Everybody’s soul has something to say. We spend our time either ignoring/repressing it because we’re not sure what to do with the emotions that well up, or we go overboard and become soul-driven and wind up one of those overly dramatic people who feel everything about everything. Regardless of which person you are, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” has the propensity to bring out the latter in a person who takes the time to really read the whole poem. Ginsberg showed no small amount of courage in not only publishing the poem, but writing it in the first place. Ginsberg’s soul had reached its limit, and had to Howl.
When I first read “Howl”, I had already read William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”, so I felt I was fairly decently-versed in the Beat generation and it’s production of edgy, off-center portrayals of the alternative lifestyles they had pioneered, and that had fostered in the later Hippie generation that I was more familiar with. I had no idea what Ginsberg looked like and I felt like I’d been struck by a baseball bat after I read that first sentence. I imagined a man sitting in a room, smoking a Camel cigarette, with a grey face drawn full of worry lines and the sweat of three day old worry. He’s sitting there bleeding, but it isn’t blood. He’s writing out his soul and bleeding through that pencil onto those Big Chief writing tablets that he liked to write on. It’s a venomous blood, and it’s full of poison and anguish and anger. He’s raging so hard writing down the demons in his mind that he’s snapping pencils sometimes – he’s boring so hard. I imagined this man chain-smoking his Camels, maybe having a toke of something stronger if he felt he was teetering over the edge… or pouring himself a bathroom paper cup of muddy-brown whiskey, but going back to those cigarettes because with each puff the dragon in his mind vents its anger at the world and its cold indifference. I don’t know if he’s shaking while he writes, this Ginsberg in my mind, but I know he’s all tight like a spring and is going to come out of his skin if one more injustice is witnessed. I was 16 when I first read “Howl”, and I had a Sixteen-year-old’s mind when I heard something incredibly complex but intense. I went for the dramatic.
Anyone with an internet connection or smart phone can Google Allen Ginsberg and see for themselves that he’s a pudgy, bald, gay guy who likes to chant Buddhist prayers. He’s got this soft Jewish “Nu-Yawk” accent and he frequently pushes his words out in that squinted-eye way that make a man crane his head forward as he reads the world around him. Suddenly everything got smaller and blurrier. Ginsberg is an unassuming little man and you and I have read a hundred accounts of how “Howl” resulted in a trial and pushed the boundaries of Free Speech and ushered in the whole 60’s. You know this, if you know Ginsberg. I don’t want to add to the hundreds. I have yet to read an account of how the reader felt when they read “Howl”, and how many times they’ve read it.
That was the first time I’d read Howl. After I learned a little more about the man for a research project in High School, I came to see the little bearded man as having the brain of that first man I described. Outwardly unassuming, inwardly a volcano. I re-read “Howl” when I was in the Army. I came across it in a USO stop at an airport somewhere… I don’t remember where exactly. I remember that feeling I got when I read those first few words: “I saw the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” and the silent *whoosh* of a fire being lit in my stomach. I tried to talk about it once with a guy I worked with, a Sergeant. He wasn’t interested and advised me to just keep doing my work and leave those beatnik poets out of anything if I ever want to be taken seriously. I took his advice, and I forgot about the poem as I pushed on with my life as a married man to a woman I would come to divorce a few years down the road.
I came across “Howl” again when I was sitting in my office in the large Gym I worked at, as the computer guy. Working 9 to 5 with a steady $40K job, going home to a woman who was a stranger and a life I should have felt blessed to be living. I read those first eleven words of the poem that had been attached to an email I’d received from a forward of a forwarded reply to “All Recipients” from some obscure person’s inbox. I’m still kinda scratching my head over that one actually, because I didn’t even like the guy who forwarded me the email in the first place. I *did*, however, read those words with heavily-lidded eyes and Vicodin heartbeats (I’d just cracked some ribs and the doctor had given them to me) and I thought back to the minds of my generation. I was ten years from my high school days, and I wondered where the best minds of my generation had gone. Then I shrugged, and I went back to my $40K/yr job and wished I was somewhere else with someone else and maybe another Vicodin would save MY mind from that Ginsberg madness I just read about and I opened up a mountain dew and forgot about Ginsberg. Delete. Madness Schmadness.
It’s 2013, and I’ve been given the assignment to write about a poem in our Book. Since I hadn’t bought the book to begin with, I chose “Howl” because it was the first one that sprang to the forefront of my mind. I have re-read the poem more than fifteen times in its entirety in the past 2 weeks. My body has more scars and wrinkles on it than it did 20 years ago, and I sometimes feel like I’ve managed to squeeze extra years into the mix somewhere – I feel the fatigue of the constantly drained. I’ve lived enough for 20 lifetimes and I’ve been making my peace with the direction my path seems to be taking me. Like many men in their later 30’s and further, I give a lot of thought to my mortality and that of those around me. I think about the men that didn’t make it this far and whether they should have, and I wonder why other men with promising lives ahead have been reduced to paranoid shut-ins who have succumbed to the implosion of their minds. I re-read over and over those words… “I saw the GREATEST minds of my generation… destroyed by madness” and I say to myself: The greatest minds had been destroyed, why does the pretty-good mind manage to survive? I read those words over and over, and I shudder. I’ve known people who have had incredible minds that have fallen by the wayside in some manner or another. I’ve lost close friends to self-induced madness, and I’ve felt myself teetering on the edge a time or two myself, but I’ve never had the guts to allow myself to fall over the edge, and I think about that man who wrote those words, and I think about him saying the same things to himself as he writes feverishly on that notepad… His mind flooding out his emotions and ruminations faster than he can create mark from pencil to paper. He’s not sure when he’s going to approach that edge again, and he’s trying to warn anyone, everyone who can listen… that Madness comes in many forms, and that he’s watched it destroy the best minds of his generation. I see that man struggling to get the message out that we cannot continue to shuffle blindly forward, accepting gratefully whatever we are fed.
Ginsberg’s soul caused that pudgy little man to cry out onto paper and to carry that voice out to the rest of the world. It wasn’t always well-received, but it is well-understood now. I am in a second phase of my life now. I have made changes and had to adapt to certain twists and turns on my path. I’ve seen others succumb to Life’s pitfalls, and I do believe that we all have the propensity to be pushed to the edge at least once in our lives. I’m learning to allow my soul to express itself as it needs to, instead of pressing down its feral demands and becoming mired down in the shit that backs up in my head. I spent years ignoring what I had inside me in favor of the false security of an emotionless marriage. It’s amazing how free one can feel if one would simply listen to one’s own soul from time to time – regardless of who might disagree. It’s your soul.Let it Howl.