by Allen Ginsberg
While I’ve spent a great deal of time sampling the likes of great Beat prose, I hadn’t really encountered any of the poetry, unless you want to count tiny snippets included in The Dharma Bums. As such, I figured Howl and Other Poems was probably the place to start; I was most definitely tickled pink when I came across it at my local Chapters, allowing me to read it without having to buy the complete writings of Ginsberg for a significant investment, the only book of Ginsberg’s writing that I was able to find within the confines of their walls for at least several months. I’m actually glad I hadn’t read through “Howl” before now, before reading through other Beat literature, as I very readily grasped several references that I would likely have otherwise needed to research further. (Of course, I still read through each poem in the collection multiple times and looked elsewhere to aid in my understanding of this landmark book.)
In “Howl,” Ginsberg relates how things used to be, he tells us what he and others have been through, and he relates how everything changed. It’s a lament of how the good times were now gone, of how noble dreams were crushed, and how delusional some of those dreams actually were. As the poem progresses, he offers up the demon of (then) modern society as the source of blame for these woes, and that he worries that it’s claiming him as well. As depressing as “Howl” remains throughout, the footnote reminds us that all is not lost, that there’s plenty still worth fighting for. While “Howl” definitely shines the brightest out of the collection, Ginsberg’s talent of evocative expression still extends to the other poems. I personally very much enjoyed the inspiring melancholia at the heart of “Sunflower Sutra,” the author’s suggestion that the modern world is also killing the soul.
Poignant and raw throughout, Howl and Other Poems is necessary reading for both lovers of prose and poetry. It’s not at all surprising to me that, with his book, Ginsberg developed such a lasting legacy.