who lit cigarettes in boxcars, boxcars,
boxcars racketing through snow toward
lonesome farms in grandfather night
Whenever I teach "Howl," I jump on this line. It's my favorite because the thingness of the word ("boxcars boxcars boxcars") is exactly what you see at a light while a train is passing—all throughout this poem Allen [Ginsberg] wrote cinematically but never more succinctly as he did in this line. Boxcars, boxcars, boxcars. It was what you saw, is all. "Howl" is remarkable because Allen did the complete thing—he wrote both a poem and a culture to put it in. Poetry went to the movies here and it never came out. I think the poetry world (something that probably shouldn't exist) is ever more cursed with public events that ask is poetry political, relevant, over, commercial, popular, etc. because in this poem it was all those things at once. Many of us write poems that are some of those things for some people, we write for "a" culture, not for "the" culture. Allen wrote "Howl," that's who he was, and "Howl" changed things. How? And I'm looking in the poem, not out and around it, because the poem is the theater of "Howl," the movie theater, I mean. It's replete with trailers: "who sang out of their windows in despair, fell out of the subway window, jumped in the fIlthy Passaic."
Somebody knows how many "who"s there are in "Howl" (and someone even knows who all those whos are. I considered calling Bob Rosenthal, Allen's longtime secretary, or Bill Morgan, the archivist-painter who sold Allen's papers to Stanford, to find out who was that guy "who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge" and lived. I remember the story and people laughing that there actually was such a guy, like he was even pointed out one night in the bar: That's him. But my point actually just is that the poem functions so often literally like a trailer. The announcer voice of the poem keeps folding all those lives in as preview of the spectacle the poem will produce, meanwhile it's producing it now, and so much of the excitement of "Howl" is its capacity to produce those two effects at once. You're rubbing your hands as you read—ooh, this is going to be really good—but the experience is already happening.
And were all those whos poets, or poetlike people? It seems to me that Allen actually pluralized the identity of the poet by means of these wavelike lines, announcing the poet's arrival again and again. He (or she) wasn't exactly a poet, didn't need to be. The poet came in this cascade of people. Allen made the poet's identity something vague and postmodern. He was one of them, not which one. They were more like the barnacles on the poet's boat as he surged forward carrying them, or them carrying him, because they "who drove cross country seventy two hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity . . ."
Well it's a little Pete Seeger, isn't it, the singer in the broad room inviting us to join in cause whose vision is this after all? Or maybe Mitch Miller: "America, sing along!" Authorship (or poetness) seems really secondary in the poem-spectacle that everyone seems to be writing here (in "Howl"). It's Allen's identifIcation bringing all those lives in close that works, and it also occurs to me (and Allen I think said this often) that it works a little bit like it did for Christopher Smart, Ginsberg's other great literary predecessor, besides Blake (and Williams), and I'm thinking of the Smart of "Rejoyce in the Lamb," which begins
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry . . .
"Rejoyce in the Lamb" is a long (about eight hundred lines) and obsessive poem, which goes on in a stiff but attentive evocation of catness:
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received
blessing he begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to
see if they are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with
the forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
The poem ends like this:
For by stroking of him I have found out
For I perceived God's light about him both
wax and fire.
For the Electrical fire is the spiritual
substance, which God sends from heaven
to sustain the bodies both of man and
For God has blessed him in the variety
of his movements.
For, tho he cannot fly, he is an excellent
For his motions upon the face of the earth
are more than any other quadruped.
For he can tread to all the measures
upon the music.
For he can swim for life.
For he can creep.
Christopher Smart was living in a madhouse in restraints when he wrote this poem, never published in his lifetime. I mention it because it's entirely structured of repetitions, a poem in chant form, much like "Howl," and the cumulative effect of the slightly recoiled paw of the final line is the cat practically moves. A poem that uses repetitions throughout, a standard of religious verse (which both Smart's and Ginsberg's poems are), ultimately has the effect of being a flipbook, a kind of low-tech predecessor of film (as Ginsberg knew it, and increasingly not as we know it now—since film's gone digital), and an equally good producer of altered states, and bliss. Like when you jumped up and down in childhood saying "taxicabs, taxicabs, taxicabs," the words started to sound strange, but you also got "high."
