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Old April 11th, 2017, 04:24 AM   #1

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Can someone help me see why Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is considered a great poem?


I just stumbled on this poem as I was reading something on American literature from that time period and I'm both amazed and slightly amused by how terribly bad it is. I was always vaguely aware of Ginsberg's work and had heard the name of the poem before, but never took the time to actually read it before. After reading it, I'm not merely underwhelmed. I'm astonished at how awful it is.

Can some older forum members who lived during a time when the poem was more popular explain why this poem was/is thought to be a masterpiece?

It's long and I guess it captures some of the spirit of the era but as far I can tell that's pretty much all that can be said for it.
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Old April 11th, 2017, 04:31 AM   #2
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Taste differs. A lot of Art depends of Cultural context. Some people like the Beatles or Ayn Rand, which i find strange put there is no accounting for taste. Poetry i think is perhaps more highly personal than Music. I not a big one for poetry (part of half handed grip of language generally) but I react much better to Poetry when I hear it recited rather than reading.
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Old April 11th, 2017, 04:44 AM   #3

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Quote:
Originally Posted by Ighayere View Post
I just stumbled on this poem as I was reading something on American literature from that time period and I'm both amazed and slightly amused by how terribly bad it is. I was always vaguely aware of Ginsberg's work and had heard the name of the poem before, but never took the time to actually read it before. After reading it, I'm not merely underwhelmed. I'm astonished at how awful it is.

Can some older forum members who lived during a time when the poem was more popular explain why this poem was/is thought to be a masterpiece?

It's long and I guess it captures some of the spirit of the era but as far I can tell that's pretty much all that can be said for it.
I am old enough to be judge, being 2000 years of age! The reason of its greatness is probably the style and the subject. The style is like Walt Witman and the subject is rebellious. Any poetry or art that subverts established rules is always admired nowadays, regardless of anything else. To me, it does not even look like a poem, but rather rhetorical prose; yet another piece of trash that makes older poetry look better and better. Poetry, literature and art all began to decay in the late 19th century and were generally fallen by the beginning of the 20th century, particularly after WW1.
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Old April 11th, 2017, 05:37 AM   #4

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Yep, we lived through those exciting days in San Francisco. We knew Alan and many of the other celebrities of the time. We moved into a fourth floor walk-up in North Beach that still didn't have electricity in 1959-60. We had a soft blue gas lights, and a view of Alcatraz out in the Bay, but you had to lean out the window to see it. North Beach was ground zero for the Beats, and one was continually running into them on the street. City Lights bookstore was their favorite hangout. Ferlengetti and his partner ran the bookstore, and it was a nice place to spend time reading without the need of spending. The bookstore is still there, but I imagine most of us are dead now. The street was lined with Jazz and nightclubs that drew in tourists. We locals couldn't afford the entry, so we hung out around back smoking with the the musicians between sets. To understand Beat Poetry, Beat slang and life styles, you need to know Jazz, and Blues.

The Beats were a few years older than we were, but listening to them was an experience. At City Lights the regulars kept quiet mostly, but in the coffee houses of North Beach one could find an intellectual discussion at any hour day or night, rain or shine. Coffee Houses were important to us as a place you could hang out in for hours without spending much money. The conscious poverty of Beats and our later group, The Hippies, was fashionable even though some of the crowd had hefty Trust Funds, and expensive educations. "Howl" was written before we arrived on the scene, and I don't remember ever talking about it with Ginsberg.

Who were the Beats? Mostly the ones we knew were a little older and most had served in either WWII or in Korea. If they had lived and worked after WWI, they would have been the "Lost Generation". Some veterans formed the core of outlaw motorcycle gangs, and others wrote poetry. The Beats despised authority in general, and they didn't trust Society and its traditional values. Some, like Ginsberg were gay, and some like William S. Burroughs were borderline psychopaths. Most lived in the shadowy margins of American life in the 1950s and early 1960s. Like Bohemians of any Age, they were, and were fascinated by the demimonde. Jack Kerouac had published a couple of more-or-less traditional novels, but he became famous for On the Road. Kerouac, Burroughs, and Cassidy were really tight and were constantly on the move. Their bonds went back to New York and culminated in a series of mad drug fueled rushes back and forth across America. Ginsberg was emotionally upset when a gay friend (Carl Solomon) was locked up in an insane asylum where he committed suicide. That was the primary source for "Howl".

They weren't shrinking violets, but given to selfish demands that the rest of the world pay attention and recognize how false life in the Eisenhower Administration was. Wall to wall carpeted Suburbia, all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same. They preferred hanging out with old Wobblies to squares. Their writing, and most of the Beats I knew were writers of one sort or another, tended to be dark, slightly offensive to the average person, and above all, independent.

