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Human Seraphim: "Howl," Sex, and Holiness

Written by

Mark Doty
Contributor Page

Year

2010

Type

Essay

The university in my town was a place of cultural and political foment, and three thousand people packed the auditorium—the biggest one at the University of Arizona—to hear chants and rants and ecstatic outpourings. I was still in high school; everyone I knew who wrote poetry or was passionate about social change—that is, everyone cool from Rincon High—was there, and we weren't disappointed. The small figure on the huge stage seemed to loom larger, not in a threatening or puffed-up way but in an intimate one, as if he were a grand, available personality becoming more available as he squeezed the harmonium and sang Blake, and hopped a little, and spoke rhythmically and passionately into the mic.

I don't know that I've heard a more responsive audience at a poetry reading since; people clapped and laughed and shouted approval. When Allen Ginsberg mentioned "one sugarcube of lysergic acid diethylamide smuggled" across some border, the crowd sent up a wave of cheers; when he read the line "It'll be a relief when the Red Chinese take over Texas," there was a huge outcry of delight. The next day, at a bookstore called The Hungry Eye, I went to hear him again—this time Allen and Peter chanting together, making the narrow room of bodies reverberate. It was 1969, and a sort of heaven.

I didn't hear Ginsberg again for a decade. In Indianola, Iowa, at Simpson College, his reading was sponsored, who knows why, by one of the school's fraternities. It couldn't have been a more different scene: the audience was tastefully respectful; the poet read some of the short, sonorous, sorrowful lyrics about his father's illness, and afterward there was a party at the fraternity house. I was both looking forward to and feeling a bit shy about meeting this legendary presence, but I needn't have worried. A good twenty minutes into the party, Allen disappeared upstairs with a young fraternity member who wanted to show him some poems, and he never came back the rest of the evening.

Flash-forward twenty years, to the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo Village, New Jersey, a pastoral extravaganza of verse and good spirits. The second day of the festival is largely given over to teachers, and there are thousands of New Jersey high school teachers in attendance when Allen arrives on the stage of the big tent, his voice carried out to the back rows by a splendid audio system. It's maybe six months before his death, but Allen's in fine and sweetly energetic form, reading / chanting his late, playful chants—"don't smoke don't smoke, suck cock, suck cock""and everyone just loves him. Then he starts in on his ode to his sphincter muscle, a quirky little paean of praise. This seems to me the most unlikely poem in the world to find a congenial welcome on the ears of the assembled secondary school teachers, so I can't help looking around the ranked seats to check it out. Sure enough, they are loving it, they are laughing and clapping, absorbed in delight. And I find myself thinking, Now what if I decided to write a poem in praise of my asshole? Wouldn't they be unsettled, maybe offended, certainly questioning my taste?

But Ginsberg entirely transcended the question of polite behavior, of queerness, of the appropriate. He somehow skipped right around our American obsession with a binary scheme of human sexuality, as though people were issued in two basic models, and "gay" and "straight" were permanent and coherent markers stamped on their genes or characters. Allen created some zone of permission and distinction for himself that seemed to make all things possible, and he seemed to occupy a category all his own.

The first time I read "Howl," fourteen years after it was published, I was the sort of digging-for-possibilities-for-myself kid who searched the library for evidence, looking for writers or at least characters in books who might share my own secret life of desire. I wanted books to teach me something about how to live, and sexuality was the most mysterious and charged part of that quest. Was it possible to have a life as an adult who loved people of the same sex? No evidence to be had in school—as if!—or on television or in the newspaper or in magazines—not till 1970 anyway, when a squib appeared in Time about the new gay liberation front in San Francisco, with a picture of a handsome, mustached man with a bandanna tied around his head and an open face that seemed to signal a world of possibility. I pored over Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, and tried to read James Baldwin, and therefore you'd think that, when I came to "Howl," the poem would have been a revelation. But in truth it wasn't, not that way. Of course there's plenty of sex in the poem, enough to have earned its famous obscenity trial. I remember being fascinated by this:

who let themselves be fucked in the ass
    by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed
    with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human
    seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic
    and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings
    in rose gardens and the grass of public
    parks and cemeteries scattering their semen
    freely to whomever come who may,
who hiccuped endlessly trying to giggle but
    wound up with a sob behind a partition in a
    Turkish Bath when the blond & naked
    angel came to pierce them with a sword.

It's startling to think about that passage being published in 1956. It seems as if America's willful denial of queer sexuality might simply have crumbled in the face of it, and that a generation of gay men might have taken it as a clarion call to freedom, but neither of those things happened. Of course, this may simply have been because it was a poem, a form that tends to be a far advance scout of culture rather than an actual agent of change. Or it might be its oddly camp tone—the saintly bikers, seraphic sailors, and penetrating angel do feel a bit arch, don't they? And that giggling case of the hiccups is decidedly at odds with earnest sexual enjoyment; these elements make the passage less a cry of liberation or a celebration of eros than something more complex than either of those things.

"Howl," considered in 2005, seems, more than anything else, a poem of visionary friendship, of the longing to be part of a questing (albeit erratic) company. It's a chronicle of friends seeking—take your pick, satori, godhead, enlightenment, transcendence, the permanent ecstatic—through whatever means they find at hand: Buddhist teaching, drugs, sex, and a sort of self-abuse, to use a rough term for it, involving staying up all night, travel, drinking, and cigarettes, scraping the self raw, as it were, to open every pore.

