A Brief History of "HOWL"
- Ginsberg began writing “Howl” in 1954.
- In San Francisco in 1955, the poem made its debut not on the pages of a book, but live in front of an audience: an underground poetry reading of new works by six young poets was held at the now-famous Six Gallery. Ginsberg was second to last in the line-up, but was considered by many in attendance to be the highlight of the entire evening.
- Shortly thereafter, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books decided to publish a handful of Ginsberg’s poems in an edition called Howl and Other Poems.
- Richard Eberhart of The New York Times heralded “Howl” as the “most remarkable poem” to come out of that group of young poets who were the pioneers of the Beat Generation. But the poem was as controversial as it was popular.
- In 1957, customs officials seized 520 copies of Howl and Other Poems that were being imported from London. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao of City Lights Books were subsequently arrested for selling and publishing the book.
- These arrests were followed by the land-breaking 1957 obscenity trial, where Judge Clayton Horn of the California State Superior Court ruled that the poem was not obscene, and was, in fact, of “redeeming social importance.” Thanks to Howl’s victory in court, the protections offered by the First Amendment in this country – particularly in regards to the arts – were strengthened and re-defined for an unapologetically modern world.
- At the time of his death in 1997, Howl had sold over 800,000 copies worldwide, and been translated into 24 different languages.
- In 2005, the poem’s landmark status was confirmed by the staging of readings on the poem’s 50th anniversary in San Francisco, New York City, and Leeds in the UK.
- What is most telling of this poem’s long-lasting impact and controversy is that as late as 2007, a decision was made to not publicly broadcast the poem on the radio.
- Beyond the success of “Howl,” Ginsberg had many other accomplishments in his lifetime:
- His poetry collection, The Fall of America, shared the annual U.S. National Book Award for Poetry in 1974.
- In 1979, Ginsberg received the National Arts Club gold medal and was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
- In 1993, the French Minister of Culture awarded him the medal of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres (The Knight of Arts and Letters medal).
- In 1995, Ginsberg was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his book, Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986–1992.
According to Michael McClure – who was one of the six poets at the Six Gallery reading on that historic evening in 1955 – “[“Howl”] left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America.”
Allen Ginsberg created an unrelentingly candid, deeply personal, and intoxicatingly rhythmic style of writing that had never before found itself in the hands of the American public. His long-line form was innovative to the point of literary treason. No one since Walt Whitman had sought to re-imagine poetical forms so completely. Such frank depictions of sex – particularly homosexual sex – and drug use were unheard of in the 1950s. However, Ginsberg’s commitment to Jack Kerouac’s “first thought, best thought” mantra and the free-associative, Surrealist style left an unforgettable mark on American poetry and the world of the arts at large. To this day, his work can be found in anthologies all over the country - not to mention the countless essays and books written about this poem, its author, and the movement it created.
“Howl” was an unparalleled act of bravery that made way for a literary renaissance, a cultural revolution, extreme political activism, and social progress that led to the world as we now know it. As Ginsberg himself said, “Howl” was meant to be an “emotional time bomb that would continue exploding… [the] military-industrial-nationalistic complex.”