Four new books celebrate the 50th anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem
The poem that built, if not the ’60s, at least the era’s counterculture turns 50 next month. “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s great, bellowing yawp in the face of modernity, was first published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet-proprietor of San Francisco’s City Lights Books, in November 1956.
It was promptly banned.
A shipment of the books, which were printed in England, was intercepted by a port customs agent and impounded on charges of obscenity. The ensuing legal scuffle, which included testimony from poets, critics, librarians and cops—and an arrest for Ferlinghetti and one of his employees—is documented in one of four new books published in honor of the anniversary.
Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression, published, fittingly enough, by City Lights, contains documents, excerpts from trial transcripts, and photographs that bring to life with amazing clarity the controversy of the time. Reading “Howl” five decades on, after generations of imitators (and cable television), it’s easy to forget just how revolutionary the poem was. Howl on Trial puts the poem into the context of the soon-to-be-shattered emotional, sexual and cultural repression of the 1950s.
In spite of the uptight moral outrage of its customs agent, and the assertion of a local English teacher that “Howl” was “without literary merit,” San Francisco showed all the sophistication and good taste for which it has since become renowned. Along with cartoons of prudish police and editorials about “Orwellian” literary tastes, the trial had a judge who took the time to read both the law and Ulysses in order to get some perspective. Judge Clayton W. Horn (may his name be blessed by poets) found both the poem and its publisher “not guilty”—and, of course, “Howl” entered the literary canon.
Howl on Trial is one of three new offerings written or edited by Ginsberg’s bibliographer and literary assistant, Bill Morgan. Morgan, who spoke with SN&R by phone from his home in Vermont, noted that he’d been working on these books—the documentary collection Howl on Trial; a biography titled I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg; and a collection of Ginsberg’s early journals and poems, The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice—for the last 20 years. “The whole idea was to have them come out on November 1, which was the 50th anniversary of the publication of ‘Howl,’” he said.
Morgan noted that documenting Ginsberg’s life was fairly easy because the poet saved everything. In fact, Morgan first met Ginsberg while working on a bibliography of Ferlinghetti’s work. “I was looking for some obscure journals, and it was suggested that I contact Allen, because he was famous for having such a huge archive. And sure enough, he had these obscure magazines and things.”
In putting together his biography of Ginsberg, Morgan found it useful to refer to the poems. “Because Allen was crazy and dated everything he ever wrote, it became clear that he was writing about the things he was seeing and the things that were happening around him,” Morgan said. Ginsberg “never wrote poems that were just made up out of his imagination; it was always about things that were happening around him.”
From a reader’s perspective, perhaps the most useful device in I Celebrate Myself is a comprehensive series of column notes that place each instance of Ginsberg’s life in context with the poems he was writing at the time. The notes direct the reader to the appropriate poem (including page number) in Collected Poems, 1947-1997, published this week by HarperCollins. This allows the two volumes to be used together as a comprehensive literary biography—an extremely enlightening way to read Ginsberg’s work.
From Morgan’s perspective, looking at Ginsberg’s life through the lens of these new books reveals the essence of the poet he came to know as a true spiritual seeker. What Ginsberg was doing, throughout his life and his poems, was “looking for God,” Morgan said. “I wish there were a word other than ‘God’ I could use to describe it. Allen’s entire life was spent searching for some sort of spiritual awareness. He was always looking for something, and he tried everything.”
All the drugs, the sex, the experimentation that came to be considered the beat experience—and for which Ginsberg is often credited—are, in Morgan’s view, part of that search for God. “He wasn’t looking for highs; he was looking for a spiritual epiphany,” said Morgan. “He came closest to it, I think, in the last years of his life, in Buddhism.”
That search is documented—from its beginning, when an 11-year-old Ginsberg knew he would be famous and so kept a comprehensive journal, through his fierce struggle for artistic expression to a later life of spirituality—in these new books. Together, they are a chronicle of one of the best minds of a generation.