Monday, October 08, 2007


It is the 50th anniversary of one of the most influential poems in America: Allan Ginsberg's HOWL. WBAI, one of the more progressive radio stations in the nation, was scheduled to do a reading of this poem, but in light of the FCC's stringent (and potentially expensive) rulings on obscenity, and the profanity Ginsburg employed to make his epic poem against dehumanizing society so vivid, they have decided against such a reading.
What a cruel twist of fate that this poem which won against obscenity charges and other forms of censorship when it was first written, published and read in 1957 should fall victim to self censorship in 2007.

Here is a review I wrote but was not published by InsideOUT magazine about the 50th anniversary edition of the poem:

Howl, 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. 50th Anniversary Edition
Allen Ginsberg edited by Barry Miles
Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Collected Poems 1947-1997
Allen Ginsberg
The full title of “Howl , the draft facsimile transcript and variant versions, fully annotated by author, with contemporaneous correspondence, account of first public reading, legal skirmishes, precursor texts, and bibliography” barely hints at the importance of this poem that rocked mid century America, and having been translated into 22 other languages, thus, rocked the world.
If only a cd recording of Ginsberg reading the poem was included, then we could truly hear the rage barely contained within the poem, the rage against a society that was homogenizingly dehumanizing. But even without that recording, this book situates Howl in a society that hurled obscenity charges and conducted censorship trials against this powerful “emotional time bomb [ continuing] to explode in U.S. consciousness in case our military-industrial-nationalist complex solidified in a repressive police bureaucracy” as ” as Ginsberg described it in 1986. His words, as the poem, prophetic and more than ever, timely.
In this volume we are allowed a peak into one of the most creative minds of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg provided annotations to help us understand his imagery. We read the text of the poem as it undergoes revisions.
The perfect storm around Howl and its impact is made clearer by the correspondence and legal proceedings. The editor provides us with another cut at reading social history with the inclusion of correspondence to and from Ginsberg from fellow beats like Jack Kerourac to the poet William Carlos Williams who wrote the introduction to the 1956 published version of Howl. We are privy to letters to and from publishers, friends, and family which allow us an even fuller reading of the poem, the poet, and society.
This 50th edition of Howl also gives us a key that also opens the poems in Collected Poems 1947-1997. The Author’s Preface and Appendices keys us in even more. Yet from reading Howl we realize that his writing mantra of “First thought, best thought” still required editing to reach that correct vibrant pitch. We (re-)read Howl and Kaddish, his two most widely known poems, in chronological order, within hundreds of other poems that memorialize in vivid, shocking word pictures an emotionally and politically charged world from the intimate to the global.
Ginsburg truly was our poet laureate of the political, he was the original Slam poet.

P.S. If you have never read the poem, do so. . . it is as pertinent today as it was in 1957,

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