'The Poem That Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later' edited by Jason Shinder

Marking its 50th birthday, 'Howl' now a whimper

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At a converted San Francisco garage called the 6 Gallery, five young and unknown poets held a reading Oct. 7, 1955, that has since taken on the weight of myth.

Edited by Jason Shinder
Farrar, Straus & Giroux ($30)

Organized by Allen Ginsberg, who shared the stage with Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia, this event helped launch a new literary counterculture.

That was the night Ginsberg's "Howl for Carl Solomon" went off (in its author's words) like "an emotional time bomb," changing the cultural landscape in a way few works of literature ever do.

First published in November 1956, "Howl" has sold nearly a million copies. The 1957 obscenity trial over it helped break down barriers against free expression, forcing American society to reassess what was and wasn't acceptable to say.

Ginsberg's ardent anti-establishment stance laid the groundwork for both the upheavals of the 1960s and the marketing juggernaut we call "youth culture" today.

As "Howl" marks its 50th anniversary, then, it seems important to ask how (or whether) it continues to resonate, what it has to offer a new generation.

These questions reside at the center of this collection of essays, mostly reminiscences and commentary. The hardback version includes a recording of Ginsberg reading "Howl" in 1956.

Writers including Amiri Baraka, Sven Birkerts and Jane Kramer address "Howl's" legacy.

For critic David Gates, that's a loaded issue. In "Welcoming 'Howl' Into the Canon," one of the collection's most provocative essays, he argues that "Howl" is "a radically offensive poem, or used to be -- offensive even to perceived notions of what poetry is, and it needs offended readers whose fear and outrage bring it most fully to life."

The catch, though, is that we are no longer shocked by it, that we can't be, given the culture "Howl" has helped foment. "It would be madness," Gates concludes, "and not in Ginsberg's visionary sense, to hope for a new era of censorship just so 'Howl' could get its street cred back. ... Yet something's been lost by our welcoming 'Howl' into the canon: the possibility of another 'Howl.' "

Gates' essay is just the sort of effort you'd hope to find in a book like this one, cutting to the heart of the poem's status then and now. Unfortunately, too many pieces lack Gates' insight, falling prey to self-indulgence, as writers such as Gordon Ball, Billy Collins, Kurt Brown and Rick Moody tell us what "Howl" means to them.

If "Howl" has an essential lesson, it is that even as Ginsberg aspires to the universal, his sensibility isn't, nor can it be, transferable. He speaks from a single imagination rather than a collective mind. Ultimately, it is the tension between the individual and the universal that propels "Howl," although this is only hinted at in Shinder's book.

The best we can hope for is a momentary glimmer, to connect, for just an instant, to something bigger than ourselves. This was the promise of the Beats, and also their great failing.


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