We noticed with a brief pang the other day that it was the anniversary of the death of a great American poet. Allen Ginsberg succumbed at just 70, in New York, to liver cancer, on April 5, 1997 – the year after the Academy of American Poets designated April as National Poetry Month.
Ginsberg had a unique and uniquely American voice; no other nation, being inevitably smaller, could have inspired or ultimately allowed his loving complaints, his wild swings – although it would have been enough for his reputation had he only been the author of “Howl.” It was put on trial in a California court in 1957 on the charge it was obscene. You may recognize it from its opening, so often has it been imitated:
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
The chief thing to remember now is that this was conceived in 1954, in the first term of the Eisenhower Administration and America’s giddy postwar expansion. A lot of people were busy discovering suburbs and pretending neither drugs nor black people existed.
Look at the New York Times Fiction Best Seller list in 1954. From January to April, it was topped by Samuel Shellabarger’s “Lord Vanity,” a historical novel about an 18th century pauper-adventurer, bastard son of an English lord. From May to September, “Not As A Stranger” led the pack, about a young doctor in a small town who lives for medicine, and his devoted wife; by Morton Thompson, a journalist and the inventor of Thompson’s turkey. In the fall of ’54, it was Daphne du Maurier’s “Mary Anne” on top, a fictionalized account of her great-grandmother who was the mistress of Frederick Augustus, the Duke of York and Albany. In the winter, the leader was Irving Stone’s “Love Is Eternal,” a fictionalized account of the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, described as being “happier than historians generally believe.”
Ginsberg was 28 that year as he embarked on his epic poem. He was an ambitious out-gay Communist Jew from New York who persisted in believing, rightly, that all these strikes could be for him one day. He was finding his métier as part of a group, a movement, that would later become known as the Beats.
So who, to borrow from Mr. Pope, breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?
“Howl” was first publicly read at a gallery in San Francisco in 1955. The poet Michael McClure, who was there that evening, said it “left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America.”
It was quickly published in a small book, “Howl and Other Poems,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who owned a San Francisco press and bookstore, both called City Lights. Next, an undercover police officer arrested the bookstore manager, then Ferlinghetti, for selling and publishing an obscene work.
The case came before a police magistrate in municipal court. San Francisco city fathers did “Howl” the great honor of trying to break it and failing: The court found the poem had not been written with lewd intent, setting a landmark precedent against censorship in America.
In the same volume was Ginsberg’s poem “America,” chronicling the capaciousness of the country in terms not unlike Walt Whitman’s a century before:
America ... I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time magazine.
I read it every week ...
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.