Howl  

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"Here I think the best possibility now in Howl’s survival is for its value as a bit of literary history. I think this case will draw attention to it. It, perhaps, will have a wider readership than it might otherwise have had, and may go down in history as a stepping-stone along the way to greater or lesser liberality in the permitting of poems of its type expression." --Luther Nichols, a witness for the defense cited in n Bill Morgan and Nancy J Peters, Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2006), 104.


  1. The protracted, mournful cry of a dog or a wolf, or other like sound.
  2. A prolonged cry of distress or anguish; a wail.
Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
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Illustration: Laocoön and His Sons ("Clamores horrendos" detail), photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Howl is a poem written by Allen Ginsberg as part of his 1956 collection of poetry titled Howl and Other Poems.The poem is considered to be one of the principal works of the Beat Generation along with Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) and William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959). "Howl" was originally written as a performance piece, but it was later published by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books. Although the poem was originally considered to be obscene and Ferlinghetti was arrested and charged with its publication, on October 3, 1957 Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that the poem was not obscene, and "Howl" went on to become one of the most popular poems of the Beat Generation. An important figure when considering inspiration for "Howl" is Carl Solomon. The full title is "Howl for Carl Solomon." Solomon was a Dada and Surrealism enthusiast (he introduced Ginsberg to Artaud) who suffered bouts of depression. Solomon wanted to commit suicide, but he thought a form of suicide appropriate to dadaism would be to go to a mental institution and demand a lobotomy. The institution refused, giving him many forms of therapy, including electroshock therapy. Much of the final section of the first part of "Howl" is a description of this.

1957 obscenity trial

"Howl" contains many references to illicit drugs and sexual practices, both heterosexual and homosexual. On the basis of one line in particular

"who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy"

Customs officials seized 520 copies of the poem on March 25, 1957, being imported from the printer in London.

On June 3 Shig Murao, the bookstore manager, was arrested and jailed for selling Howl and Other Poems to an undercover San Francisco police officer. City Lights Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was subsequently arrested for publishing the book. At the obscenity trial, nine literary experts testified on the poem's behalf. Supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti won the case when California State Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn decided that the poem was of "redeeming social importance".

The case was widely publicized. (Articles appeared in both Time and Life magazines.) An account of the trial was published by Ferlinghetti's lead defense attorney Jake Ehrlich in a book called Howl of the Censor. The 2010 film Howl depicts the events of the trial. James Franco stars as the young Allen Ginsberg and Andrew Rogers portrays Ferlinghetti.

Background

The poem "Howl" was written in Ginsberg's cottage in Berkeley in the summer of 1955. Many factors went into the creation of the poem. A short time before the composition of "Howl", Ginsberg's therapist encouraged him to quit his job and pursue poetry full time. That summer he experimented with parataxis in the poem "Dream Record: June 8, 1955" about the death of Joan Vollmer. He showed this poem to Kenneth Rexroth who criticized it as too stilted and academic; Rexroth encouraged Ginsberg to free his voice and write from his heart. Ginsberg took this advice and attempted to write a poem with no restrictions. He was under the immense influence of William Carlos Williams and Jack Kerouac and attempted to speak with his own voice spontaneously. Ginsberg began the poem in the stepped triadic form he took from Williams, but in the middle of typing the poem his style altered such that his own unique form (a long line based on breath organized by a fixed base) began to emerge. Ginsberg would experiment with this breath-length form in many later poems. The first draft contained what would later become Part I and Part III. It is noted for relating stories and experiences of Ginsberg's friends and contemporaries, its tumbling hallucinatory style, and the frank address of sexuality, specifically homosexuality, which subsequently provoked an obscenity trial. Though Ginsberg referred to many of his friends and acquaintances (including Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Peter Orlovsky, Lucien Carr, and Herbert Huncke) the primary emotional drive was his sympathy for Carl Solomon to whom it was dedicated (1928-1993); he met Solomon in a mental institution and became friends with him. Ginsberg admitted later this sympathy for Solomon was connected to bottled up guilt and sympathy for his mother's condition (she suffered from schizophrenia and had been lobotomized), an issue he was not yet ready to address directly.

The poem was first performed at the famous Six Gallery in San Francisco. The reading was conceived by Wally Hedrick – a painter and co-founder of the Six – who approached Ginsberg in the summer of 1955 and asked him to organize a poetry reading at the Six Gallery. "At first, Ginsberg refused. But once he’d written a rough draft of Howl, he changed his 'fucking mind,' as he put it". Ginsberg was ultimately responsible for inviting the readers (Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, and Philip Whalen -- Michael McClure and Kenneth Rexroth were involved early in the process) and writing the invitation. "Howl" was the second to the last reading (before "A Berry Feast" by Snyder) and was considered by most in attendance the highlight of the reading. Many considered it the beginning of a new movement, and the reputation of Ginsberg and those associated with the Six Gallery reading spread throughout San Francisco. Soon afterwards, it was published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who ran City Lights Bookstore and the City Lights Press. Ginsberg completed Part II and the "Footnote" after Ferlinghetti had promised to publish the poem. "Howl" was too short to make an entire book, so Ferlinghetti requested some other poems. Thus the final collection contained several other poems written at that time; with these poems, Ginsberg continued the experimentation with long lines and a fixed base he'd discovered with the composition of "Howl" and these poems have likewise become some of Ginsberg's most famous: "America", "Sunflower Sutra", "Supermarket in California", etc.

See also

Howl and Other Poems




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Howl" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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