Still Howling: A Poem for Then and Now

The American writer Jay McInerny was recently defending the role of the novel in the pages of the UK press, suggesting in the Guardian that it was through fiction rather than factual commentary that incidents as psychologically shattering as New York’s 9/11 or Britain’s own 7/7 could be truly reflected upon, digested, and ultimately understood. Reportage had a part to play, yes, but the nature of literature involved processes of emotional consideration that journalism alone could not deliver.

He conceded that the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, and Hunter S. Thompson had, during the later ’60s and early ’70s, forged potent ways of joining the realism of the reporter with the creativity of the novelist. But those years had been especially rich as a subject for that kind of scrutiny. Today, McInerny believes, we need the creative crafts of storyteller to help us come to terms with the man-made tremors that have shaken our streets, our cities, and our lives.

But what of poetry in all this? Do poets and poems still have a part to play in unravelling the barbed anxieties that characterise the start of this edgy millennium? Can a well-turned stanza distil a fresh truth? Can a volley of blank verse prompt a new view of the world? Can rhyme be infused with genuine reason? Or are clipped couplets or wisecracking word play merely whispers in the wilderness?

In an age when the nearest most of us come to a version of poetry is that concocted by Snoop Dogg or 50 Cent, and the best-selling versifier in America is a fey folkie called Jewel, perhaps the power of the poem to touch us, to make us really think, has been drowned out by the neon orchestras of rampant commercialism and instant gratification. Poets needed their listeners to contemplate and meditate: the background noise of modern life is probably too intrusive for such cerebral introspection.

These thoughts have been to the forefront of my mind in recent months as I’ve worked on both a live performance and a book, which will commemorate a significant moment in the recent history of the poetic arts. On 7 October, 2005, it is 50 years to the day since Allen Ginsberg unveiled a long poem that would have major repercussions for the culture that followed in its slipstream.

‘Howl’, an extended consideration of life at the margins, of insanity, suicide and saintliness, of jazz and Buddhism, of drugs and death, of spirituality and hopelessness, of existential exhilaration in the shadow of Cold War paranoia, thrilled the feverish throng who packed the Six Gallery in San Francisco that night. Within months it would be issued by that most independent of publishers, City Lights, read by tens then hundreds of thousands of readers, and survive the ordeal of an obscenity trial before emerging as a mantra to a new consciousness, one that refused to comply with the forces of conservatism and repression and, instead, argued there could actually be a world beyond the white, male, Protestant, heterosexual nexus that had dominated for so long.

Few figures so personified this possibility, few vocalised it so eloquently, as Ginsberg, the Jewish son of a Socialist and Communist, a second generation Russian émigré, a student with an early aspiration to train as a labour lawyer. Ginsberg was an outsider in all sorts of ways who, at an early stage, confirmed his own homosexuality. Thus he wore most of those badges associated with alienation and government-sponsored ostracism during the McCarthy-ite ’50s.

Yet he used these perceived disadvantages to powerful effect. Not only did they fuel his highly personal art — much of his poetry was determinedly autobiographical and fervently confessional — but he also used them to expose the penury of the dispossessed and disenfranchised, and drew attention to the prejudices and hypocrisies of a society that was so evidently multi-cultural, indeed multi-sexual, yet so deeply fractured in its differences.

‘Howl’ proved to be the mould-breaking moment for Ginsberg. After more than a decade of struggle to find his voice and project it to a wider audience, the live rendition of this epic work not only confirmed his status as a uniquely skilled wordsmith, but also set alight the imagination of those who heard it, to be quickly followed by those who read it on the printed page. If Elvis Presley fuelled a visceral revolution, Ginsberg lit the blue-touch paper on an intellectual one.

Nor was he self-obsessed in the wake of this triumph. For years he had tirelessly promoted his friends — fellow writers like Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs — and the impetus that ‘Howl’ lent to Ginsberg’s upward trajectory was shared about. With his assistance, key works by his Beat Generation colleagues — On the Road in 1957, The Naked Lunch in 1959 — found publishers willing to take a risk on a wave of new voices. By the 1960s, the poet had become a key figurehead in a countercultural groundswell that challenged all conventional wisdoms.

On 7 October, 2005, to celebrate the precise half century of the poem’s premiere, the University of Leeds in the UK is presenting “Howl for Now”, a production that brings together both spoken word and a series of newly commissioned musical works, to record this special anniversary. The presentation proposes that if ‘Howl’ spoke to its immediate time, Ginsberg’s signature piece retains a resonance and relevance today, too.

To accompany the performance, a book of essays of the same name will be published, gathering writers and academics, theoreticians and practitioners, to consider the lasting importance of ‘Howl’ as a literary, artistic, and political force, five decades on. Bay Area poet David Meltzer, musician and Ginsberg collaborator Steven Taylor, and the filmmaker Ronald Nameth are among those who contribute their thoughts.

We opened this account with Jay McInerny’s stout defence of the novel. I hope that “Howl for Now”, in its live and printed incarnations, can offer a defence of great poetry and confirm its enduring power. ‘Howl’ emerged from a particular moment and had, in its author, an extraordinary advocate. Yet, I would argue, the ripples still spread — Ginsberg is gone, but in City Lights and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in the Bowery Poetry Café and among the remarkable Nuyorican poets, to name but a few contemporary examples, the spirit of the spoken word, personal and political, lives on.

* * *

“Howl for Now”, the live event, takes place on 7 October, 2005 in the Clothworkers’ Centenary Concert Hall, School of Music, University of Leeds, at 6.30pm. Tickets are free but must be reserved in advance by contacting Susan Wheater ([email protected]). Howl for Now, the book, edited by Simon Warner, is published on the same day by Route. For further details please visit the publishers’ website at

To our readers: Simon Warner will be taking a sabbatical from his popular column to concentrate on his academic commitments. Watch for the return of “Anglo Visions” in March 2006.

Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists
Call for Music Reviewers and Essayists