This is the first time I’ve tried to write a review of a poetry collection. Where do I begin? There is no plot to summarize. There are no characters but the poet’s voice.
Howl is a poem most Americans have heard of but few have read. (Okay, this is probably true for most American poems.) It’s easy to see why it upset so many people, why the City of San Francisco would try to seize all copies of it as obscene back in 1956 when it was first published in a small local edition.
Howl takes its form from Walt Whitman’s long lists of Americans, the poems like I Hear American Singing which listed person after person forming a great catalogue of the people, largely men, one would find in America. Many people have no patience for those poems, the ones that define Whitmanesque, but I love them. Whitman understood just how big America was, that it encompassed everything. His poems celebrate the America that includes all there is to find on earth. It’s sheer size a wonder.
While Whitman celebrates all of America, he doesn’t go lower down the social ladder than the working class. Ginsberg’s Howl goes all the way down, to the bottom. The America he hears, is not singing, but screaming. It’s an America full of junkies, impoverished students, starving artists, petty criminals, communists, homosexuals, outcasts all. And Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met during a stay in a psychiatric institution.
There is much to admire and to enjoy in Howl and Other Poems. While the poems do not feel dated to me, they do fell like I’m a little too old for them. These are poems for a younger person. Their rage, their disillusion, is largely that of youth. But there is this one little poem towards the end that spoke to me, spoke to me in a way that only poetry can. Here are a few stanzas from it.
The weight of the world
Under the burden
under the burden
the weight we carry
The warm bodies
in the darkness,
the hand moves
to the center
of the flesh,
the skin trembels
and the sound comes
joyful to the eye–
I always wanted,
I always wanted,
to return to
to the body
where I was born.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009. Since then I have not made poetry a regular feature. While I do read poetry from time to time, it’s not something I follow closely. Today, looking at the stanzas I selected to include years ago, I am unmoved. They’re good, but kind of precious in a slightly dirty way. I think the stuff in “Howl” is better. I don’t know, maybe I’ll read something by Elizabeth Bishop over my morning coffee.
5 thoughts on “Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg”
I so so agree with the statement: “While the poems do not feel dated to me, they do fell like I’m a little too old for them. These are poems for a younger person.” I feel that way also about Kerouac, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and the like. What resonated so much with me as a college person now just makes me feel old, LOL
Which is one reason why I like Elizabeth Bishop. Her poetry has been around the block a few times. She writes from a place of experience that can still summon what it was to be younger.
Poetry is often absent from my life; I miss it. I wish it were a requirement of the legislature for the morning announcements. I wish it were a feature of the newspaper. I wish I had a popup screen for poems.
Thanks for sharing this one. Even if it annoys you a little now.
It’s banned from morning announcements, though. It’s easy to get out of the habit or reading poetry, which is the problem for me. I frequently intend to read it every day, but then I skip a day or two. For a while we subscribed to Poetry magazine which comes once a month. There are ways to make it a more regular part of our lives, but we have to do it.
Yep. I agree. Loved this poem – and the poet – so very very much in high school and college, but I have much more difficulty relating now.
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