Howl and Other Poems  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Howl and Other Poems

Howl and Other Poems is a collection of poetry by Allen Ginsberg first published in the fall of 1956. It contains Ginsberg's most famous poem, "Howl", which 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).

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.




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