Howl: 50th Anniversary Edition
by Allen Ginsberg
(edited by Barry Miles)
Harper Perennial Modern Classics
10 East 53rd Street
New York, NY 10022
2006, 194 pp. $18.95
A Book Revessay
Text Haiti to 90999 to donate $10.00 to the American Red Cross Haiti Relief Fund I’m told to do (and do) and as I’m pouring emotions into my text message I’m pouring through Ginsberg’s Howl during CNN commercial breaks. In the wake of the Haiti quake Howl becomes How? How could human bodies be piled into a dumptruck and dropped into a garbage can coffin? Howl becomes frantic broken-legged mothers scream-dashing between Sanjay Gupta and Anderson Cooper to a nonexistent somewhere because running to a nonexistent somewhere feels more productive than sitting within an existent somewhere.
…destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets…
Ginsberg’s Howl is a wolf-call to all people with or without poetic license to represent your world, to show the human experience without constraints, restraints. “In publishing Howl, I was curious to leave behind after my generation an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness in case our military-industrialist-nationalist complex solidified into a repressive police bureaucracy” (xii).
To me Howl howls:
We as Americans should know 4 million helpless civilians (not ours) were murdered in the Vietnam War.
We as Americans should see James Cameron’s Avatar not only for the technically brilliant spectacle but for the symbols: Pandora’s Unobtanium equals land (Native American desecration), Middle East oil (our current multi-pronged war), equals equals equals us.
We as Americans should stop writing from the perspective-perch of academia (whether led there by Capitalism or Love) to the perspective-perch of academia and begin writing it from the perspective of human being who wipes their &$% and looks at the toilet paper to see if wiping again is necessary, who buys tampons and toothbrushes and cornpads and carrots at the grocery store, who has closets containing more than olive suede vests and charcoal wool one-button window-pane suits from (all in unison now) Jos. A Bank.
We as Americans should at least research peak oil, or global climate change, or clusters of gay genes on our own accord even if our basic instinctual survival fears tells us no No NO! Howl leads us back to our Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, who said: “If the condition of man is to be progressively ameliorated, as we fondly hope and believe, education is to be the chief instrument in effecting it.” Outright dismissal of ideas (which many in the scientific community believe) without first objectively researching them or reflecting on why we are dismissing them in the first place is not a banner good ole TJ or AG would want us to carry.
The subtext of the Howl 50th Anniversary Edition is: Original draft facsimile, transcript, and variant versions, fully annotated by author, with contemporaneous correspondence, account of first public reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts, and bibliography.
Long story short, this book shows:
(1) The hellish fight Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (the first publisher of Howl, who was actually arrested for doing so) went through not only for this particular work but so future writers thereafter (us) could continue capturing life-phenomena-trauma without fear of chains and shackles. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defended Howl, which eventually led to Judge Clayton Horn ruling that the poem had “redeeming social importance,” and therefore was not “obscene” and therefore could be published.
We owe it to our writer-predecessors to read this story and be grounded by its historical radiance, then create without sugar coatedness.
(2) “The facsimile edition is a ‘how to’ book, a handbook for composition of one kind of expansive poetry: its process, basic sorting and judgment, revision, transposition of artful choices. Some interpretations, obvious to old-dog poet-teacher-critic, may unbewilder folk who think they can’t understand ‘poetic inspiration’” (xii).
I can think of no better place than Examiner to let Allen’s quote marinate. Examiner’s goals and reach expand like the lung capacity of a Bikram yoga attendee – always seeming to pull an extra sip of breath (readers) from younger (my Johns Hopkins CTY student of 11) to older (my Everest College student of 68), from classic form purists to slam poets, to those completely new to the pen’s prowess. This 50th Anniversary Edition of Howl, a singular poem serving as hidden residue on all our writing, has the same unbewildering potential of Examiner. It breathes the same yogic breath.
In this Edition, readers get to see pictures of the blanket-strewn drawer-opened room (a room we all know) where Howl was first composed, words scribbled in margins or scratched out – the exhibited demystified poetic sweat on display for all to see (possibly bringing fresh pens to papers as I write). More shared human experience equals wonderful.
I’ve turned Haiti crisis coverage on CNN off to write this because I’ve texted my small writerly money to the Red Cross and I’ve simultaneously absorbed the emotions of Haiti and Howl and believe it my own Ginsbergian wolf-call to shape and regurgitate my scrambled emotions and relate them to where it might make a difference, to the readers of Examiner, (in my current state) and associative leap-creates the word “exhume” in my head and then an image of a young unclaimed baby corpse strewn across a curb in Port-au-Prince. Then the quote comes from Alexander Hamilton:
“Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.”
Then from Allen Ginsberg:
“The only thing that can save the world is the reclaiming of the awareness of the world.”
Recommended action: Read Howl then let out your own.