Howl's semicentennial

There’s a glowing paean over on AlterNet (via Common Ground) on ‘Howl’ at Fifty, about Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of his seminal poem.

The article says he “brought American poetry back to life,” but I’d have to disagree. The Beats certainly helped things along, but American poetry was doing quite well already, thank you. The Modernists had kicked plenty of ass before WWII, as had the Fugitives (who, if you count the critics who were born of their numbers, were unbelievably influential) and then after WWII (and somewhat before) the Black Mountain School was powerfully influential, setting the stage for a lot of what the Beats celebrated.

Evidently what he means is that the Beats “… brought poetry down from the sacrosanct halls of the academy. It took poetry off the musty printed page into the lives of listeners.”

It engaged more regular folks on the street? That would seem like an odd way to define “back to life” — we don’t hold other art forms to that standard. Charlie Parker injected new life into American music, but only people who loved Jazz “got it” at the time.

This is terribly ignorant … poetry was far from sacrosanct and academic. It was thriving in America, in journals and small magazines and readings, correspondence and publishing. There’s something about the Beat-to-Hippie cultural event that allows people to glom onto it and not think any more about anything else. Because everything else is “musty” or “academic.” Hey, maybe I sound like a curmudgeon here, but that’s just lazy thinking. And it’s the sort of thing for which Ginsberg would’ve cuffed you about the ears.

I met Allen Ginsberg, and had the blessing of spending a couple of days in his company, about 12 years ago. He was downright spry, and in constant search of macrobiotic food (“for the diabeetus”), and furtively snapping pictures with his Leica. He wore a suit the whole time.

He ran a poetry workshop on campus one day (yeah, a campus, one of those musty academic ones) in which he drilled everyone on basic poetics and referred to some very old examples of poetry as models. In fact, he mentioned none of his contemporaries when discussing the best influences for poetry, that I remember. And when he performed his poems, he took about 15 minutes of the reading to sing some of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” with his little squeezebox for accompaniment.

I love the Beats. I just don’t worship them as the one great thing to happen in literature in the last 60 years. And I don’t think any of them would welcome the sort simplistic sanctimony in which so many little beatlings hold them.

So, when I find myself hearing a lot of “populist” poetry — say, for example, the stuff on HBO’s “Def Poetry” — I realize that the most successful poems, the ones people respond to the best, still hold to the same practices that all those musty poets used in their best work: specific, arresting imagery; effective rhythm; original and provocative insight. Yeah, this happens in many forms and styles, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, whether the writers/performers and audience know it or not.

All that said … “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” is still pretty dang cool.

Author: Andrew Hinton

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