"You feel like you are going through the gutter when you
have to read that stuff. I didn't linger on it too long, I assure you."
-a prosection witness, at the obscenity trial for 'Howl'
Howl is a poem written by the legendary beat poet Allen Ginsberg. You can find the text in a lot of places, however there is a lot of history surrounding Howl which needs to be included here.
The first reading of Howl
Howl was first read by Ginsberg in public in October, 1955 in San Francisco. The occasion was the first in a series of famous poetry readings at the Six Gallery, an art gallery. The advertisement for the first reading follows:
6 POETS AT 6 GALLERY
Philip Lamantia reading mss. of late John
Hoffman-- Mike McClure, Allen Ginsberg,
Gary Snyder & Phil Whalen--all sharp new
straightforward writing-- remarkable coll-
ection of angels on one stage reading
their poetry. No charge, small collection
for wine, and postcards. Charming event.
Kenneth Rexroth, M.C.
8 PM Friday Night October 7,1955
6 Gallery 3119 Fillmore St.
Many people have pointed to this reading as the event which heralded the onset of the Beat Generation and all the craziness and literature that came with it. Allen Ginsberg had, previous to this performance, been a relatively unknown poet, but he achieved instant notoriety with the first reading of Howl. He also had the opportunity to meet several other promising San Francisco poets through the series of readings.
Also in attendance at this reading was the young writer Jack Kerouac, who would go on to write the famous novel 'On the Road' and coin the phrase "Beat Generation". Kerouac had the job of collecting change from the crowd and procuring some burgundy to help the audience loosen up prior to the reading. Gary Snyder, a Zen poet who would inspire Kerouac to write his later novel 'The Dharma Bums' was also reading that night.
Around 150 people attended the reading at the Six Gallery, which was adorned with surrealistic sculptures in line with the subversive atmosphere of the night.
Ginsberg was the second to last poet to read, but it is certain that he stole the audience's imagination. The poem consists of long, rambling lines of verse that Ginsberg read quickly with quick pauses at the end for breath. Halfway through, Kerouac, who was sitting close to the stage, started chanting "Go! Go!" in rythm with Ginsberg. It's possible to imagine the reading as part rant, part religious sermon, and part rythmic vocal music with the ecstatic punctuation of Kerouac in the front row.
It's certain that this night marked the start of Ginsberg's long career as well as the start of public attention toward Howl. The poem was received with great appreciation by the crowd, who understandably had never heard anything like it before.
The Obscenity Trial
Several lines in Howl caused public outcry when it became well known, in particular the line -
"who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,"
Howl was published by City Lights Books in a small collection named 'Howl and Other Poems'. When the outrage about the content of Howl reached a peak, 520 copies of Howl and Other Poems were confiscated as obscene material, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the publisher of City Lights Books, was arrested. The charge was publishing obscene books.
The trial was pretty much a laughing matter. The defence put nine literary experts on the stand, who all testified as to the literary worth of Howl, and its validity as a work of art. In contrast, the prosecution could only raise two witnesses, one from the Catholic University in San Francisco, and a private tutor, who provided the trial with the quote with which this node begins.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was easily acquitted, and the trial sealed Howl's fame, as obscenity trials of any kind are wont to do. In 2002, Howl has long been recognised as a landmark poem of it's genre, and is studied at universities around the world.
The Subject Matter
Howl is all about real experiences that Allen Ginsberg had, and real people that he met. The poem is dedicated to Carl Solomon, one of the more crazy people that Ginsberg associated with, and partly inspired by his mother, who was eventually lobotomised due to her incessant insanity.
Another character appearing in the poem is Neal Cassady, who inspired the character Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's On the Road, and who had a reluctant (on Neal's part) affair with Ginsberg.
The other people appearing in Howl are members of the chaotic community surrounding Ginsberg; junkies, homosexuals, radical political activists, artists, poets and writers; for the most part people who live in a way totally different from the norm of the day. These people still exist everywhere in the world; in many ways Howl is an attempt to have these people understood; to have their lives accepted by the mainstream of society, who has always condemned them.
I hope you get as much out of Howl as I have.
- 'Howl', Allen Ginsberg, 1955