Such longing, and such hammering of the individual in quest of the whole, takes place against a particularly unyielding background: the conservative, pragmatic, industrial, down-to-earth America of the late forties and early fifties, a culture that wants none of its sons' quest for the transcendent (and they are sons—this is a guys' vision of a juggernaut for holiness). America actively seeks to resist, tame, jail, medicate, or hospitalize them. What is not of the mainstream seems illicit or sick, as if their longing for firsthand experience of the divine is itself criminal, a subversive deviance.

This pose—transcendent wild boys versus spirit-crushing monolithic Moloch—is an affecting one, in small doses, though it might be a bit hard to take were "Howl" not so exuberantly funny. That's the part I'd forgotten, or perhaps never really seen. Was Ginsberg's humor harder to get, back when his transgressions seemed more incendiary? I can't quite imagine the contemporary equivalent of a William Carlos Williams telling us to protect our hems from the infernal poem we're about to enter today, not when that inferno is so self-mockingly playful. This queer visionary company has a bit of a Keystone Kops quality. For instance:

who threw their watches off the roof to
    cast their ballot for Eternity outside of
    Time, & alarm clocks fell on their
    heads every day for the next decade,
who cut their wrists three times successively
    unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced
    to open antique stores.

You can even hear Ginsberg's chuckle in the sonics; that "successively unsuccessfully" is meant to make us grin.

Which isn't to say there isn't real horror in "Howl," and genuinely vulnerability. I can't read this line without a shiver:

who broke down crying in white gymnasiums
    naked and trembling before the machinery of
    other skeletons.

That's a strophe in which sexuality, shame, and mortality inte rsect with grim power. And the threat of the ferocious "normalizing" force of the mental hospital looms everywhere, with its policing of consciousness, its brutal medical intervention in unacceptable states of mind.

But look what happens even there:

who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers
    on Dadaism and subsequently presented
    themselves on the granite steps of the
    madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin
    speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous
    lobotomy,
and who were given instead the concrete void
    of insulin Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy
    psychotherapy occupational therapy pingpong
    & amnesia.

Just when the passage has turned from the nihilistic protest—real Dada, instead of the academically presented sort—to the grave list of treatments administered to those who won't or can't accept the official version of reality, Ginsberg throws in that "pingpong." It's a signature gesture; any time he might start taking himself too seriously, there's that laughter that keeps perspective, keeps—despite the rants and big claims the poem makes all along the way—one foot planted firmly in a sense of the absurd.

Sex, in "Howl," seems simply one more in the chain of experiences pursued for their potential in revealing the divine, but it's just as capable of offering the ridiculous as it is the transcendent. This is decidedly not a middle-class position toward the ecstatic. It isn't, I think, a stance that could easily be incorporated into a broader culture, or a political platform. Can you imagine gay liberation as a religious juggernaut, exactly? Probably not. Whitman might be said to have attempted something of the sort, proclaiming the love of comrades as the foundation of a social order, but his interest is in a divinity apprehended entirely through its human embodiments, and he's completely earnest about the project.

Try to add a sense of humor to that religious impulse, it becomes unthinkable as a social movement. After Stonewall, gay activists would earnestly seek liberty and equality for their own sake; Ginsberg's platform calls for liberty in the service of the transcendent. And—in contrast to the earnest stance of gay liberation—he never loses sight of himself as a potentially comic figure. Does this make him a quintessentially Jewish Buddhist?

In a strange way, obscene and scandalous as "Howl" may have been, Ginsberg's complex position makes its sexual frankness acceptable. We have a tradition of sacred erotic literature. Admittedly, it's a ways from the poems of St. John of the Cross to that sword-bearing naked blond in the baths, but if you remember the poem where Christ wounds his earthly beloved's throat—well, there is a precedent. Eros has been spiritualized in the West ever since the Song of Songs. And if you can even go on to laugh at that celestial messenger who's about to spear you—well, you're immediately in a far less confrontational position with the reader.

This particular position—lusty spiritual comedian, let's call it—is why, ultimately, gay writers of the generations beyond Allen would think of him as a forefather but not exactly an influence. He feels like a cultural totem less of gay American history and culture than of "alternative" American life, a pioneer of psychic frontiers whose work probably has less to do with how I experience the world than does that of his East Coast contemporary Frank O'Hara. It's an interesting comparison. The O'Hara poem with the most direct engagement with the transcendent, "A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island," is also very funny, though inflected with a camp sensibility of a very different sort. The pratfalls and swooning exclamations in "Howl" serve to resist the heightened quality of the holy quest at their core. O'Hara doesn't believe in sacred quests, probably wouldn't even entertain such a notion, yet he seems visited one day by something broaching upon mystery anyway, a talking heavenly body with allegiances beyond the plane of earth. He brings the same sensibility, the same open-eyed gaze to an encounter with a heavenly body that he'd bring to anything else. Of course he jokes, but there's a different tenor to his humor, and the irony in his voice gives way, at last, to—or at least coexists with—an unmistakably genuine sense of awe.

I think Allen could sing to those assembled teachers about his usually-not-discussed-in-company body parts with such élan, and be accepted so freely, because everybody understood that on some level it wasn't really his ass he was talking about anyway. It was an attitude toward the world and toward the body, a sweet-natured, laughing acceptance of earthliness that existed, for Ginsberg, as a means to get off the earth plane. As bodily as his work may be, it usually tends upward and outward, away from gravity, moving through the fact of flesh toward other arenas. Amazingly, his most famous poem invented a new cultural category—neither homo nor straight, quite, but the "angelheaded hipster," the beat whose transcendent sexuality lifts him out of the familiar categories, knocking the binary off its high horse, setting himself loose to sing.


From The Poem that Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later, edited by Jason Shinder, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2006 by Mark Doty. Used by permission of the author.