Visions! Omens! Hallucinations! Miracles!
Poetry is perhaps the most polarizing of literary art forms. Those who love it enjoy languishing among the joyful juxtaposition of words and ideas. They find emotional and intellectual release in the combination of consonants and the rhythm of varying vowels. As a pure expression of language, a poem is the closest thing the written word has to a visual idiom. Through the use of sound and symbolism, the perfect placement of sentiment within stanza, verse becomes an awakening to the magic in vocabulary, a lesson in how the simplest of words can become the most epic of statements.
Though he would probably scoff at such a melodramatic description of his craft, these concepts are at the core of what makes Allen Ginsberg’s classic beat mantra, Howl, such a powerful work of genuine genius. For those unfamiliar with the actual work itself, the opening line should be more than familiar:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked ...
These immortal words have formed the basis for songs (They Might Be Giants’ “I Should Be Allowed to Think”), studies,—even television satire (Lisa Simpson recited a similarly styled rant against her brother in The Simpsons episode, “Bart vs. Thanksgiving”). The influence of Ginsberg’s powerful poem of protest, filled with a kinetic volatility and electrified illusions, still seems covered in a kind of artistic enigma. Many recognize its unbridled power and literary pageantry, but what exactly makes the poem so heady and intoxicating appears to always escape actual analysis.
Howl for Now wants to uncover some of these mysteries. A companion tome to the 2005 performance art celebration of the 50-year-old poem by the University of Leeds in the U.K., this reflection on the poet and his place among the literary guild is just superb. There has been a honest attempt by editor Simon Warner and his group of contributors to peel back the layer of authority covering this seminal work and forge a concrete configuration of what Ginsberg was striving for a half century ago. From the outside control of the stiflingly conservative 1950s to how music and the visual arts influenced and were themselves prejudiced by the poem, we get a wonderful overview of a single expression as creative and cultural lightening rod.
Though it comes dangerously close to over-intellectualizing a poem that is more visceral than cerebral, Howl for Now makes its points in equally eloquent and unapologetic ways. Steven Taylor, a friend and collaborator of Ginsberg in his later years, eulogizes the decade dead poet by walking us through the history of the man and his muse. Simon Warner then delves into one of the books best passages, a broad and wonderfully insightful deconstruction of the American landscape circa the era of Eisenhower. Warner himself wastes no time drawing connections to the emergence of rock music (including Bill Haley’s classic “Rock Around the Clock”), the obvious juncture of jazz, the growing civil rights movement and the place of the Beats within the ever-changing facade of the pop culture confines. An additional attempt to deconstruct Howl comes at the hands of George Rodosthenous, who removes specific passages from the poem and analyzes their imagery and intensity.
Thus the first phase of the book is complete. Between Warner, Taylor and Rodosthenous, we begin to perceive the proper contextual place for the poem. We learn how the stifling social climate meshed with Cold War pronouncements and a growing movement toward individualism and self-expression to provide Ginsberg a logistical foundation to unleash all his long dormant literary demons. Howl does indeed feel—and read—like a shriek, a sustained bray at the powers that would continue to champion conformity and the orthodox over the original and the new. As much as any other poet in the late 20th century, Ginsberg rewrote the rules about what verse could be. In Howl he laid the groundwork for a thousand coffee house slams. With his anarchic approach, he opened the pathway for many of today’s most creative and innovative writers.
An interview with experimental filmmaker Ronald Nameth sets up the second section of the book. Since all art is ultimately judged by its impact on others (both individuals and forms), this director, along with additional pieces by Professor Michael Anderson and musician Bill Nelson, attempt to give Howl its proscribed place in the hierarchy of expression. It is clear in reading Howl for Now how influential and inspiring Ginsberg’s work is to many. Nameth, whose work with Warhol and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable practically invented the concept of multimedia performance art, sees Howl as a similar ephemeral experience. To him, it’s a poem that must be heard, and seen, and felt, a literary “happening” that can only be captured with divergent artistic facets superimposed and interlaced with each other. Nelson sees the sonic possibilities in a similar light. For him, poetry is written music, a figurative notation for songs, sounds, and subject matter. Something like Howl clearly challenges his auditory ambitions. Tying it all together is Anderson, whose section on the abstract/pop art movement both pre- and post- Ginsberg creates a lesson in legacy that is hard to ignore. Jazz is a constant reference when discussing Howl, and seeing how the entire aesthetic shifted during the post-War era, away from the realistic and more toward the idealistic, one is constantly reminded of the groundbreaking work of Parker and Davis, twisting tradition to make something both familiar and foreign. Ginsberg was indeed a poet who “played” with words like a verbal virtuoso.
The final facet to the book covers music again, but this time the approach is complicated and intricate. Several composers were given the opportunity to score various elements of the Howl for Now celebration, and they add their reflections here. They explain their approach to the poem, as well as how they attempted to capture/compliment the ferocity and feeling inherent in the work’s wording. Many become mired in the language of time signatures and scales, but beyond all the lingo is a real desire to demonstrate their own understanding of the work’s stunning oral presence. Part of Howl‘s heritage comes from the numerous readings given by the author. In his qualified hands, this poem could practically raise the dead.
Indeed, all of Howl for Now functions as a primer in preparation for visiting—or in many cases, revisiting—Ginsberg’s creative canon. It is instructional and investigative, supplementing our understanding of what we’ve read while giving us more depth than a first—or 21st—reading could ever uncover. For some, unmasking the many mystifying facets of Howl may seem like sacrilege. After all, part of what makes art so satisfying is the practical prestidigitation that occurs when one experiences it. Reading Howl today, 50 years after it first blazed onto the scene, is as invigorating and inspirational as it was back then. It is easy to see it protesting the imperfections of a post-millennial society as easily as it attacked the aftermath of the Second World War. Reading Howl for Now only heightens the need for such a current clarion call.