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Songs of ourselves

Ginsberg's `Howl' hits AARP age. Can it last like Whitman's work?

April 16, 2006|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

PUT your ear to the ground, America. Those yelps and yawps you hear come from some of the best minds of this generation, sparring, historical and occasionally half-baked, heaving up bold thoughts about a dead, bearded gay poet from New Jersey.

Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," the 3,600-word verbal torrent that stands as founding document of the Beat movement, turns 50 this year. No piece of verse since 1956 has sent such ripples through American culture, and no poet since has parlayed his words into such fame. By the time Ginsberg died in 1997, he'd toured with Dylan and recorded with the Clash, ingested vast amounts of drugs, posed for Rolling Stone, embraced Buddhism and pitched khakis for the Gap. As 20th century poets go, he was a rock star.

But now he's a dead rock star, America, and frankly, we have plenty of those. With Ginsberg, the pressing questions are whether his words have begun to outlive their time -- all signs points to yes -- and how he's stacking up against that other rock star among poets.

That other dead, bearded, gay, great mid-Atlantic American poet. The one from the 19th century. Whitman, America.

For decades, the parallels and contrasts between Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and Ginsberg's "Howl and Other Poems" -- the great unrhymed, long-lined, self-celebratory sensation of the 1850s and the great unrhymed, long-lined, self-celebratory sensation of the 1950s -- have made for great coffeehouse and campus-quad debates. Now there's an extra edge on the conversation, and it crosses generations in intriguing ways.

"The bloom is off the rose with old Allen, baby," says Richard MacBriar, confessed poetry junkie and longtime buyer for UCLA's Book Zone.

" 'Leaves of Grass' is important. 'Howl' is better," maintains Sophia Grady, a 17-year-old shelver at Skylight Books in Los Feliz.

"Whitman is the greater poet. He wrote prolifically across a long career with no diminution of excellence," says Dana Gioia, a veteran poet, essayist and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.

Yet Ginsberg was "the last guy to really catch the public's imagination with a poem," Gioia concedes, and his humor comes through more clearly -- even though Ginsberg's signature poem is mostly about horror and defeat and Whitman's is mostly about sensuality and community.

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,/ starving hysterical naked," wrote Ginsberg, beginning "Howl."

"I celebrate myself,/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you," wrote Whitman in "Song of Myself," the long centerpiece poem that anchors "Leaves of Grass."

Each poem is a sort of political manifesto, addressed specifically to all Americans, intended to challenge the nation's sense of itself. Oh, yes, and each poem hints at oral sex.

We take you now to the White House, America, and the year 1997. President Clinton wishes to ply a young mistress with poetry. "Leaves of Grass" is his choice.

"Whitman is so rich," writes Monica Lewinsky in an unsent thank-you note, "that one must read him like one tastes a fine wine or good cigar -- take it in, roll it in your mouth, and savor it!"

Yes, America, it's true. It's in the Starr Report. "Whitman's contribution has lasted, but it's plowed into the soil of American poetry and thought," says Malcolm Margolin, founder-publisher at Berkeley-based Heyday Books. "What Ginsberg has that Whitman didn't have is rage. You read him for the cleansing purity of the rage he had. And I think there's greatness in that. I mean, he just roared."


Not so very different

GINSBERG, born in Newark to a teacher-poet father and an activist mother with chronic mental illness, attended Columbia University in the 1940s, met Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs and set off on a long bout of travel and dead-end jobs, from the merchant marines to a Madison Avenue ad agency to handling baggage at the Greyhound bus terminal in San Francisco.

With publication of "Howl," he burst into four decades of public life as a beatnik, hippie and eventually a tenured professor at Brooklyn College. A few years before his death, he sold his archives to Stanford University for $1 million. And since his death? At strait-laced Vroman's in Pasadena and at bohemian Skylight Books in Los Feliz, "Howl" sells six copies for every five of "Leaves of Grass." At City Lights in San Francisco's North Beach -- the bookstore that first published "Howl," a million copies ago -- the ratio is more like 50 to 1.

None of this, however, impresses the readers and critics who see Ginsberg as the sideshow in the carnival tent of American poetry and Whitman as the main event. To write like Ginsberg, James Dickey once spat in the New York Times Book Review, one needs only memories, frustrations, secret wishes and "an ability to write elementary prose and to supply it with rather more exclamation points than might normally be called for. It takes more than this to make poetry. It just does."

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