that we are no longer shocked by it -- that we can't be, given the culture "Howl" has helped foment. "It would be madness," Gates concludes, "and not in Ginsberg's visionary sense, to hope for a new era of censorship just so 'Howl' could get its street cred back .... Yet something's been lost by our welcoming 'Howl' into the canon: the possibility of another 'Howl.' "

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