The Chronicle Review

Howl's Echoes

Lynn Goldsmith, Corbis

"The poignancy of a photograph comes from looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world,"said the poet Allen Ginsberg.
September 12, 2010

"Is there a great mad wave of fame crashing over our ears?," Allen Ginsberg asked Jack Kerouac after the publication of On the Road in a letter from Amsterdam in the fall of 1957. The query was prescient, the image apt. Ginsberg would learn how to surf that wave, while Kerouac would capsize and drown, one of the early casualties of contemporary American literature.

Ginsberg's ride on that wave has perhaps ebbed and flowed since his death 13 years ago, but it is cresting once more, with the recent publication of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters (Viking) and The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation (Free Press), by Ginsberg's archivist and biographer, Bill Morgan; an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, "Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg" (with an accompanying catalog, published by Prestel); and the movie Howl, starring indie heartthrob James Franco, about Ginsberg's most famous poem and the 1957 obscenity trial challenging its publication in the United States. That trial, along with the simultaneous publication of Kerouac's On the Road, catapulted the Beats into literary and cultural history.

The intense, candid letters that Ginsberg and Kerouac wrote to each other capture the emergence of that literary and cultural moment when America, and American literature, would change irrevocably. The letters are often elated with aspiration, extravagant—even hyperbolic—with language sometimes soaring for its own sake; at other times, they plunge into despair: "God knows what oblivion we'll wind up in like unpopular Melvilles," Ginsberg ponders.

The correspondence begins in 1944, when the two young men met in New York City, where Ginsberg was an undergraduate at Columbia University and Kerouac a dropout living nearby, and continues until 1963, six years before Kerouac's death, in 1969. Although they were greeted by American media as barbarous buffoons at the cultural gates—"I go rewrite Whitman for the entire universe," Ginsberg boasted—the letters demonstrate a committed literary perspective. Allusions to Melville, Balzac, and Dostoevsky, Pound and Eliot, Joyce and Henry Miller establish the tradition they were committed to continue.

Some of the letters describe the daring literary ambitions they had for their friends, especially Ginsberg's for William S. Burroughs, whom he regarded as a genius. Others, written from Mexico in the early 1950s, reveal how their views were deepened by living in a country "beyond Darwin's chain," as Kerouac put it. Fortified with tequila and peyote, Kerouac praised pastoral Mexico, and both men saw it as a foil to an American obsession with acquisition and consumption. Occasionally the letters crawl with dense Buddhist philosophy; inevitably they race again with reports of the latest recklessness of friends like Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso. Later letters, more ominously, are full of the hysteria that overwhelmed Kerouac after the notoriety of On the Road. As he reported to Ginsberg, with some of the cascading presumption that galvanized his prose—repeating what he had announced in a television interview—"I am waiting for God to show his face."

God presumably did not show his face to Kerouac, but Ginsberg persisted in his search, outliving his friend by nearly 30 years, relishing the cultural spotlight that Kerouac abhorred. With "Howl" he exploded the claustrophobia of convention in American poetry, so that even Robert Lowell turned from the elite formalism of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lord Weary's Castle to the more confessional direction of Life Studies a decade later.

But Ginsberg and his work had an even greater impact in the broader culture with regard to propriety. He abandoned the polite timidities of writing for an audience of the genteel few for the most overt social commentary since Whitman. In "Howl" and other works, he wrote about then-taboo subjects, like sex, drugs, and insanity. He didn't just write poetry, he performed it, with a dramatic presence and sheer vocal power and exuberance audiences hadn't seen or heard since Dylan Thomas. It is no exaggeration to say that the dynamic rhythmic momentum of "Howl" led to rap and hip-hop.

Much of his influence clearly has been extra-literary, like his prolonged involvement with meditation and Tibetan Buddhism, decades before such concerns became mainstream. After he came to terms with it, he was open, even flagrant, about his homosexuality when it was not safe or fashionable to do so. A famous 1963 photograph by Richard Avedon of Ginsberg and his lover, Peter Orlovsky, in a nude embrace was posted on streetlights all over San Francisco and became a trigger for the gay-rights movement years before Stonewall. It is no wonder that there continues to be such sustained interest in his messages.

