Allen Ginsberg: Howl and Other Poems
“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…” So begins one of the most famous and controversial poems ever written, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” first published in 1956. Why, you might wonder, is this magazine, whose focus is rock music, running a review of a poem, especially one from six decades ago? For one thing, its impact on a generation—particularly many of those who would put poetry to music in the following decade (see Zimmerman, Robert)—is incalculable. “Howl” was a seismic shock, transcending the confines of literature to become a cultural marker—its publication triggered a precedent-setting obscenity trial, the ramifications of which are still being felt today. Ginsberg was a counterculture hero until his death, and “Howl” was his crowning achievement. Reading it at one’s own pace, in one’s own inner voice, is one way to experience “Howl,” but listening to Ginsberg read it, the ferocity and heat of his words, his near-monotonic New Jersey drone an odd juxtaposition to the teeming life described, is something else altogether. This new vinyl boxed set—the LP itself is red, as was the original—is built around the 1959 Fantasy Records release that featured Ginsberg reading “Howl” and, as advertised, other poems (including “Footnote to Howl,” “America,” “Kaddish” and other Ginsberg classics) in front of a rapt audience. It’s housed in a beautiful package that is a keeper itself, including a paperback reproduction of City Lights Books’ original Howl and Other Poems , a booklet containing essays and commentaries by Anne Waldman, Dennis McNally, Ann Charters and others, and even a glossy B&W photo of the young, pre-beard poet at his typewriter, setting into motion what we all now know as the Beat Generation.