“Bohemia, where art thou?” cried a man wearing a clown suit at a recent New York reading in honor of the 50th anniversary of “Howl.” The clown and his friends—members of the Underground Literary Alliance—stood outside of Columbia University’s Miller Theatre and held up angry signs: “FREE THE BEATS,” “LITERATURE SUCKS.” “We’re talking about the starving artist,” yelled one, “not the fat and bloated one.”
Jumpy and possibly drunk, the protesters directed their complaints at the event’s scheduled panelists: Mark Doty, Rick Moody, Phillip Lopate, and other contributors to The Poem That Changed America, a collection of essays about “Howl.” The ULA had circulated hundreds of flyers describing the reading as a prissy “dog show” for literary insiders. “We’re so sick of boring readings, boring lectures,” said one man who came from Philadelphia for the demonstration. “The canon—what kind of word is that? I mean, how un-Beat can you get?”
Allen Ginsberg once said that his biggest fear was that more people would like him than hate him. He understood that his appeal—in 1959, Life magazine described him as one of the “hairiest, scrawniest, and most discontented specimens of all time”—involved being unsavory. But he was not always “howling at the moon,” as the ULA put it, or shunning what they called the “rich elite snoozefest.” Exactly fifty years after the publication of “Howl,” it’s difficult to find anyone whom Ginsberg can disgust. He posed for Gap ads, and the last meal he ever cooked—fish chowder—now resides in a museum in Los Angeles. A few months before his death, he phoned the White House to see if he could get some kind of lifetime achievement award.
The Poem That Changed America does little to alter Ginsberg’s reputation as the country’s most irresistible antihero. Put together by Jason Shinder, Ginsberg’s former assistant and friend, the book is composed of “personal narratives,” not “critical texts”—many of which repeat the same stories: Ginsberg reappears as a kind, prophetic revolutionary, with ridiculous faith in LSD and surprising patience with strangers. Shinder writes that “Howl” is responsible for “loosening the breath” of “homosexuality, politics, drugs, tyranny, loneliness, music, madness, and death.”
ULA members did not pretend to have read Shinder’s book, although one composed a poem about the reading called “At the Pet Shop”: “Watch as they pretend to be Beats / Shinder, Lopate, Doty, and Moody / though they know nothing ’bout the streets.”
As a mostly uncritical appreciation, the collection touches upon the idea, raised by the ULA, that too much praise can dilute a poem’s shock value. Many contributors note that “Howl” has become increasingly unthreatening, a relic from more exciting times. “It would be madness to hope for a new era of censorship just so ‘Howl’ could get its street cred back,” writes David Gates. “Yet something’s been lost by our welcoming ‘Howl’ to the canon.” Mark Doty recalls going to a Ginsberg reading in the mid-’90s along with thousands of New Jersey high school teachers. They laughed and clapped, “absorbed in delight,” as Ginsberg read a poem called “Sphincter.” “I hope my good old asshole holds out,” the poem goes, “a little blood, no polyps, occasionally a small hemorrhoid.”
Diagnosed by his therapist as “just an average neurotic,” Ginsberg was the perfect patient, exploring his hidden urges and forcing the country to do so as well. In the early ’50s his therapist encouraged him to quit work, embrace his sexual desires, and write more poems. He concluded his treatment shortly after finishing Part I of “Howl.” A year later, he was doing readings naked. As the story was told in Life magazine, this began when a man at a reading stood up and asked Ginsberg what he was “trying to prove,” Ginsberg said, “Nakedness.” The guy said, “What d’ya mean, nakedness?” So Ginsberg took off all his clothes.
