Spring and Oblivion: Howl Revisited
By Indran Amirthanayagam
I have read Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems over and over again in recent weeks. I have a copy signed by the late poet to my late father, curlicued with sunflowers. Its lovely, slightly yellowed pages singed by a cigarette – from the pre-therapy and ‘don’t smoke rag’ days – allow me to touch the hand and beard I first encountered as a seventeen-year-old boy in Honolulu when Allen Ginsberg brought his harmonium and this very copy of ‘Howl’ to the islands on my father’s invitation.
I cannot forget personal memory when I read Ginsberg’s poetry, especially the four essential poems from this first incendiary and heroic book: ‘Howl,’ ‘A Supermarket in California,’ ‘Sunflower Sutra,’ ‘America.’ “Make it new,” he would say citing his pediatrician poet-father, William Carlos Williams. Yet, how to do so in this enterprise of seizing nostalgias like horses, trying to tame them, make them walk five feet, or six, or eight, or twelve at a time depending on the tradition and language in which the poet writes his or her poem. And there you have it, a delicious contradiction. Of course, Allen Ginsberg advocated Whitman’s “I am large…I contain multitudes” and wrote in that wonderful long line inspired in ‘Song of Myself’ and Blake’s prophetic books…a line that did not bother with formalist straightjackets, that breathed independence and creativity and progress and democracy, that embraced Joe’s Greasy sandwiches and the light of five hundred suns and the angel-headed hipsters “dragging themselves through the negro streets…looking for an angry fix.” Yet, Ginsberg told me that he would rub out half the words of his first draft, that this was his most useful instruction. I understand he wrote most of ‘Howl’ in one sitting, one evening. I have not seen the original manuscript nor calculated how many words he obliterated with his pen that has given life at the same time to several generations now of young men and women throwing off the manacles of tradition, the moral weight of precepts hanging on fridges, on bulletin boards, barreled down throats with rulers. The edition of Howl dates and locates the city where he finished the poem: San Francisco, 1955/1956.
Ginsberg, like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, has transformed social and political behavior in the United States and elsewhere, hurtling from East to West coasts throughout the globe. It is not possible to imagine history after 1945 without reciting, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…” Visitors to New York should not stroll in the East Village, by St. Mark’s Church, without recalling Ginsberg the photographer, always snapping recollections of his once angry streets.
I say formerly angry because in the end Ginsberg survived the hell he describes in ‘Howl.’ William Carlos Williams writes in his prologue:
When he was younger, and I was younger, I used to know Allen Ginsberg, a young poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, where he, son of a well-known poet, had been born and grew up. He was physically slight of build and mentally much disturbed by the life which he had encountered about him during those first years after the First World War as it was exhibited to him in and about New York City. He was always on the point of ‘going away,’ where it didn’t seem to matter; he disturbed me, I never thought he’d live to grow up and write a book of poems. His ability to survive, travel and go on writing astonishes me….
Ginsberg rode the horse for more than seventy years, the Iron Horse, the jumbo jet, from continent to continent, sea to sea, island to island. He stayed in Mexico City, Chiapas, Yucatan; watched the governor of Morelia walk away from his blasphemy at an international poetry festival. He wrote obsessively, voraciously throughout these journeys, leaving thousands of pages of poetry and journals. He left letters, sunflowers, a brief poem about a former South Korean president found among my father’s papers. My father, Guy Amirthanayagam, was also a fine poet. The two read together in the Fall of 1990 in Chinatown, in the Chatham Square branch of the New York Public Library. I presented them. Fathers and sons. Ginsberg spoke that night of reading with his own father. Impossible to separate blood sire from teacher sire, guru from roly-poly stomach bouncing the child, now a father bouncing his own son, Anandan.
“I saw the best minds of my generation.” What a sweeping entrance to this American line and poem, a mind-breath stirring the young, shell-shocked, comatose “destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn/looking for an angry fix.” The persona of ‘Howl’ has fixed, been fixed, flipped, spun out, survived. He is a rolling pin through “the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats…through universities with radiant cool eyes….through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.” He is Everyman and the rebel with a hundred thousand causes. He comes hurtling out of the 1950s riding in ‘Sunflower Sutra’, “an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? The specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?” In ‘America’, he declares exhausted and petulant:
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty seven cents January
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
In ‘A Supermarket in California,’ he asks in elegy:
Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors
Close in an hour. Which way does your beard point
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in
the supermarket and feel absurd.)
Allen Ginsberg howled, smiled, lamented at the absurd throughout his poetry. Despite the reputation of ‘Howl’ as the mantra of the counter culture, essential reading of the adolescent turning against his parents, a quintessential Holden Caulfield for the gay, hip set, I find the poem speaks to me now in my forties as a powerful, heart-rending elegy: a love song for what has passed and is passing, affirming the value of hurtling through the charnel house, of witnessing the horror and beauty and distilling what senses and spirit have learned in verses that gallop through the heart and mind of the house, stirring the dust, taking the jambs off the windows, rejuvenating the soul.
‘Howl’ is love incarnate, raw, rooted out, sung to Carl Solomon. Says Williams:
On the way he met a man named Carl Solomon
with whom he shared among the teeth and excrement
of this life something that cannot be described but
in the words he has used to describe it…
has found a fellow whom he can love, a love he celebrates
without looking aside in these poems. Say what you will,
he proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences
that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives
to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage
and the faith—and the art! to persist.
