Allen Ginsberg reads “Howl” in 1994 at the Hill Auditorium, Ann Arbor, Michigan, at a benefit for Jewel Heart
From the program notes:
On “Howl, for Carl Solomon”
Allen Ginsberg’s writing and first reading of “Howl, for Carl Solomon” in 1955 marked a change in American letters and public life that is still unfolding today. Some felt that both “Howl”‘s words and the act of speaking them aloud were profoundly liberating, while others thought that they were a threat to public order.
Ginsberg himself, at the start of writing, felt that the emerging poem could never have a public existence. He later recalled:
I sat idly by my desk at the first floor window facing Montgomery Street [in San Francisco]…I began typing not with the idea of writing a formal poem, but stating my imaginative sympathies, whatever they were worth. As my loves were impractical and my thoughts relatively unworldly, I had nothing to gain, only the pleasure of enjoying on paper those sympathies most intimate to myself and most awkward in the great world of family, formal education, business and current literature.
The story of “Howl”‘s development is of Ginsberg’s willingness to at last speak the “unspeakable”, to accept what most wanted to be said – first to himself, then to those he loved and trusted, finally to everyone.
Though Ginsberg finished “Howl” in a few months, in a sense its composition included the previous decade of Ginsberg’s struggles with his muse and with society. The poem goes to the heart of the conflict between our experience as persons and the requirements of a society that feels both rigid and out of control. As Ginsberg wrote in 1986:
The unworldly love hypostatized as comradeship through thick and thin with Carl Solomon rose out of primordial filial loyalty to my mother, then in distress. Where mother love conflicts with social facade, the die is cast from antiquity in favor of sympathy
Blocked by appearances love comes through in the free play of the imagination…a shrewd humor that protects our unobstructed sympathy from chaos. The matter is in objective acknowledgment of emotion.
In 1955 poetry largely stayed on the printed page. Today it walks abroad, finds audiences in public places, and seeks out musicians and makers of images in a way that was inconceivable back then. More than any other single poem, “Howl” was the catalyst for this change. Ginsberg’s first reading of it – in a packed art gallery, where Gary Snyder also read and Jack Kerouac shouted encouragement – was charged with the excitement of transgression and breakthrough of new energy and generosity.
As a sidelight, Ginsberg adds, I thought to disseminate a poem so strong that a clean Saxon four-letter word might enter high school anthologies permanently… “Howl” has long since won its court battles against the censors. But its affirmation of personal experience – physical, sexual, emotional, intellectual, political and spiritual – against all the forces of denial still carries the excitement of happy transgression.
You have to be inspired to write something like that. It’s not something you can very easily do just by pressing a button. You have to have the right historical situation, the right physical combination, the right mental formation, the right courage, the right sense of prophecy, and the right information
Allen Ginsberg, 1982