Disarmingly sincere, “Howl” was persuasive in its idealism. The poem has 93 exclamation points and lines like “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” Robert Pinsky calls it “the world’s least postmodern poem,” with no “protective irony or afterthought or sneaking reservations.” In one of the book’s only essays critical of “Howl,” Phillip Lopate says the poem’s apocalyptic grandiosity eventually turned him off. He bristles at the idea implicit in the poem’s first line—“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by / madness, starving hysterical naked”—that great art requires a mental breakdown. “What about all those working stiffs would not end up raving lunatics, who could not afford to drop out, were we automatically judged mediocre and condemned to a lower status than ‘the best minds’ by dint of neglecting or refusing to fall apart?”
It’s easy to romanticize “gritty alienated authenticity”—a catchphrase in the ULA flyer—but Ginsberg acknowledged the stereotype’s potential for silliness. He described his bohemian friends as noble but also amiably pathetic, the type of fashionable depressives who “cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully / gave up and were forced to open antique stores.” He understood that few people can remain permanent rebels—acceptability is hard to resist. In Jonah Raskin’s wonderful 2004 biography of the poet, American Scream, he writes that Ginsberg had a dream in which T.S. Eliot served him tea, tucked him into bed, and said, “Ah Ginsberg, I am glad / to have met a fine young man like you.” When Ginsberg woke up, he felt ashamed of himself.
Ginsberg wanted to influence the canon, “to disseminate a poem so strong,” he wrote, “that a clean Saxon four-letter word might enter high school anthologies permanently.” His attempts to empower the underground were so successful that sections of that underground no longer exist. He made drugged-out failure seem appealing, essential, and eventually pass�. All that “yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and / anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars” became exhausting.
Members of the Underground Literary Alliance want to “pick up where the Beats left off.” Like Ginsberg’s friends “who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism,” they’re not easily embarrassed. They were even considering stopping at a deli to get some potato salad for the Columbia event, but they never got around to it, said King Wenclas, the group’s publicity director. “Everything in New York is so frickin’ expensive.”
Instead, the activists periodically interrupted the reading to shout out their feelings, using key words like “hypocrisy” and “blasphemy.” When Wenclas stood up and shouted, “You’re the clean and the saved!,” security guards finally escorted him out of the auditorium. (During the intermission, New York Times critic Margo Jefferson and other panelists went outside and personally invited him back in; “‘Howl’ is against the notion of being kicked out,” explained Wenclas.)
Although Ginsberg was involved in many of his own stunts, it’s hard to imagine that he would have shunned other writers’ attention. By the end of his life, he had carefully catalogued and edited his papers for the use of future scholars. He wanted his poetry to be read and analyzed. In a speech that ended in cheers, Phillip Lopate said that Ginsberg recognized he could never be as “pure” as Jack Kerouac, who drank himself to death, or Neal Cassady, who was sliced in half on a railroad track. He pointed out that Ginsberg willingly became a professor, oversaw dissertations, and spoke on panels. “Even Beats, when they grow old,” said Lopate, “need health insurance.”
A few minutes later, the clown came on stage and threatened to put a mousetrap on his tongue. “OK, I’m going to do it,” he said. “I’m going to use the mousetrap.” No one protested. “You’re silencing me,” he said. “Ahhh.” He inserted the contraption in his mouth, making some garbled noises. “Oh, shut up,” yelled someone in the audience. “You’re just insecure.”
In the final speech of the evening, Columbia professor Ann Douglas said that Ginsberg would have been pleased to watch the reading unfold; it had taken on a volume and pitch not normally achieved at literary events. (Someone in the back yelled, “True!”) The audience, now giddy, seemed almost disappointed that the disruptions were over. The ULA, which makes some absurd claims using ornate language—“Corruption, cronyism, nepotism, and cowardice are mixed into a toxic potation that poisons the soul of all who drink from it”—clearly raised the level of excitement in the room. Many of these writers would like to envision themselves as noble Ginsbergs-in-the-making. But while Ginsberg believed there was something inherently distasteful about being adored, he worked hard for attention and respect. “Do not think there is a poet who does not want recognition,” said Douglas at the end of her speech. “Every writer, every artist wants recognition.”