"I would call that man poet," Henry Miller once declared, "who is capable of profoundly altering the world."  Ginsberg put his "queer shoulder to the wheel," as he promised in his poem "America," to do his best to make the world a better place. Believing that things could change, that no authority was absolute, he was a key organizer of the counterculture (which for him was not confined to the 60s). Our principal spokesperson for candor in an age of secrecy, deceit, and denial, he freely offered his remarks, whether on censorship or psychedelics, to everyone from Congressional committees to People magazine. "Well, while I'm here I'll do the work," he wrote in "Memory Gardens," an elegy for Kerouac.

and what's the Work?

To ease the pain of living.

Everything else, drunken


Ginsberg's engagement with the world was central, continuing, and consuming, and it made him a zeitgeist phenomenon. Apparently his work has not ended with his death: His poetry, passions, and preoccupations remain as relevant today as ever.

Ginsberg documented his life not just with words but with pictures. "I do my sketching and observing with the camera," he said in 1993. We learn in Beat Memories, the exhibition catalog by Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, that his first pictures were taken with a box camera at the age of 15, of his mother, Naomi, at Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, in New Jersey.

Those of his friends—his "funny, family photos," as he called them—are steeped in warm intimacy. The early 1950s shots, like the one taken of Burroughs standing next to a sphinx at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the classic, brooding one of Kerouac, with a railroad-brakeman's manual sticking out of his pocket, on a fire escape outside Ginsberg's window on East 7th Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, were drugstore prints taken with a Kodak camera, purchased for $13 from a pawnshop. Probably the best portraits of the Beats (who have been, after all, the most frequently photographed of American writers), they exist as what Ginsberg called "totemic moments," "when you notice something clearly and see it vividly." The objects in each photograph, whether sphinx or brakeman's manual, serve to define some essential quality in the subject.

Ginsberg's photographs illustrate the Beat priority of spontaneity, the expression of feeling with autobiographical immediacy. As Greenough so cogently observes, the photographs are "as natural as talking or writing," like the lyrical moment when Ginsberg captured his companion, Peter Orlovsky, in a naked handstand in a field at their farm, in Cherry Valley, N.Y. Ginsberg's snapshot poetic, based on what he called an "unpremeditated awareness," was influenced by the mentorial relationship he had with his friend Robert Frank, the photographer. The resulting photographs portray a casual unselfconsciousness, a trust in chance, a sympathetic acceptance of the human condition without judgment, pose, or artifice. The touchingly nude self-portraits he took near the end of his life exemplify that ethos.

"The poignancy of a photograph comes from looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world," Ginsberg wrote in a previous collection, published by Twelvetrees Press in 1990. So the poignancy expresses a haunting yearning for what would otherwise be unrecoverable. His comment underlines his belief that ordinary experience has a sacred quality to be cherished because life is transient.

Ginsberg's photographs achieved more depth after 1983, when he began using Robert Frank's printer, Sid Kaplan, and writing on the bottom of the prints. The words, as Sarah Greenough notes, "seemed to tumble over one another with rich exuberance." Often a phrase leaps out of his scrawled commentary with the shock of epiphany: for example, the note for a 1953 photograph of a homeless man on East 7th Street whom he characterizes as a "shopping cart prophet."

Some of Ginsberg's photographs—like the one of Carl Solomon, to whom Ginsberg dedicated "Howl," in only a white shirt and tie, grinning gleefully and absurdly bare below the waist, sitting cross-legged on a bed—are used to add a layer of authenticity to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's film Howl, which features James Franco (Julia Roberts's actor-boyfriend in Eat Pray Love) and Jon Hamm (Mad Men).

I must admit, Hollywood biopics are not my favorite genre—they tend to oversimplify and sensationalize—but this film is ambitious and valiantly heartfelt in its attempt to recreate the creative context for the most important long poem written by an American since "The Waste Land." Its structure mixes four tracks. The first shows Franco as Ginsberg talking about how he writes and key events in his past, like his time in the psychiatric hospital where he met Solomon, and his aborted love affair with the firebrand Neal Cassady.

The second track depicts the notorious court trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, sued for publishing and selling an "obscene" poem—his small press, City Lights, published the book Howl and Other Poems in 1956. The steely, cool Jon Hamm plays Ferlinghetti's defense attorney with resolute sincerity. Mary-Louise Parker is quite believable as a puritanical schoolteacher who dismisses the poem with disgust, and Bob Balaban is the prim though judicially proper Judge Clayton Horn, whose ruling exonerated the poem and helped to inform a national audience of its radical nature.

