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Revisiting Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' at 50

Allen Ginsberg said in a 1985 interview that "Howl" began with another poem. Ginsberg, who had studied at Columbia University, sent a poem called "Dream Record, 1955" to poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth.

"It still sounds like you're wearing Columbia University Brooks Brothers ties," Rexroth told Ginsberg. "You know, it's too formal." So, Ginsberg says, "I sat down and just started writing what I thought about."

The resulting rush of violent, desperate words, starting with the well-known opening lines "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," created major ripples in the literary world.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was at the Six Gallery to hear the 29-year-old Allen Ginsberg read "Howl" for the first time. Ferlinghetti owned City Lights, a bookstore and publishing house in San Francisco. He asked Ginsberg if he could publish "Howl," and the first edition appeared in the fall of 1956. "'Howl' knocked the sides out of things," Ferlinghetti later said.

The poem gave voice to an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and alienation in Eisenhower's America. "Howl" became an anthem for the nascent counterculture.

The poem's second printing, done in Britain, consisted of just 520 copies. All were seized by U.S. customs on March 25, 1957. When the U.S. district attorney in San Francisco refused to condemn the book, the local police arrested Ferlinghetti on charges of publishing and selling obscene material. In a long trial, the American Civil Liberties Union defended "Howl" with testimony by poets, editors, critics and university professors. Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the poem had redeeming social importance, and was not obscene.

Allen Ginsberg died in 1997 at the age of 70. He would have been 80 years old this spring. "Howl" is now in its 53rd printing, with 965,000 copies in print.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Coming up, what on earth can a horse do with a million dollars?

But first, 50 years ago a poem was published that changed the literary world and gave voice to a new generation that would change American culture. Howl, by Allen Ginsberg, is being celebrated this year in readings, panel discussions, and literary events around the world.

From New York, Tom Vitale prepared this report.

TOM VITALE reporting:

In 1985, sitting in his Lower East Side bedroom office, in a plain denim shirt amid shelves of books and Buddhist devotional objects, Allen Ginsberg told me that Howl began with another poem. In San Francisco in 1955, Ginsberg wrote about the late wife of his friend William Burroughs.

Mr. ALLEN GINSBERG (Poet): I'd written another poem, a dream poem. I saw Burroughs's late wife in a dream and we had a conversation about the living. And then I suddenly realized she was dead and asked her what do you know about the living. And suddenly she faded in front of me. And in her place I saw, quote, "a rain-stained tombstone rear an illegible epitaph under the gnarled branch of a small tree in a wild garden in an unvisited garden in Mexico City."

VITALE: Ginsberg, who had studied at Columbia University, sent that poem, called Dream Record 1955, to poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth.

Mr. GINSBERG: And he said, Oh, it still sounds like you're wearing Columbia University Brooks Brothers' ties. You know, it was too formal. So I sat down and just started writing what I thought about. I didn't intend it particularly to be a poem, it was just writing. I didn't think I'd publish it because it was a little dirty. Didn't want my father to see. But then I had something to read for a poetry reading. So I read it and people liked it. And then I saw, Oh, this is a poem.

(Soundbite of applause)

VITALE: Ginsberg read Howl for the first time in public on October 6, 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. No recording was made that night. But four years later, a tape was rolling when Ginsberg read the poem in Chicago at a benefit for the magazine Big Table.

Mr. GINSBERG: (Reading) 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.

Mr. LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI (Poet): And I sent him a telegram that night saying, as Emerson had said when he read Whitman's review copy of Leaves of Grass, I greet you at the beginning of a great career.

VITALE: Lawrence Ferlinghetti was at the Six Gallery to hear the 29-year-old Ginsberg read Howl for the first time. Ferlinghetti owned City Lights, a bookstore and publishing house in San Francisco. He asked Ginsberg if he could publish the poem. The first edition of Howl appeared in the fall of 1956.

Mr. FERLINGHETTI: This was waiting to be said. Before Allen Ginsberg's Howl, the state of poetry in America was a little bit the way it is today: poetry about poetry. So when Howl - Howl knocked the sides out of things, just the way rock music in the '60s knocked the sides out of the old music world. Poets were saying to themselves, Why didn't I think of that?

VITALE: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of chuckling)

Mr. GINSBERG: (Reading) Who were expelled from the academies for crazy, and publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull.

VITALE: The poem's description, The best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, gave voice to an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and alienation in Eisenhower's America. Howl became an anthem for the nascent counterculture.

Ann Charters has written extensively about the Beat literary circle.

Ms. ANN CHARTERS (Author, Portable Beat Reader): Howl really expressed the sense of disaffiliation and rage that was felt in the late '40s and early '50s. And then in the '60s, it really gained groundswell with the Vietnam War and the civil rights protests.

Mr. GINSBERG: (Reading) Who distributed Communist pamphlets in Union Square, weeping and undressing while the sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down the walls. And the Staten Island ferry also wailed.

Mr. JASON SHINDER (Editor, The Poem That Changed America: Howl 50 Years Later): He loosened the breadth of American poetry. It's said that there was nothing that you couldn't talk about in poetry.

VITALE: Jason Shinder is the editor of a new anthology of essays called The Poem That Changed America: Howl 50 Years Later.

Mr. SHINDER: Poetically, he was able to infuse it with an energy that seemed as if it was buried for so long. Whitman has a line, What howls are buried in decorum? And I think you have a sense that he picked up on this long, historical, repressed feeling and he just broke loose. And even today, when you read the poem, and a lot of poets are writers or cultural people who I asked to write about it said they hadn't read it in years. When they read it again, they felt renewed again.

Mr. GINSBERG: (Reading) Who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse and the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion and the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising and the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of absolute reality.

VITALE: Ginsberg said he was never trying to write an epic poem. He said he was interested in the nature of consciousness, setting down his own thoughts in verse as he was thinking them.

Mr. GINSBERG: It looks external and it looks like it's directed to the outside because I write about what goes through my mind, and naturally the world goes through my mind, so it looks like I've been writing about the world and I'm just writing about notating the record of my mind, its epiphanies.

VITALE: Ginsberg was gay and his epiphanies in Howl included passages of homosexual and heterosexual imagery. The second printing of Howl, 520 copies printed in Britain, was seized by Customs on March 25, 1957. When the U.S. District Attorney in San Francisco refused to condemn the book, the local police arrested Ferlinghetti on charges of publishing obscene material. In a long trial, the American Civil Liberties Union defended Howl with testimony by poets, editors, critics and professors. Judge Clayton Horn(ph) ruled that the poem had redeeming social importance and was not obscene. Ginsberg said Howl became famous from the publicity.

Mr. GINSBERG: It got to be well known because of some real sincerity quality. It was a genuine person writing about genuine life, and then the police are trying to ban genuine life. So it turned into a cause celeb.

VITALE: Allen Ginsberg said over the years he wrote other poems like Howl, poems that were less successful, but no less important to his quest.

Mr. GINSBERG: When I wrote Howl, it's no big deal given that its principle searches for some kind of recognition in one's own mind and exploration of that and expansion of that, like through drugs or meditation or poetry or art or music or sexuality, then the past is very clear. You don't have to go back, go forward.

(Reading) I'm with you in Rockland in my dreams, you walk dripping from a sea journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night.

(Soundbite of clapping)

VITALE: Allen Ginsberg died in 1997 at the age of 70. He would've been 80 years old this spring. Howl is currently in its 53rd printing, with 965,000 copies in print. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

WERTHEIMER: Listen to Allen Ginsberg talking to his father about the relationship between drugs and violence in a 1971 piece from our archives at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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