So Allen Ginsberg writes of himself and his beloved and includes the rest of us, doubters and changelings, too, in this anthem for doomed yet redeemed youth, this howl of defeat that is no defeat, for Whitman taught us the delicious truth of contradiction, Blake ‘the contrary states of the human soul,’ and Moloch be damned, the poem will out and honor us:
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and
saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tene-
ment roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy
among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy &
publishing obscene odes on the windows of the
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burn-
ing their money in wastebaskets and listening
to the Terror through the wall….
Allen Ginsberg read ‘Howl’ on that Honolulu visit in 1977 before a crowd at the East West Center. He shared the stage with Ediriweera Sarachchandra, a great playwright in Sinhala, also a guest of my father’s. Sarachchandra played the veena, Ginsberg the harmonium, and together they welcomed the audience to their seats with an improvised – first thought, best thought – raga. This latter dictum of Ginsberg’s about composition does not suit every poet. One often writes a line or two or ten to limber up, to discover where the muse wishes to invite you; and sometimes, the invitation is truncated, inspiration dries up in the wood and you are lost. I wish I could ask Allen how he managed false starts, glorious failures. Perhaps at 30, finishing ‘Howl’ in San Francisco, having “wandered around and around at midnight in the/railroad yard wondering where to go, and went,/ leaving no broken hearts”, Ginsberg managed to distill all the years of his experience into one tremendous first thought – “I saw the best minds of my generation” – and kept the thought alive through “incomparable blind sheets of shuddering cloud…listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox/…yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts/and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks/and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars…”
My seventeen-year-old ears, graced first by the strings and the harmonium, opened themselves wide wide to the bard’s voice reciting the holy text. “Holy! Holy! Holy! …The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!” The latter verses from the ‘Footnote to Howl’ raise the sheer effrontery of Ginsberg’s buffoonery, his celebration of language, warts and all. “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb. / I don’t feel good don’t bother me,” he declares in ‘America.’ The four letter word, much abused, assumes here a delicious and simple and homosexual irony as the reader and listener imagine the rocket-shaped phallus and a howling explosion because the poet exercises his right to deny sex to Moloch, because “I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.”
Allen Ginsberg wore his heart on his sleeve and his human dilemmas as well. He acknowledged over the years that some of his poems “have done some women ill.” I went to hear him read in the spring of 1985 in Central Park accompanied by a woman friend. Ginsberg scowled. He wanted me to come alone.
Ay, Allen, I have nursed the memories along with the poems. They form part of the sutra. What have I learned? “We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread/bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all beautiful golden sunflowers inside.” What brings me to sit down by the waters of Lethe and not betray any concern? The sutra is coursing through my spirit. I met the guru at the international airport in Honolulu in 1977. Wild black beard, black hair, harmonium, cigarette. He came home. He rubbed out half the draft of my poem on the East-West Cross Cultural Encounter. He invited me to his apartment on East 12th Street, dropping the key in a sock from the window. Friday night, Winter 1979. Kitchen table. Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg and two college students, one a New Yorker, the other, Indran, on his first visit to the city.
Ginsberg told me that night I should walk across Brooklyn Bridge and then go to a bookshop and look for Hart Crane’s “The Bridge”. Six years later, I joined an open reading after Allen Ginsberg featured at a small club in the East Village. Ginsberg stayed to hear me read and praised my lament about war written in the aftermath of a truck bomb that killed 241 marines in Beirut. He suggested eliminating some tentative Prufrock-like questions at the poem’s end. Ginsberg ate the peach long before I did. He taught me how to sing with confidence.
The poems of Howl And Other Poems do not stumble uncertain into the wood. They come roaring out of experience, eating of the fruit. “America, I’ve given you all and now I am nothing.” “Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray/shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting/dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust – I rushed up enchanted – it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake – my visions – Harlem/and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires…Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower?” “I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old/ grubber, poking among the meats in the refrigerator/ and eyeing the grocery boys./ I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed/the pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel.” And from ‘Howl’:
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open
their skulls and ate up their brains and imagi-
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unob-
tainable dollars! Children screaming under the
stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men
weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the
loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy
judger of men!
Let us now praise famous men. Allen Ginsberg has been laid to rest. No, not so fast. He is sitting “on the banks of the tincan banana dock.” Where are we going, Allen Ginsberg? The doors close in an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight? I’m with you in Rockland, Allen, “where you’re madder than I am. I’m with you in Rockland/where you laugh at this invisible humor.”
Carl Solomon in Rockland, Jack Kerouac on the ‘Frisco banana dock, Walt Whitman in a cameo appearance in the supermarket, the companions of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry form part of the American landscape and language. Ask me what to do in New York and I will say: go to St. Mark’s Church. Visit an old cold water apartment on East 12th Street. Cross Brooklyn Bridge, then read Hart Crane, yes, and Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg.
Photo: Allen Ginsberg with Guy Amirthanayagam
Indran Amirthanayagam is the Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Port au Prince, Haiti. He has served for more than 20 years as a diplomat, responsible principally for press and cultural programs. He has received the Superior Honor and the Meritorious Honor awards from the Department of State for his diplomatic work. Amirthanayagam writes poetry in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese and Haitian Creole. He has published eleven poetry collections thus far, including The Elephants of Reckoning (Hanging Loose Press, NY, 1993), which won the 1994 Paterson Prize in the United States, The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems (Hanging Loose Press, NY, 2008), Uncivil War (Mawenzi House, 2013), Aller-Retour au Bord de La Mer (Legs Editions, Port au Prince, 2014), and Ventana azul (El Tapiz del Unicornio, Mexico, 2016) . Potoprens nan nwa e blan—written with Alex LaGuerre—will be published in the near future.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.