dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated," ... Read More
Howl was written in 1955 at the end of the first decade post WW2. Already there was a swelling movement of disaffected young people in the USA who were growing up in the icy shadow of the new "Cold War" period. The world had been divided up among the victors and communism and capitalism had dug their heels in and were prepared to fight it out to a bitter ideological end. America had become the new bully on the block and was beginning to engage in a global hegemonic "dirty war" with the then USSR (Russia) for economic and cultural power and control.
Many starry eyed dreamers were beginning to smell a "rat" behind the American "dream" and galvanising themselves into groups to protest against what was perceived as the "evil" designs of the "military industrial complex." From the "Beat" movement in the fifties there grew a full scale "alternative" lifestyle movement advocating a return to the land and a more simple, sustainable way of life.
This poem is the herald of the beginning of what would be turbulent times ahead in the sixties and seventies surrounding the "Vietnam War" and the "counterculture" movement in the USA. Allen Ginsberg became a leading spokesman for his generation calling for radical change in society on all fronts social, cultural and political. America's covert wars would ultimately result in the deaths of countless innocent civilians and soldiers around the world.
Above is a photo taken with Bob Dylan and Michael McClure in the alley way behind City Lights bookstore in San Francisco in 1965. Ginsberg was in tune with the issues of his day and moved in circles that included many of the leading artists, musicians and writers of his time many of whom were involved in various protest and resistance programs against the government. He understood what was at stake and wrote in an informed and outspoken manner, unafraid to tackle difficult social and moral questions he felt needed to be addressed.
Howl is more than a poem, it is an angry appeal to those behind the power structures to consider the urgency of his appeal for "change" in order that his generation might find the peace and freedom they were yearning for. It is also an indictment about what society had become; the coldness of the machine age and the fixation on corporate profits and efficiency at the expense of individual fulfilment and happiness. Even more, i believe it is an epitaph to a dying world, to a human vision that no longer feels for others or cares for values such as truth, honesty and integrity.
Howl should be read with an open mind and generosity of spirit because it is a poem of its time which actually succeeds in becoming an anthem for all displaced, downtrodden and disaffected people anywhere, anytime.
Explicit sexual references in the poem need to be read in context but if the reader has any doubts by all means be forewarned there are some graphic expressions in the text. This poem actually resulted in a legal precedent being set that effectively saw the relaxing of strict censorship laws for print and film in the USA.
Howl is an innovative work as each line is meant to be read as a single breath and this is a first in modern poetry leading to the Spoken Word movement and in particular The Last Poets black poetry group of the mid 60's. It's just a hop, skip and jump from there to Rap and Hip Hop as spoken word art forms but the inception of this style apart from the influence of the Blues and Jazz heritage can be found in Ginsberg's "Howl" and in particular his method of spoken delivery.
Listen to Allen Ginsberg reading Howl below.
I'm inspired by Howl because i see the utopian fervour in the language used and empathise with a whole generation who believed in the same dream as Allen Ginsberg. Hope is the greatest thing and Howl oozes hope and longing for a better world. This is always a positive and needed especially now in the current period of heightened pessimism about the future!
"An Elegy For Allan Ginsberg" - Documentary - Click here