American Modern Art owes much to the Armory Show (1913) when the most daring and advanced approaches in France and Europe were widely seen. In the mid-1950's there was a poetry reading in Berkeley where a number of the Beats presented their work. Howl was among the works read, and it caused a furor. The poem was published, I think by City Lights, and the bookstore was charged with peddling an obscene work. Movies were still censored then, and Lenny Bruce was constantly in trouble with the law for his use of four-letter words on stage. Howl was in your face, unapologeticly offensive, and all the Beats loved it. They also loved On the Road, but Kerouac was only sougjourner who never really escaped Momma back in New York. He had been working on the novel for several years, and carried it around with him wherever he went. The legends of a meth fueled marathon of writing the novel on a roll of butcher paper isn't completely true, but describes one of the later drafts before Kerouac got it published in 1958(?)

Burroughs went on a drug benge that took him into South America, and across the waters to Algiers. During my time on the scene, we would occasionally have one of his letters read to us at City Lights, or in one of the coffee houses we frequented.

Ginsberg never visited our digs, perhaps because Natalie couldn't hide her dislike of him and his ways. Alan had to be the center of attention, and often went out of his way to shock and offend others. I think that Orlovsky, his long time lover, was one of the few people who knew Ginsberg well and still liked him. I thought he was funny, and more than a bit puffed up.
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Old April 18th, 2017, 01:09 AM   #5

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Originally Posted by pugsville View Post
Taste differs. A lot of Art depends of Cultural context. Some people like the Beatles or Ayn Rand, which i find strange put there is no accounting for taste. Poetry i think is perhaps more highly personal than Music. I not a big one for poetry (part of half handed grip of language generally) but I react much better to Poetry when I hear it recited rather than reading.
Not that big on poetry either, but I think there are some poems that are just clearly excellent, and are pretty popular for that reason (of course, there are also some poems that are excellent, yet are completely obscure.)

Examples:

https://allpoetry.com/Unending-Love
https://allpoetry.com/If-You-Forget-Me
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poe...s/detail/46473
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poe...s/detail/50465
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poe...s/detail/43103
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poe...s/detail/43290
http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171853
https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/at-sunset-time/
http://allpoetry.com/poem/8516621-Wh...dranath_Tagore
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poe...s/detail/45392



"Howl", on the other hand, seems to have been pretty popular despite its awfulness. Maybe the popularity of the movement it was associated with (the Beat movement) gave it more credibility or praise than the contents of the poem itself merited.

I mean look at this stuff:

"angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night"

"who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated"

"who loned it through the streets of Idaho seeking visionary indian angels who were visionary indian angels"

"who hiccuped endlessly trying to giggle but wound up with a sob behind a partition in a Turkish Bath when the blond & naked angel came to pierce them with a sword"

"who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus"

"the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,"

"Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch!"

"where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs"

He seriously couldn't think of another word, to switch things up just a little bit?

The poem is trash. The last part of the poem comes closest to not being trash but it still can't save it from being garbage.
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Old April 18th, 2017, 02:06 AM   #6

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Originally Posted by Andronikos View Post
I am old enough to be judge, being 2000 years of age! The reason of its greatness is probably the style and the subject. The style is like Walt Witman and the subject is rebellious. Any poetry or art that subverts established rules is always admired nowadays, regardless of anything else.
I think you may be right. That might explain most of it, because I really can't think of any other reason. Your comment reminds me of W.H. Auden's poem "We Too Had Known Golden Hours" by the way.

"We, too, had known golden hours
When body and soul were in tune,
Had danced with our true loves
By the light of a full moon,
And sat with the wise and good
As tongues grew witty and gay
Over some noble dish
Out of Escoffier;
Had felt the intrusive glory
Which tears reserve apart,
And would in the old grand manner
Have sung from a resonant heart.
But, pawed-at and gossiped-over
By the promiscuous crowd,
Concocted by editors
Into spells to befuddle the crowd,
All words like Peace and Love,
All sane affirmative speech,
Had been soiled, profaned, debased
To a horrid mechanical screech.
No civil style survived
That pandaemonioum
But the wry, the sotto-voce,
Ironic and monochrome:
And where should we find shelter
For joy or mere content
When little was left standing

But the suburb of dissent?"

Quote:
To me, it does not even look like a poem, but rather rhetorical prose; yet another piece of trash that makes older poetry look better and better. Poetry, literature and art all began to decay in the late 19th century and were generally fallen by the beginning of the 20th century, particularly after WW1.
Actually, I think that some of the best literature ever written was written after WW1. Musil, Broch, von Doderer, Mann, etc. Queneau, Camus, Sartre, Vian, Gracq, etc. Dazai, Oe, Tanizaki, Mishima, etc.

The last great author whose work I read was Roberto Bolaño, and all of his stuff was published in the 90s and 2000s.

Poetry may really have declined though. Most of the poems that I like seem to be older.

Last edited by Ighayere; April 18th, 2017 at 02:40 AM.
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