A third track restages the famous first public reading of "Howl" at Six Gallery, in San Francisco in 1955, a subterranean event in a former dirt-floor garage turned hip art gallery that literary historians acknowledge changed American poetry. Some historians might quibble that Ginsberg did not actually recite the "everything is holy" incantation at the Six Gallery reading, as the film pretends—this was the fourth part of the poem, called "Footnote"—because it was written subsequently. The distortion may have been so tempting because the "holy holy holy" rant is one of the most powerful conclusions of any poem, so who can blame the filmmakers for ending with it, too?

The fourth track is the most experimental, an animation by Eric Drooker illustrating the poem. I suspect that Ginsberg would have welcomed this aspect of the film because of his own collaboration with Drooker, who illustrated Ginsberg's Illuminated Poems. Despite the slick glamour of its technical sophistication, I think the animation deflates the poem, tempers its rage. Imagine, if you can, a cartoon version of Dante's Inferno or Eliot's "The Waste Land." How can Homer Simpson ever substitute for King Lear? Drooker's animation is entertaining, alleviates the weighty despair of its subject, and might be effective as a pedagogical device, but it doesn't shed much light on the poem.

The film maintains Ginsberg's centrality in the gestation and development of the Beat Generation, a position systematically staked out by Bill Morgan in his history of how the Beats emerged, The Typewriter Is Holy. The title is inspired, drawn from one of the 65 times Ginsberg pronounces the word "holy" in the "Footnote" to "Howl." As Ginsberg's archivist, initially working with his photographs, Morgan was an intimate of the poet's inner circle and was able to observe how Ginsberg advocated for the recognition of his friends. Ginsberg's detractors have accused him of self-promotion, but like Whitman and Pound before him, he understood that unless the poet speaks on his own behalf, the world will safely ignore him.

Sober, meticulous, with the methodical persistence of the bibliographer, Morgan argues that the Beats were less a movement than a gathering of friends gravitating around Ginsberg's orbit. But that is an overstatement, since Ginsberg would be the first to admit how much he learned from Burroughs and Kerouac, whose "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" was posted on Ginsberg's headboard when he wrote "Howl."

What helped the Beats cohere over time were common values. Reacting to the stultifying repression of the postwar years, they shared an anarchistic suspicion of governmental controls, were socially transgressive and experimental as writers, and interested in forging a new consciousness.

Ginsberg was a key figure in promoting that consciousness. Unlike most American poets since Eliot, he enjoyed an international reputation, and Howl was translated into 25 languages. Its unprecedented excess, the emotional juggernaut of its rhythm and language, profoundly influenced writers and musicians like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, and the group Sonic Youth and affected several generations of the young. With more than a million copies printed in the United States, Howl is reportedly the most purchased book of poems in our time. 

When Ginsberg died, in 1997, there were memorials all over the world—in Berlin, Barcelona, and Calcutta as well as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. After his death, in what amounted to a last-page editorial in The New York Times Book Review, its editor, Charles McGrath, asserted that Ginsberg's later poems had failed to match the genius of his early works like "Howl" and "Kaddish," the epic elegy—with its depths of anguished empathy—he wrote to commemorate his mad mother, Naomi.

This has been the perennial establishment view of Ginsberg, a tired cliché of criticism that has been routinely applied to great poets from Wordsworth to Whitman. The attitude is condescendingly wrong, as silly as the claim that Whitman's only great poem was "Song of Myself." In poems like "Wales Visitation," "Ballad of the Skeletons," "Please Master," and "Death and Fame," Ginsberg showed that he was always at the borders of poetry and beyond, inventing the new. His poetry will stand as one of the monumental achievements of modern American letters.

It is good to be reminded of that. That's what the new outburst of interest in Ginsberg, in film, photographs, and print, accomplishes. Ginsberg resonates with our times because he helped create them. Rock 'n' roll will never die, and neither, apparently, will Allen Ginsberg.

John Tytell, a professor of English at Queens College at the City University of New York, is author of Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation (McGraw Hill, 1976) and, with the photographer Mellon Tytell, Paradise Outlaws: Remembering the Beats (William Morrow, 1999), among other books.