I recently got around to reading Allen Ginsberg's Howl, one of the many works that has been on my reading list for well over a decade but I hadn't got around to reading yet. Howl was published in 1956 in the collection Howl and Other Poems, and met with controversy immediately upon its release. Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books was arrested upon publication on charges that the book was obscene. Kerouac's letters, which I discuss in an earlier post, trace the development of the publication as he writes to Ginsberg while he is in Tangier upon publication, updating him on the events following the release. The work, and Ginsberg, was finally vindicated in 1957 when a judge ruled that the poem was not obscene.
I feel that the poem is significant in two ways. First, on the social level, it contributed to the opening up of the possibilities of literature. Like Joyce's Ulysses trial and subsequent victory before it, and Henry Miller's obscenity trial for the U.S. publication of Tropic of Cancer in 1961, it helped to create legitimacy of a new form of expression despite the reigning sensibilities, at least in the English speaking world. Another manner in which it is important is that the dedication of the volume includes to Kerouac and Burroughs, in Kerouac's case referring to the eleven books he has written in six years, none of which had been published yet, sparking further interest in his work. In Burrough's case it mentions the as of then unpublished Naked Lunch.
In terms of the poem itself, it is an exhalation of barely suppressed rage, the anguish of a search for meaning and expression, social commentary, sexual exploits, and drug experiences. The poem is broken up into three movements. The opening selection from the poem easily conveys the language and tone that is used throughout:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
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...
Following this, Ginsberg catalogues the exploits, including soul-seeking and failures, of himself and his circle of friends. Anyone familiar with this generation and this particular circle of writers shouldn't be able to help themselves in their attempts to place events and names to the things suggested in the poem, but thankfully the poem holds up beyond this curiosity factor.
While the energy of the poem remains immediate, it can be tough to imagine the controversial impact the poem had because the elements that were questionable when it was published seem quite mild by today's standards. I think that this is a testament to the impact of the poem in the way it contributed to the shaping of modern expression.
The Wikipedia page for the poem contains an interesting section that breaks down the numerous names and events through the poem. Here's a quick link: