“Howl,” the infamous beat-era poem by Allen Ginsberg, turns 50 this year. The anniversary has already led to the inevitable tribute readings and gassy lionizations. Happily, it has also flushed out a terrific anthology of essays on the poem’s legacy edited by Jason Shinder, The Poem that Changed America: Howl Fifty Years Later.
The title of the book is something of a misnomer, because all the essays attest to the one thing their authors can lay claim to: how the poem affected them. Rick Moody remembers a friend belting the poem aloud to him and realizing, for the first time, that poetry may not be half bad. Mark Doty stumbled onto it in a library in 1961 and realized, with relief, that homosexual life existed in America.
Because it can be sung from the rooftops and growled from the gutters, Ginsberg’s poem is something special. Like Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” the poem’s voice becomes your own as you read. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed/by madness, starving hysterical naked,” goes the first line, and by the third, “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly/connection,” you’re reading along with it.
The Poem that Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later
Edited by Jason Shinder
$14, 288 pages
It was that third line which got me. I smuggled Ginsberg’s Collected Poems onto the campus of Swarthmore College when I was a student there in the early ’90s, not realizing how necessary it would become. A month after my arrival, my parents phoned and told me my younger brother Tim had been hospitalized after a psychotic break. It seemed impossible. Just weeks before, he had been fine — his normal, irritating, singular self. Always in his room.
An overnight stay became a one-month in-patient treatment, and by the time we all met for Thanksgiving, the Thorazine had helped him put on 30 pounds. He laughed at jokes untold, spoke to people not sitting next to him. When he was finished eating, Tim left the table and went to his room and giggled. My parents’ faces were gray.
I returned to school in shock. My roommate and I walked through the woods in the cold and talked, talked our way through a life lesson I hadn’t enrolled in. Fall turned to winter and I frequently found myself sitting alone, reading poetry. I disappeared. I lost weight. And then I began to steal things.
The first thing I stole was a copy of “Howl” from the campus bookstore. It was easy because it was small, and it became my hip flask. Whenever life on campus felt too good, too cushy, too far away from what had happened in my family, I pulled the book out and read a little and felt better.
All that winter and into the next few years I carried Ginsberg around like a talisman — I felt somehow tougher and more grizzled than the students on campus. Ginsberg was a secret handshake I had with myself. I went to the library and checked out “Kaddish,” Ginsberg’s book-length poem about his own mentally-ill mother, and sat there in the stacks and cried as I read it. I gave it to my girlfriend to read and she returned it with a look of guilty confusion — she didn’t like it.
The one person I could talk to about Ginsberg was my older brother, Andy (my parents briefly blamed him for Tim’s illness because they had smoked pot together). I visited Andy in Boston, where he was in the process of dropping out of college, and I congratulated myself all the way there on how I wasn’t judging him. I discovered him living in Back Bay squalor, poems scribbled along the walls, mattresses on the floor. He had notebooks of poetry written in Ginsberg’s scatological vein.
Several years later, I had the chance to invite Ginsberg to campus — where he read and played his harmonium, and hit on one student who wore a kilt all the time. The students in my Buddhism in American Literature class made him a macrobiotic meal, and after the reading we had coffee in the campus café before he caught his train and returned to New York. Before leaving he hugged each one of us for a long time.
Several of the pieces in The Poem that Changed America describe encounters with Ginsberg, and almost all of them remember him as a preternaturally generous soul. Shinder, for instance, describes visiting the poet in his Lower East Side apartment. At one point, the phone rang. It was a stranger calling, but Ginsberg stayed on the line for 45 minutes. Finally, by way of explanation, he leaned over and said to Shinder, “She had a dream, very disturbing, vivid.”
As I watched Ginsberg’s train leave that night, I sat on the station bench and wrote what I imagine was a very bad poem about Tim, in which he was a train and I couldn’t tell if he was leaving or coming. More than a decade later, he has emerged from the tunnel of his adolescence, a bright, troubled, sensitive, artistic adult. He has survived, in part, by writing poetry, which he sends to me every now and then. It’s beautiful and hard-won and always sad. It’s the one thing we have in common.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.