(c) Dave Wood
  Gregg Mosson’s first book of poetry, Season of Flowers and Dust, is forthcoming from Goose River Press in October 2007. He edits the annual journal Poems Against War, including the most recent volume Poems Against War: Music & Heroes (Wasteland Press 2007). He has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, where he was a teaching fellow. His commentary and poetry have appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Baltimore Sun, The Loch Raven Review, Poets’ Ink, and other places.  

Fall 2007

Table of Contents - Vol. III, No. 3

Poetry    Translations    Interview    Essays    Fiction    Book Notes & Reviews


Gregg Mosson


Performing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl


Cacophonous with downpour, the night driving to the live Howl performance was like maneuvering a car through a waterfall. That Friday night five poetry performers and a drummer were gathering to perform Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl. The performance was to be staged on Oct. 27, 2006 at the Load of Fun Gallery in Baltimore as part of a national celebration for the 50th anniversary of Howl’s publication. Driving there as a performer, I along with my girlfriend peered through the blurry windshield. I steered through dimly visible streets, barely able to see car bumpers behind or ahead. When we finally arrived for the performance, we scampered in, wondering if anyone would shoulder through to attend.

The evening warmed up with a few Beat aficionados reading favorite short poems by Allen Ginsberg. Howl performer and Baltimore poet Alan Barysh read Ginsberg’s “America" in a booming, ironical voice and asked again, “America why are your libraries full of tears?” The question remains fresh still. For the 21st century has dawned in the U.S. and elsewhere—against the rosy prognostications of so many experts--with war, election controversy, and a hurricane’s destruction. “America” the poem asks, “When will we end the human war?” This broader question looks beyond borders to spotlight the core issue of violence in human life.

In ostensible contrast, an earlier line from the poem comically wonders, “When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my own good looks?” Here Ginsberg makes a hilarious gag, yet also contrasts basic human “need” against fundamental human pride—“good looks.” Funny yet serious, the line points to the burden of survival in modern life in contrast to the laborless sustenance of the mythical garden of Eden. That idyllic place existed in Genesis before Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge. Ginsberg’s poem “America” challenges us with living up to a just and peaceful human dream in an imperfect world. Ginsberg offers a similar blend of humor, allusion, and critical inquiry in Howl.

For the performance of Howl, five performers were backed by a drummer for Part I of this three-part poem. We shouted Part II. The softer and calmer third section was spoken above a guitar’s strum. The last line was spoken by one performer on stage alone. The dark cacophonous waterfall night failed to deter. Around 30 to 60 people hung out at any given moment. The main floor of the gallery glistened behind twenty-foot plate glass windows featuring stenciled designs of Vladimir Lenin dressed as a Wild West cowboy next to a gargantuan cat. This image was repeated across the windows of the Load of Fun gallery in the manner of an Andy Warhol silkscreen. Ginsberg’s barbaric yawp mixed with rain over the rooftops of Baltimore.

We began Howl as the crowd stood arrayed in a half-moon shape around the bare stage. All but one performer was embedded in the audience. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” yelled Brian E. Langston standing on top of a chair on stage. He was the performance’s director, and scored Howl to use as much activity and rotation of voices as possible. Let’s admit, the poem on the page can bog down; its repetitions of rhythm and subject repel many. After Langston finished the opening eight lines, another performer Rosemary Klein spoke the next eight lines, unreeling her own slow enormous breath-lengths, slowly walking in from the right. A third performer Karla Mancero soon chimed in, and then Alan Barysh extolled his part, hunched over, speaking skyward, weaving through the crowd. Then I jumped out from behind a pillar shouting tales of wild jaunts. We all spoke together of “the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality.”

