I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness

book and hands

Ginsberg is hard to read, but I think that’s the point – this is performance poetry


(excerpt – first lines)

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.

by Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997)
available in Howl and Other Poems
image – Foxtongue

Introducing Howl

On October 7th, this day in 1955, Allen Ginsberg first performed the poem “Howl,” at a poetry reading in Six Gallery, a San Francisco coffee shop. One of the impressed attendees was poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder of the City Lights independent bookstore’s publishing department.

Ferlinghetti published “Howl.”

“Nobody had ever heard anything like that before,” said Ferlinghetti, sipping a Bass Ale at Tosca Cafe in North Beach. “When you hear it for the first time, you say, ‘I never saw the world like that before.’ ”

…Kerouac sat on the side of the low stage, drinking from a jug of wine and shouting, “Go!” at the end of some of the long lines. The audience of fewer than a hundred soon joined in with shouts of encouragement, exploding in applause at the conclusion, as Ginsberg left the stage in tears.
from the San Francisco Chronicle

A year later, when a second printing was shipped from England, US Customs officials seized the books on grounds of obscenity. In 1955 America conformity was the rule, and a poem that mentioned homosexuality and marijuana was not merely raw, it was a threat, an affront. This was the McCarthy era, and Ginsberg was a Socialist homosexual who wrote from his gut with unflinching frankness.

Within two months, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and a cashier at City Lights were arrested for trafficking in obscenity. The ACLU took up the defense, literary experts testified in favor of the poem, Judge W.J. Clayton Horn ruled that “Howl” was not entirely devoid of redeeming values, and the rest is history.

That first public reading of “Howl” was hailed as the birth of the Beat Generation. Though the poem was what had broken boundaries, the trial itself drew international attention to the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance‘s “New American Poetry,” and the relation of the First Amendment to controversial or culturally challenging work with redeeming social value.

This is Performance Poetry

Ginsberg is hard to read, but I think that’s the point – much of his work is meant to be experienced while being spoken. Poems are supposed to “speak” to you in a conceptual sense, but being spoken to directly through a physically spoken voice is an entirely different experience than reading: vocal communication brings an assertive human flavor to the intellectual imagining of meaning.

The brain will use whatever information is available. When reading, the eye sends collections of words straight to the brain, without the physical experience of speech. The eye wants to understand Ginsberg’s long lines as sets of ideas in sentences, but “Howl” was written as a series of breaths. When performed aloud, the ear will hear that Ginsberg wrote his long, blocky lines to last for a whole breath’s worth of expression, calling out in one uncensored breath after another.

“Howl,” with the addition of tone of voice, becomes a chanting evocation.

Howling Today

Just a few thoughts —

Today we’re a little better at admitting that we need our rough-edged rebels, to help us see what we should question. We may not like them, and we may choose to reject them, but let’s not block their questions from our media.

Censorship would be harder to pull off today. “Howl” in 2009 still wouldn’t be welcome in the mainstream, but it would rock as slam poetry, published on YouTube, bounced around the world via social media. Ginsberg once said “I’d like to read this without all the hip static.” YouTube would be a freeing platform, but would the notoriety of print publication be more difficult to come by?

We’ve lost many of our independent bookstores. In their place we have big box stores selling at a discount. Would Amazon or Barnes & Noble step forward to publish a ban-likely book of literary merit? Barnes & Noble publishes books and owns publishing companies. Amazon doesn’t. For-pay blog subscriptions can be published on Amazon, via the Amazon Kindle.

Does Barnes & Noble or any of their Starbucks-style coffee shops sponsor open mic poetry readings? I’ve attended more formal readings in their stores, but nothing in the coffee shops. A few years ago a knitting group I belonged to was asked to stop meeting at a Barnes & Noble coffee shop; we were too big and talkative. They wouldn’t know what to do with audience participation. I’ve seen small, quiet discussion groups at those coffee shops, but no open mic performance poetry.

Maybe we’re coming full circle. Venues require participants, and participation happens after activism and promotion. What do you think?

Is there a new crop of literary activists brewing in YouTube?

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2 Responses to “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”

  1. Allen Taylor Says:

    Easily one of the best first lines in American literature. And one of the best poems in literary history. Allen Ginsberg is a historic personality just for writing “Howl” – though it’s one of the few really quality poems he has. Still, one gem is all it takes to catapult one to historic and literary significance. Brilliant commentary. Good read. Would like to see more of these.

  2. E. A. Able Says:

    Thanks, Allen. I didn’t understand the appeal of Howl until I heard it read “out loud,” and I didn’t understand the poem’s significance until I went and looked for its history.

    Last month I wrote commentary for about half of QuoteSnack’s quoted excerpts. Readership is up, and it’s rewarding for me personally. I’m going to keep it up and see what happens next. 🙂