Poetics and Consciousness
Or Why Howl Still Matters Fifty Years Later
by David Carter
In August of 1955 a young gay writer in San Francisco sat down at his typewriter, stuck in some scratch paper, and began to improvise on a single line he had scribbled in his journal about ten days prior. He was determined to just start writing what he was feeling without worrying about how it would sound to anyone who read it. He wrote primarily for himself, for his own pleasure, although as he warmed up to his task he began to have in mind a writer friend who might enjoy his new creation, for the friend had told the young man not to worry about his abilities but to just get into a rhythm and keep going with it and trust himself.
To trust himself. To let go.
That was how the young man had tried to live and had largely done just that since his first year at Columbia University when a friend by the name of Lucien in his dormitory who read Rimbaud had introduced him to two other friends of his named Jack and William he thought the sensitive and literary young man would find interesting. To describe Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs as interesting was understatement, as the two friends gave Allen Ginsberg a fast education in literature and life. In a period of conformity and repression, the three friends sought a new consciousness. Burroughs pointed to William Blake as a possible alternative model to contemporary values, and Ginsberg had a vision of Blake’s poetry that, while transcendent, pointed to the earth and our physical surroundings as the ground for that transcendence. Young Allen showed literary promise and Kerouac praised his writing, while urging Ginsberg to push it further.
But while Allen had found his calling in poetry, his life had also become a series of disasters and traumas. His friend Lucien Carr had killed a friend of Allen’s who had become obsessed with Carr, and had stabbed him twice through the heart. Tortured by his homosexual feelings and tremendous longing, Ginsberg had been thrown out of Columbia University after Kerouac had come over to visit and ended up staying the night. The youth’s schizophrenic mother had been institutionalized. She had been throwing herself into walls so violently that the psychiatrists who cared for her were afraid she would seriously injure herself and so had requested Allen to authorize a lobotomy. He had done so and felt guilty about it. Bill had introduced Allen and Jack to Herbert Huncke, a Times Square hustler who was also a junkie. When Huncke had shown up years later at Allen’s door at a low point in his life, Allen had taken him in. Herbert started stealing and stashed the loot in Allen’s apartment, and Allen had been arrested and only missed going to jail by agreeing to undergo psychiatric treatment. The psychiatrists told Allen that he should reject Huncke and Burroughs. He met another new friend, Neal Cassady, who was wild about literature and Allen fell deeply in love with him. When he finally found the courage to confess his homosexuality to his father, he concluded that Allen was going crazy and told him that he should not see Neal. Then Burroughs accidentally shot his wife in the head, killing her. Ginsberg wrote anguished letters expressing the terrible anxiety these and other experiences put him through.
As the pressures built on him, not only Kerouac, Carr, and Burroughs were afraid that Allen might go insane but so was William Carlos Williams, the New Jersey poet who had tried to help and encourage the young Ginsberg. And so in 1954 Allen Ginsberg moved to San Francisco and determined to make a go at “normal” life.
He got a job doing market research for an ad firm and was successful enough to have two secretaries and a nice apartment on fashionable Nob Hill. He met a woman and got involved in his first serious heterosexual affair. The “straight” life seemed good at first and Ginsberg decided that he wanted to get married, have kids, and continue to work in advertising. But it was not long after starting the routine job and becoming involved with a woman that he found that he was depressed. One night, walking the city streets after ingesting peyote, he looked at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, which seemed to take on the aspect of an inhuman monster, robotic in its cold impersonality. In November, 1954, the month after the vision of the city as a modern Moloch, he re-entered therapy. The next month he met a youth he became smitten with, Peter Orlovsky.
A few months later the young therapist he was seeing asked Allen what it was he really wanted to do? Allen replied that he wanted to quit his job, write poetry, and move in with Peter. This therapist did not try to make him abandon his dreams but instead asked him, “Well, why don’t you?” It was a total revelation to the youth.
By February of 1955 Peter and Allen started living together. By May, Allen had managed to get laid off from his job so that he could collect unemployment. That summer he completed some new poems and sent them to Kenneth Rexroth, the dean of San Francisco poets. Rexroth didn’t care for the poems and wrote back to Ginsberg, “Do something original.” It was only a few weeks later that Allen Ginsberg rolled the scratch paper into his typewriter and began to write the poem that would change poetry forever. It made Allen Ginsberg famous, enabled him to get his friends’ works published and launched the artistic, social and consciousness movement known as the Beats, and thereby laid much of the foundation for the 1960s and all that grew out of that turbulent, creative decade.
That one poem and one poet could ultimately bring about so much change directly and indirectly would be an amazing thing in and of itself. What is more wonderful, however, is how simple the essential ideas were that found expression in the Beat writers.
But if the ideas were simple, the road to finding them had been complex, both for the young men who were the beneficiaries of these insights as well as for the older theoreticians and poets who worked hard to arrive at those theories and insights in the first place. What is perhaps most amazing is that the ideas were not merely simple, they were almost beyond simplicity: breathe naturally, listen to the sounds and rhythms of words and human speech; pay attention to the tone leading or length of vowels.
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David Carter is the author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution and editor of Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews with Allen Ginsberg. He lives in the West Village in NYC.
Woodcut of Allen Ginsberg by Justin Kempton — more portraits of progressive writers available at www.writersmugs.com