Still Obscene in 2021? Close Your Eyes and Let the Poetry Fill the Tired Empty Spaces.
Allen Ginsberg is commonly known for two things: being a founding member of the Beat Generation, and the fact that one of his books, Howl and Other Poems, was banned for obscenity.
The Beat Generation consisted of Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, and Lucien Carr, all of whom met in 1944. The main theme of the Beat Movement was to push back against the passionless and pointless society around them. Their protests included reimagining the current forms of poetry and narrative, which in their minds did not express the real experiences of the post war generation.
Ginsberg’s Howl – first performed in 1955 – was, like his other poetry, an attempt to free verse from the academy and the forms which had trapped it; and to express truth regardless of the prudish tastes of polite society.
In 1957, San Francisco police arrested the publisher on obscenity charges, ultimately leading to a court decision in favor of the book.
It is the trial that jogged my memory. I had some vague knowledge of it, but to be honest my familiarity with the Beat Poets went no deeper than this; and a passing knowledge of Kerouac.
So, I began listening to this recording without many preconceived notions, other than the idea that at the time, the poems were considered obscene – at least by the San Francisco police department.
From our vantage point on the space time continuum, Ginsberg’s poetry does not seem incredibly shocking, but it was the case against Howl – along with another first amendment obscenity case, Roth v. United States earlier in 1957 – that allows us to be as blasé as we are about artists’ use vulgar language and topics.
Ginsberg frankly discussed sex and used words that were deemed too coarse for public consumption at the time, and for that alone, the modern world owes him.
Howl and Other Poems was one of the shots fired against the gatekeepers of public decorum who felt that some truths were too vulgar for public consumption. And it landed.
I had no knowledge of the poems themselves, although I did a bit more digging into the history of the Beat Poets. Ginsberg’s place in history is reason enough to listen. I suggest reading up a little on the Beat Generation and its adherents, whether before or after listening is up to you, but the context adds depth. While there has been some recent scholarship about the lack of a place for women in the group, it’s still interesting as a watershed moment in the modes and forms of writing, worth digging into as a way of understanding how literature and poetry landed where they are today.
The press release included with the recording is a great place to start. It provides a good deal of background about the Beat Poets, Ginsberg in particular and even the venue for the recording, Reed College, who’s t-shirt motto was Communism. Atheism. Free Love.
And now onto my own interaction with Howl and the shorter poems Ginsberg read at Reed College. The kind of people who listen to and review poetry recordings are foundationally odd.
I mean, right from the start that’s apparent.
I’ll cop to that. Not only is that true of me, the context in which I listened to this recording was peculiar as well and more than likely colors my review. Several nights a week, I have insomnia and I view the world through a hazy veil of sleeplessness.
If you’ve never experienced insomnia you may not quite understand the thin coating of anxiety and despair that colors everything after about 1AM, when you realize you will not be going to sleep, nor might you grasp the twisted resourcefulness that results in attempting to work during the flat, exhausting hours when your body begs your brain to just stop already.
I feel compelled to let the reader know most nights I listened to the Reed College recordings, it was during the blunted dreamless hours after 1AM and further into the night.
And during this time, I found Ginsberg’s voice rhythmic and palliative. Neither Ginsberg’s poems nor his voice ever reach a fever pitch in this recording, particularly in the short poems preceding Howl like Epithalamion, or Wild Orphan. Although, Kerouac might disagree with me – he’s quoted as saying that Ginsberg “wailed his poem, Wail, drunk with arms outspread”.
Maybe Kerouac and I differ as to what constitutes wailing. For me however, even when Ginsberg expresses emotion, Howl being the piece in which his voice carries the most passion, his voice is too precise and rhythmic to break me out of the flow, and it’s the feeling of being carried along on the current of the poem, perhaps, that soothes me.
Ginsberg has a real voice too, the voice of a person you might overhear in a restaurant or on the street. It’s not a voice for the theatre.
Not a voice for ringing oratories.
The voice itself does not compel
It delivers the words of the man who wrote them and it’s the words that are important; the voice does not overpower them or give them meaning in expression they would not otherwise carry. Ginsberg’s words have a feeling of viridity because of the ordinary quality of his voice.
The poems themselves are beautifully made.
There is irony.
There is humor.
There are observations that are at once distilled into discrete moments and yet there is a vaguely narrative quality as the images follow each other, as in A Supermarket in California in which he describes a night trip to the grocery store. Over Kansas was another with vivid images that seemed to form themselves into recognizable, almost but not quite, story-like patterns.
And so, as I listened late into night and into the wee hours of the morning, I found the rhythms of the poetry and his well-modulated voice took the place of dreams and I could close my eyes and let the poetry fill the tired empty spaces in my head.
My personal conclusion?
Ginsberg is now one of the companions of my sleepless nights, an alternative to dreaming. I will keep this on my playlist.
Whether or not you ultimately feel as at home in Ginsberg’s poetry as I did, is up to you, but the history is compelling enough a reason to give this a listen and see what you think.
By Julie Carpenter *Editor at Sacred Chickens website