The long breath-lengths in Part I forced us to emphasize both the poem’s excited and exhausted qualities. The free verse breath-length line is a theory stating that a poetic line should be as long as a single human breath. While the theory has roots in the long-line, first-person speaking style of Walt Whitman, it has been promoted as breath-length foremost by mid-20th century American poet Charles Olsen and later Allen Ginsberg. In Howl Part I, the breath-lengths run longer than lines in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” As a result Ginsberg’s breath-lengths embody a hyperactive stream-of-consciousness, a breathless speech that is “yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering,” to quote the poem. Line-lengths strain the voice. They break a speaker’s breath. Even when spoken in an accelerated manner—with some words slurred—these lines create an exasperated, manic sound. Howl forces the reader to read Ginsberg’s vision as vertigo. His lines (like his vision) are too long coming too fast. Many are impossible to say in one breath. Howl’s line-lengths embody the author’s desperate articulation of what he cannot control nor present completely, yet propounds nonetheless.

We spoke Howl's “whole intellects disgorged in total recall.” We slowed down to articulate some of the lucid metaphors buried in Part I’s stream-of-consciousness rant. Performing Howl has made clear the amazing, lucid quality of some of Ginsberg’s metaphors and phrasings. He and his friends “threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballots for Eternity outside of Time.” As some recent commentators have noted, Allen Ginsberg’s legacy may reside strongly in the encouragement of young people toward adventure, partying, and rebellion. In the worst case, the Beats have inspired a lifestyle consumerism not too different from the mainstream conformity they rejected, just different in fashion and other preferences.

The commercial power of Beat culture may remain attractive even though Ginsberg’s picture of Beat culture in Howl--like Kerouac’s in Subterranean Angels—possesses self-criticism and irony. After Ginsberg and his friends “cast their ballots,” “alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next decade.” To feel the bash of the alarm clock—of time itself—is not to reject the first sentence’s vision. However it is to be honest about the consequences. For Ginsberg, they are consequences worth braving. To not cast one’s “ballots for Eternity” would be to forgo a primary focus of the Romantic poetic tradition, and maybe poetry in general. It certainly would be to throw away the “news” of poetry that William Carlos Williams spoke about, the news concerning life's deep eddies and abiding streams, news which poetry must contain or else “men die miserably every day from lack of what is found there.”

While we were performing Howl, the third floor of the building hosted a costume-themed art-opening. They drew a steady stream of fantastic clowns and sunglass-wearing hipsters through the ground-floor gallery. Many paused, stayed, listened, and then moved on. We went searching for “visionary Indian angels who are really visionary Indian angels.” I touched someone’s shoulder when speaking a line. In Part I Allen Ginsberg drops out of a university because he refuses to study with “the scholars of war.” Instead he and his friends become “a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon.”

For Part II, four performers rather than five arrayed ourselves in a row of chairs. We sat with hooded sweatshirts over our heads, staring downward. Then each performer stood to speak a line of Ginsberg’s indictment. The crowd’s dark haze of faces, sleeves, and shoulders glittered from the edge of the stage’s light. “Moloch!” one performer cried. Each performer stood to say a line, until all four were standing and speaking the poem. We condemned modern society as well as ourselves for existing as “Solitude,” with a “mind of pure machinery,” living in “robot apartments.” “Moloch in whom I am consciousness without a body,” says Howl, describing how modern society emphasizes mental life over physical life. Ginsberg’s critique echoes Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in which Nietzsche predicts modern individuals will have outsized ears, eyes, and other organs, because modern individuals live and function in societies of specialized production. Therefore some individuals will only need a single exaggerated skill to work and survive. To this specialized “Solitude” Ginsberg does not succumb. He has “Breakthroughs! over the river!” What is this breakthrough? If one looks at what follows in Part III—one might say the breakthrough is empathy.

The third part of Howl addresses Carl Solomon. It speaks in direct address to this acquaintance, who at the time Ginsberg was writing the poem was living in a mental institution. “Carl Solomon! I am with you in Rockland.” The empathetic refrain of “I am with you in Rockland!” alternates with each verse line. I leaned against a wall. Performer Rosemary Klein paced at the front of the stage as she spoke. Performer Karla Mancero sat calmly at stage middle in a chair. The other two performers remained offstage. At the time of this poem according to Ginsberg’s comments collected in Howl: The 50th Anniversary Edition, Carl Solomon was in a mental hospital because he interrupted university lecturers speaking about Mallarmé during a public forum. Solomon says he objected to their stuffy talk, and then was taken away as insane. To this ordeal, Howl’s Part III offers emotional, reflective content. The quiet shorter lines drew the audience in. It empowered the audience to come closer to the poem after so much exasperated breath-lengths, then followed by despairing cries of “Moloch!” This section also forms an answer to what Ginsberg finds missing in modern materialist society in Parts I and II, namely empathy. The poem ends with:

