Maybe it was reading Patti Smith’s memoir that sent me to the poetry shelves for Howl. I have a City Lights pocket-size square of a book, slightly warped from some dousing or other—probably one of the upstairs neighbor’s floodings. I hadn’t read it for years. Hadn’t seen Ginsberg for years either.
But he used to show up sometimes at the loft with the bathtub and toilet behind a curtain in SoHo where a dancer lived and held open meditation sessions. A Tibetan monk ran the talks and meditations—I think he might have lived there, too, in a curtained-off corner of the huge open space. We arrived to share momos—Tibetan dumplings—on feast days, talks and reflections and a meditation on others. We sat on cushions scattered around the floor and I don’t remember if Ginsberg ever talked—I think not. I was a little bit in awe of him then but not entirely.
The first time I saw him was in Miami at an elegant party in the fabulous home of wealthy Cuban exiles who were feting some arts group or museum or something. My life in Miami had a lot of yacht racing and little-black-dress parties in it. Ginsberg smiled politely and shook the requisite hands but kept mostly to himself–introverted? bored?–and kept his eye on a skinny young guy in black jeans and black shirt. When the guy slipped over the low wall off the patio and vanished into the night, Ginsberg disappeared, too. I never actually made his acquaintance.
I owned Howl by then, though. It was a rough intrusion into my Pablo Neruda/Audre Lorde/translations-of Rumi/Yeats/Whitman/Dickinson world. The life Ginsberg described was so unadorned, so graphic, so frightening in its poverty, bruises, depravities and blood. At the same time, the poems—the volume contains “Howl” and a number of additional poems—were so clear-eyed, appreciative of beauty amid the ruins, hopeful in an uncompromising grimly optimistic way. The poet seemed to me to have extraordinary courage—and he owned language the way a master artist owns the colors of his paints.
Back in the day, Howl was grabbed by the local constabulary and the U.S. government and subjected to an obscenity trial. Today, most of the material, if not all of the specific language, is available on nightly TV. Howl’s depictions of the chasms of experience between the artists and the merchants survived the passage of time. We still starve our poets and parade them at receptions. A few have the self-preservation, or self-gratification instinct to duck out the back. We still relegate the insistent questioners to the fringes and celebrate the mediocrity that feeds commerce. We still regard imagination and idiosyncrasy with suspicion or contempt. We’re still not getting it right.
Howl peels back the covers and exposes the raw heart. Ginsberg’s poetry embraces life. He elevates a dead sunflower in a railyard to something holy. He exults in a litany of Holy!s like the repeat Sanctus in a liturgical chant. His beat poet friends, lovers, coldwater flats and filthy streets are holy. His sin and his salvation is that he wrote it true, used his own unrefracted lens, left the dirt and snot on the images, saw those as holy, too. Howl hasn’t lost any of its power in more than half-a-century. It’s worth a revisit.
Howl and Other Poems Allen Ginsberg | City Lights 37th printing