55 years after the fact, culture still cries out for Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl'

There is more to Beat poet Allen Ginsberg than "Howl." The National Gallery of Art displays 79 of the literary legend's photographs, including portraits of other well-known writers.
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

From Washington to Hollywood, once again those crazed stanzas echo and howl, drunk on adjectives yet oddly dispassionate, like a newspaper dispatch, dateline surreal:

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 . . .

Fifty-five summers after Allen Ginsberg wrote his shocking masterpiece "Howl," the poem still provokes, inspires, sells.

There's a bit of a "Howl" boomlet going on -- books, photographs, an upcoming movie starring James Franco and, most immediately, a "Howl in the City" series of readings and music Friday and Saturday in Washington.

The timing of the convergence is mainly coincidental, the fruit of projects launched around the 50th anniversary of the poem, which Ginsberg first recited to spellbound hipster audiences in the fall of 1955, at the age of 29. He published it in 1956. Then came the obscenity trial in 1957, which Ginsberg's publisher won, a free-speech landmark. Ginsberg died in 1997, at 70.

"When he first read this poem, it was a cultural intervention, and it continues," says poet Anne Waldman, a friend and collaborator of Ginsberg's. "It's a time bomb, and it's a time piece."

Ginsberg had a complicated relationship with his own creation.

"I don't read it often because it's too much of a bravura piece, and I don't want to get hung up on it," he said when he and Waldman were onstage together in the mid-1970s at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, the writing program they co-founded at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo.

"On the other hand," Ginsberg continued, "I also want to present my best."

For the next 26 minutes he conjured "Howl," in that voice of his -- stately, nasal, incantatory.

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