“the hospital illuminates    imaginary walls collapse”

The intentional spaces between those phrases indicate that the objects have begun to detach and float away from their conventional chains, just like the line’s independent clauses leave behind periods and capitalization. In Howl, Ginsberg finds that resistance to convention combined with empathy lets him say “We’re free!” His insight about the essential role of empathy has precedents and successors. Walt Whitman says in “Song of Myself” in 1855 that “a kelson of creation is love,” using the ship metaphor of a kelson girder to say that love strengthens, connects, and helps keep on course the ship of creation. More recently Adrienne Rich, in her 1995 book Dark Fields of the Republic, portrays love as an abundant and much-needed generative force in her poem “Sending Love.” In another poem, “Six Narratives” from the same book, Rich sees war as dependent upon loss of empathy and human dialogue.

We ended the performance that night with the poem’s last words, read alone and naked without accompaniment:

I am with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the
highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the
Western night


The experience of performing Howl has convinced me that the poem possesses spoken-word and dramatic qualities most vivid when performed dynamically. Howl’s ripeness as a performance text ready to be scored remains true even though some of its stunning images will be blurred through performance, like “drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,” an image that we chose to underline through chorus. Howl is half spoken-word poetry before that term came in use. It also is half dynamic imagery rooted in 20th century Modernism. I must admit, I never have been able to read through Howl by myself, and if I ever did, after the first two pages I skipped through it. In contrast when spoken, the poem’s repetitions can be raced through. Its voices and escapades can be enacted and emphasized. “America” and “A Supermarket in California” are better lyrics. Howl is a better dramatic poem.

Born in New Jersey in 1926, Allen Ginsberg published Howl at the age of 30 in 1956. The poem rebels against the orderly, work-oriented America cartoonized by that television show Leave It to Beaver. With a different flavor, it remains in place today. Performance director Brian Langston says he wanted to stage a reading of Howl, because, for one, writers like Ginsberg are not meant to live on only "in books, bedrooms, or classrooms." Rather Langston says they are meant to be read and heard "out loud, alive, spontaneous, to people, with jazz, with drums, with dark sunglasses on.”

Langston further details that “Howl is a poem that rails against the status quo, against a popular culture that accepts the machinery of big government and war, against a system that opposes any type of creative thought. In essence Howl is the rallying cry of America's poor, downtrodden masses, its immigrant population, its disgruntled and disengaged after World War II, the anthem of the counter-culture.”

Howl also is like a two-faced Janus looking back to the American poetic past, while equally written as encouragement for future generations. The long lines reach back to Walt Whitman, especially Whitman's 1855 "Song of Myself." Yet Ginsberg's compression of imagery also takes its technique from Modernist practices, especially as developed by T.S. Eliot and exemplified in the heterodox visual imagery of his 1922 Modernist epic, “The Waste Land.” Howl can be seen as an epic in the line of American epics from "Song of Myself" through “The Waste Land” through Howl. This narrative arc of Whitman to Eliot to Ginsberg tells a story of how raw American and poetic optimism comes under increasing strain and difficulty of industrialism and two world wars to howl in the vice-grip of the modernizing bureaucracy of the urban new world.

Howl begins:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked....

Whitman's introduction of himself to readers in the middle of "Song of Myself" goes:

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a cosmos, Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . eating drinking and breeding,

We can see the rhythmic roots of Ginsberg's line in Whitman’s. We also can see how a sensual, bold, and emotionally healthy speaker in Whitman in 1855 becomes in 1956 in Ginsberg equally energetic, but now on edge. The voice is “starving hysterical naked.” This voice lacks its predecessor’s mastery of self and experience. It embraces Whitman’s first person poetry and embrace of experience, but cannot absorb it. Howl’s breath-length lines are propelled by experience, rather than encompass it. Whitman investigated, explored, and fed off what he called “urge, urge, urge / Always the procreant urge of the world.” Howl is energy.

