October 10, 2005

Howling still relevant - more than ever

Fifty years ago, somewhere in San Francisco, Allen Ginsberg read his poem Howl to an audience of 200.

Back then, the beat generation and the hippies were unambiguously to the extreme left of politics, because the left was, like, you know, radical non-conformist, man.

On reading Howl today, and perusing some of the MSM “anniversary” articles, the present day resonance of Howl is startling. More startling, however, is how the poem can no longer be claimed as a lengthy and glorious chant for the left, who seem to have lost all interest in passionately raging against conformity, in favour of verbally battering all-comers into a mindless and purposeless submission.

Even if you hate poetry, even if you think the beat generation was useless, give it another try.

Howl is a stunning piece of radical poetry, and, in contemporary times, could easily be appropriated by the right, the conservatives, as an anthem against the strictures and waste of the increasingly tedious, vapid and irrelevant political left.

A piece from The Weekend Australian (Robert Lusetich, 8-9 October, 2005), concludes with the quotes:

"Once, when Kerouac was high on psychedelics with Timothy Leary, he looked out the window and said: 'Walking on water wasn't built in a day,"' Ginbserg once recalled. "Our goal was to save the planet and alter human consciousness. That will take a long time, if it happens at all."

Those old guys, if they were still alive, probably wouldn’t be too surprised at how retrograde the left has become. They seem to have had their sights set low, hopeful, but low.

Compare this to a review in The Age (not sure if you have to register to access), The beat goes on for Howl:

Toward the end, the writer quotes a biographer, Gerald Nicosia:

"We are in an era where censorship is creeping back in through the Patriot Act and where people are ... being intimidated not to speak about what we should be speaking about," said Gerald Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac.

"If you substitute terrorism for communism, we are getting the same rhetoric."

“The anniversary couldn't be more well-timed for those who enjoy historical parallels, agrees Ginsberg biographer Raskin.”

Go back and read that again, slowly – just a suggestion, not an order.

Substitute terrorism for communism?

Okay then, the lesson for today would be what, exactly?

Notice their sincerity, notice the lack of irony, notice that the speakers seem to be unaware of the legacy of communism, and that communism around the globe (with few exceptions), has fallen – not recently, this started more than 15 fifteen years ago - and fallen in a most inglorious and spectacular manner. Formerly communist countries now scramble to institute and improve their democratic foundations, and sprint to catch-up with capitalism.

The paradox of these quotes – these intellectual opinions being offered up with the intent of providing compelling grist for anyone who doubts the rightness and righteousness of the terrorist apologists, the “why-ners” (as Tim Blair has dubbed them), the anti-American crusaders, those “altruistic” anti-globalization purists, the guilt laden appeasers – these quotes are supposed to be self-evidently compelling, defining a past and present radical-left cause.

Yet, democratic capitalist countries were right about communism. The capitalist ("western") countries never capitulated. The west won; democracy won; capitalism won, freedom won - cleanly and decisively. Back then, anyone who agreed was deemed to be conforming, conservative, and let’s be blunt – stupid and ignorant. A few quiet minutes listening to a lecture by a solemn lefty would have set any anti-communist wealthy westerner on the straight and narrow. Right?

Now we are seeing the same, wall-to-wall, in the MSM: a friendly chat with would-be suicide bombers will change their minds; terrorist are just like us; it’s a misunderstanding over language; let’s not provoke terrorists by being critical; lets spread the lurve and understanding; let’s respect each other’s differences, because underneath we’re all the same; let’s mutually admire each other’s unique interpretation of religion and the world; and we will all live in peace and harmony with our hands joined together.

Bizarrely, it was only on reading these articles on Ginsberg, and Howl, that I did see the parallels, but not in the way any of the authors intended.

Yes, people ARE being intimidated into NOT speaking about what we SHOULD be speaking about. Drawing knee-jerk historical parallels is dangerous territory. These unthinking intellectuals of the left do not see that their few brief words shored-up the parallels, but had the unintended consequence of blowing their conforming leftist views to pieces.

If the beat generation were the voice of radical individualism, within an era of deep conformity and conservatism, the question must be asked, fifty years down the track, who gets to appropriate their symbolism today?

It is certainly no longer the natural home of the left, indeed, the beat generation would look like shags on a rock amongst the left of today, and would be vigorously howled-down by the left, before getting through a single passionately delivered stanza.

From Howl
by Allen Ginsberg

I saw the best minds of my
generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical

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,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-
eyed and high sat up smoking in
the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across
the tops of cities contemplating

who bared their brains to Heaven
under the El and saw
Mohammedan angels staggering
on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities
with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-
light tragedy among the scholars
of war,

who were expelled from the
academies for crazy & publishing
obscene odes on the windows of
the skull,

who cowered in unshaven rooms in
underwear, burning their money
in wastebaskets and listening to
the Terror through the wall…


For the full version of Howl


  1. Howl is one of my all-time favourite poems.

    I like your review -- it's so much more insightful than the dreck published by the likes of the Fairfax press.

  2. I'm not a big fan of Howl. I never could read it, it's just so imposing ... all these long lines that basically talk about how stoned Ginsberg got last night. After I read the first few sentences, I kind of can't concentrate anymore.

    But whoa, the power of some of those images (case in point: 'obscene odes on the windows of the skull'). It's still a great poem.

  3. Anonymous2:11 PM

    I quite like these 3 websites re the state of the world and which are completely in sympathy with Howl.

    1. www.dabase.net/coop+tol.htm

    2. www.dabase.net/spacetim.htm

    3. www.coteda.com/fundamentals/index.html

    And yes the "terrorist" threat is a manifestation of the fight to the death psycho-pathic split in the consciousness of western man which gave us the "communist" threat. John