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Groundbreaking Book: Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (1955)


Groundbreaking Book: Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (1955)

In the days leading up to October 7, 1955, postcards circulated in San Francisco inscribed with the slogan, "6 poets at 6 Gallery." The Six Gallery was a run-down art gallery at 311 Fillmore Street, and the six poets were: Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and one unknown poet from the East Coast, Allen Ginsberg.

Organized by Ginsberg and his good friend Jack Kerouac, the poetry reading became one of the most notorious literary events of the 1950s. Wine flowed freely from jugs and crowds cheered during the reading. It was in this energized atmosphere that the 29-year-old Ginsberg, having published little up to that point, unveiled an early version of his poem, "Howl," to a mesmerized audience whose relentless cheers of "Go! Go! Go!" brought him to tears by the end of the performance. The poem begins:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night

Howl features Ginsberg’s characteristic use of gritty vernacular and long lines, explicit sexuality, along with descriptions of abject people and places, and the stupor and ecstasy of drugs. Ginsberg's willingness to experiment with his writing and break social taboos made him one of the key figures of the Beat generation, a movement aimed at breaking the conformist and often stifling atmosphere of the late 1940s and 1950s.

The day after the performance, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, by then an accomplished poet and owner of City Lights Books in North Beach, sent Ginsberg a letter, saying, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?"—a reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s letter to Walt Whitman exactly a century earlier. (Coincidentally, Whitman was one of Ginsberg’s early influences.) Ferlinghetti published Howl and Other Poems in 1956, but was soon arrested and charged with obscenity for its content. Bailed out and defended by the ACLU at his trial, Ferlinghetti was eventually acquitted, and Howl went on to become one of the most renowned book of poems of the twentieth century, translated into more than twenty languages.

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