Though Howl's range, adventure and embrace are rooted in Whitman, Ginsberg’s compressed imagery springs from early 20th century Modernist practice. Like T.S. Eliot’s and Ezra Pound’s imagism, Ginsberg’s images stitch together disparate elements. This practice of creating images that combine jarring aspects is a descriptive strategy that Eliot called the “objective correlative.” Eliot argued in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that disparately-combined images could effectively capture complex lived emotions, even if in some cases these images themselves are not found in life itself. In this latter case, we see how this type of imagism is a form of highly visual metaphor. We can see Eliot’s proclivity for opposites at the end of his poem “Preludes,” and in the opening to “The Waste Land.” Here the opening begins against expectation, “April is the cruelest month.” The poem then explains why, “breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land.” “The Waste Land” later quotes Charles Baudelaire’s abstract yet eerie image, “Unreal City,” which shows that Eliot’s objective correlative traces it roots through 19th century French poetry, as he himself noted. What Eliot calls an “objective correlative” can be found in Ginsberg’s disturbing conjunction of “hydrogen jukebox” in Howl.

Ginsberg’s “hydrogen jukebox” is a complex visual metaphor that exemplifies in its provocative wedding the imagistic style of Howl. Does it wed together a war and entertainment culture? Is Ginsberg displaying how these two industries are intertwined? Or does “hydrogen jukebox” show how a “jukebox” culture eerily existing side-by-side with the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation from hydrogen bombs? Furthermore this dystopic imagism is crucial for Ginsberg because it coincides—in fact maybe best expresses—his own outsider status also typical of European Modernist literature and art. This outsider point-of-view is more in line with Eliot’s critique of modernity in “The Waste Land” than in Whitman’s embrace of life in Leaves of Grass.

One can note that Whitman’s first 1855 Leaves of Grass is not in every instance an embrace; it does contain a call to arms against tyranny in the poem later titled “Europe: The 72nd and 73rd Years of These States.” Here Whitman watches a parade and identifies his feelings with the fallen heroes “murdered for freedom.” Whitman sees these heroes who came before him as ghosts hovering about the parade. The poem intimates that these freedom fights likely will come again during the eternal tug-of-war between freedom and tyranny. While Ginsberg often is compared to Whitman’s large capacious and embracing vision—and yes this is valid—Ginsberg also has deep roots in Whitman’s minor pugnacious poems. Whitman’s fighting spirit, if made more bitter, might be one supporting structure for the bridge Ginsberg crossed and recrossed, a bridge connecting Ginsberg’s romantic roots in Walt Whitman and William Blake to the outsider status of dystopic Modernist literature embodied in Howl and other poems.

To read Howl as history, one can say Ginsberg sees his friends "destroyed" by a "madness” created by a Cold War society that does not listen to poets and seers. One can say just from reading Howl that this “madness” was partially caused by their own excessive life styles. At the same time it also is rooted in their own ambitions, their attempts to live a life of “ballots cast for Eternity outside of Time.”. The raw and optimistic “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” of Walt Whitman in 1855 becomes a deranged howl in Ginsberg in 1956. Ginsberg’s poetic voice falters under Cold War and Modernist pressures. Nevertheless Ginsberg however attempts to carry his powerful poetic energy through this “destruction.” He does so with gusto. Energy surges through Howl much like what Welsh poet Dylan Thomas describes as “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” This poem, for whatever flaws and repetitions it contains, transfers Ginsberg’s poetry, vitality, and personal gusto to the reader. Howl in a way is a published ode to his friends, yet it continues to inspire poets and orators to come.

End Notes:
Robert Diyanni, ed. Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions. Random House (1987).
Allen Ginsberg. Howl: The 50th Anniversary Edition. Harper Perennial (2006).
Adrienne Rich. Dark Fields of the Republic. W. W. Norton & Company (1995).


© Gregg Mosson

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