On The Composition of Howl

We’ve mentioned before here the exemplary resource that is Beatdom  (both in its on-line and its print version) and its dedicated editor, David S Wills.  (his “guest-posting” for us on the relationship between Allen and Hunter S Thompson is a must-read – see here)

Wills’ current piece (on the on-line Beatdom), “First Draft, Best Draft” – How Allen Ginsberg wrote “Howl” is another must-read – and an informative one. Who knew there was more to say about Allen and that iconic poem?  Wills’ focus is on process and dating.  At the outset, he writes – “I couldn’t help noticing that there are problems, questions, and inconsistencies with how we generally perceive the writing of this poem”.  He goes on, “These have led me to write this essay, which aims to: (1) Correct slight problems in how we have previously dated the writing of Howl., (2) Suggest that Ginsberg may have overstated the element of spontaneity in the poem’s composition, (and) (3) Demonstrate the extent to which Ginsberg revised “Howl” over a period of more than one year.”

Scrupulously researched and cogently argued, this is an invaluable piece of Beat scholarship.

Wills (from his conclusion):

There is no shortage of scholarship centred around “Howl” and with his 1986 annotated version, Ginsberg put the official seal on a version of the writing process that has essentially been taken for granted. Sadly, in Beat Studies, we too often take the Beat writers’ words at face value, yet seldom were these people entirely truthful. I don’t mean they were liars, but the frailties of human memory combined with the exuberance of youth and a penchant for storytelling have meant that much of what we think we know is exaggerated or simply incorrect.

It is not my intention to suggest that the story of how Ginsberg wrote “Howl” is entirely false but rather I wanted with this essay to show a more accurate version even if that means it is not as neat and appealing as people are used to hearing. I believe that Ginsberg started out by trying to impress  (Jack) Kerouac (a man he loved and respected perhaps more than any other) and then later boosted his own Beat credentials by playing up the degree of spontaneity in his writing of “Howl.” Later, with the fog of time blurring the reality of creation, he perhaps made a more convenient narrative for himself as well as those who asked him. (This also seems to be the case with other Beat stories from the 1950s.) It is a romantic, entertaining story that fits the Beat narrative, but as with so many of these stories, it didn’t really happen as we like to think.

Howl” was not written in a single magical blast of the typewriter, nor was it primarily written on the typewriter and later lightly edited. The poem almost certainly stemmed from that June 8 dream of Joan Vollmer, a few choice words serving as the beginnings of the poem itself, the next lines growing out of his various influences at that time, with this all happening in a handwritten manuscript of pencil scribbles, which he typed up to share with Kerouac, hoping for approval and feedback. The poet was proud of his work but uncertain about particular words, images, and more than anything the order of lines. However, the positive words he received from various people, including its eventual publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, encouraged him to keep going, revising his poem over almost a year…”

This is a close read. Read the full article – here

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