February 8, 1958
June 02, 2008
By JOHN D. LEONARD
Allen Ginsberg is an epic poet of Jack Kerouac's Beat Generation.
Ginsberg represents the North Beach schoolSan Fancisco's Greenwich
Village, sixteen blocks of bookshops, bars, and jazz bohemia. His
epic poem is a free verse tragedy called Howl.
Ginsberg and his poem first vaulted to national attention two months
ago when San Francisco police authorities arrested Lawrence
Ferlinghetti, sometime painter and poet, and bookshop proprietor on
the North Beach. Ferlinghetti, who had published Ginsberg's poem in
his Pocket Poet series, was charged with dissemination of "obscene
and indecent writings" and brought to trial under California's newly
valid Obscenity Law.
Howl's trial as a lewd work was hardly in the tradition of Ulysses.
It consisted mainly of a parade of poetry professors from nearby
universities to justify Ginsberg's sexual imagery as an instrument of
rendering his vision of human experience. Mark Schorer (of Berkeley),
Walter Van Tillburg Clark, and Kenneth Rexroth (strawman poet and
loquacious spokesman for the North Beach literati) told Judge Clayton
Horn that the language of vulgarity was for Ginsberg a natural
vernacular. (Ginsberg, after a stint at Columbia had been educated in
night-spots, ghost towns, and freight car pilgrimages west.)
For the prosecution, zealous assistant D.A. McIntosh (famed for his
campaign against nudist magazines) sounded the threat of licentious
literature to the children of San Francisco, and contended that
Ginsberg could have said what he had to say with more aplomb and
fewer four-letter words.
The verdict was not guilty. "Would there," asked Judge Horn in his
decision, "be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his
vocabulary to innocuous euphemism?" The North Beach poets danced in
court that day, and the word of cultural liberation spread all the
way to Big Sur.
There were more significant meanings in Judge Clayton's decision than
a new grey shade to the opaque of California legalism. Howl, not a
very good poem, became an immediate best seller, and North
Beachwhich already gave the novel Jack Kerouac and On the Roadwas
discovered by big as well as little magazines.
No poem has ever deserved its title more. Howl is Ginsberg's
declaration of unfaith in Technological America, rendered by despair,
erotic imagery, and dirty words. It is a cry of rage against Rockland
and "the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality." And, in a smaller
way, it is a contorted and metaphorical promise of redemption from
the supercharged electric chair of the raw-dealt genius. The means of
penance is the essence of North Beach's new philosophy.
Ginsberg and Kerouac are oracle and cantor of the Beat Generation's
metaphysical search for IT. IT is the moment of reckoning, the
bohemian nirvana, the ultimate thrill. IT is sought by several means:
by sex, by bullfighting, by jazzwhen the man with the trumpet finds
what he's looking for and brings his audience with him. IT is found
in motion, in the "night-cars" which whisk across the Continent both
in Kerouac's novel and in Howl. IT is no more obscure than
absolution, and no more mythical than the sacraments and symbols of
any religion. What is new about the San Francisco approach is "anarchy."
Like Holderlin, Blake, Baudelaire, or Rimbaud, the Beat poets are
expatriates in contemporary society. They come to San Francisco,
writes Rexroth, "for the same reason so many Hungarians have been
going to Austria recently." To Ginsberg, America is Moloch (the
semiotic god whose worship entailed human sacrifice, usually of the
first-born); and the great minds of Ginsberg's generation, kicked
around by the machine age, looking for "jazz or sex or soup," are
sacrificed to the great American dynamo.
Beat poets abandon the intellect. To the Harvard community, schooled
as we are in the academy of form, all poetry seems back which lacks
order. Playboy, Esquire, and Harper's are effectively snide in
calling Kerouac and Ginsberg "immature." Indeed they are; but, in the
same sense, American poetry (outside of S.F.) appears to be
senilethe aridity of a sterile Greenwich Village, or the ingrown
complexity of form without substance, of structure without
inspiration, which characterizes the overwhelmingly academic
literature of America's intelligentsia.
"Moloch!" cries Ginsberg. "Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible
suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries!
spectral nations! invincible madhouses! monstrous bombs!" A sphinx of
cement and aluminum.
The North Beach literati have suffered from their followers. In each
generation, there are eternal college sophomores, the professional
Bohemians, and the bored suburbanites ready to don both turban and
sandals, grow a beard and go wandering down the beach screaming at
the sea. Beat, cool, gone, way outthe anarchy which these terms
imply immediately capture the anemic imaginations of minds exchanging
ruts. IT to the audience (white collar San Francisco waiting in the
Black Cat until girls go wild with wee hour jazz) is like
slummingthe very method implies a kind of sacrilegious joy. IT to
the Beat poets is a serious end, implying more than a playboy
Ginsberg in Howl is an animal Dmitri leaping headfirst into the pit
of self-abasement. Sex, like dope, is jut a symbol. Masochism itself,
a mean. Howl succumbs to now Hum 6 readings; it is like those poems
we wrote for high school literary clubs, before we came to Harvard.
But Ginsberg and his fellows mean it. And if IT means homosexuality,
dope, jazz, or deaththen these are the instruments.
In a critical sense, we academicians know these men as psychopaths,
and perhaps they are. They believe in sensuality, not sense; in
thrill, not mere experience. Beauty is physical, and they think the
world owes them a livinga free beer, a pat on the back, easy sex,
and a wad of twenty-dollar bills. Responsibility has too many
syllables and love is a dirty word. Ginsberg makes a disappointing Rimbaud.
But when these strange men in dungarees read poetry to unmuted jazz,
or steal cars and drive to Denver, or just "burn, burn, burn, like a
fabulous yellow roman candle" it is with a vigor which marks the rest
of us as dead, a bad penny vitality and a grubby crucifixion which
make lectures and Haze-Bick existentialism seem extremely square.