I turn to Kenneth Anger too in search of this mode, a euphoric one, considering Scorpio Rising (1964) to be another epoch-changing work of art. Anger's method was referred to in one description as "semiotic layering," which works just as well for "Howl." Kenneth Anger was relentlessly cultish, and though his accomplishment and influence weren't any smaller than Allen's, maybe the scope of who he was aiming the work for, audience-wise, was more precise. But his film employed the same biker boy references, and fanatical love for a number of American subcultures of the fifties, was homoerotic and, in the context of the film, the effect of its culture was totalizing in the extreme. The building repetition of belt buckles, motors, flashing signs, and flags finally produced a world that triumphed by its end—the case was made. Allen's ambitions were messier and planted more wildly. "Howl," like a Brian De Palma film, ends again and again. And even in the mostly nonspecifIc and linear-feeling Moloch section:
Moloch in whom I sit lonely! Moloch in
whom I dream Angels! Crazy in Moloch!
Cocksucker in Moloch!
Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch
in whom I am a consciousness without a body!
Moloch who frightened me out of my natural
ecstasy! Moloch whom I abandon! Wake up
Light streaming out of the sky!
Where did that last one come from? Allen was such a diligent student of ecstasy and vision that he knew that as the swastikas and belt buckles flicker, something happens, the road opens, and a space opens up as well inside the poem, the cat creeps, or perhaps you just stayed up all night, praying to Moloch, and dawn is its mystical reply.
"Howl" is a poem full of miracles and events, not the least of which is its own machinery. Because you are in it, witness, and you watch the poem grow. The only promise in this poem is more, and it makes good, not in some other world but in this one that you read in.
Yet, aren't these all photographs—or stills?
with mother finally ****** . . .
What do those asterisks mean? Fucked? Fried? What? Such a place to begin a stanza, which then turns into a passage of endings:
and the last fantastic book flung out
of the tenement window, and the last door
closed at 4 A.M. and the last telephone
slammed at the wall in reply and the last
furnished room emptied down to the last
piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper
rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet.
All those "last"s feel like the sorts of things you'd see in, say, the Holocaust Museum, or a museum of the American Indian, or even in the anonymous family album that turns up in a thrift. Tragic or no, after each of these "last"s I hear a click of the shutter—it needs to preserve. Williams in his introduction to the City Lights version of "Howl" makes passing reference to the resemblance between this poem's hell and that of Jews in the last war.
I never thought about "Howl" as a Holocaust poem, though I've been aware rereading it that it has Holocaust phrasing, the trauma of the Holocaust is all over it. So why not allow the overt thought to surface, that maybe this poem forced America to experience, in an indirect fashion, something it otherwise felt compelled to refuse? The sheer madness, the total horror of the Holocaust. Pictures of emaciated corpses, the same pictures again and again, is one version, but what is the invisible horror of "Howl" that all the angelheaded hipsters are running from? Is it the world we now know? Allen drops the loving leash of friendship around his own neck when he repeatedly promises his institutional war buddy, Solomon, I'm with you "in Rockland / where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night and won't let us sleep."
Carl Solomon is a Jew, and he sounds more and more like Allen's mother ("you imitate the shade of my mother"), whom Allen may've needed to affirm his attachment to, and her own stay in a mental hospital. Through Solomon, he did.
I haven't touched the especially poignant and relentless flavor of Allen Ginsberg's misogyny. There are so many incidents of it here: "the one-eyed shrew of the heterosexual dollar, the one-eyed that winks out of the womb"—actually all three fates are pretty bad. And elsewhere in the poem, women provide opportunity for male bravado—"you've murdered your twelve secretaries"—or holy self-abasement—"you drink the tea of the breasts of the spinsters of Utica." Yuck, right? And he must've been singing the hipster virility of Neal Cassady when he referred to someone "who sweetened the snatches of a million girls trembling in the sunset." I guess male = sugar. No sweet pussy on its own? Not in this man's howl. In the Beat canon in general (see Kerouac), thanks to birth, we're blamed for life. It's a belief that might be as old as Buddhism, or Judaism. At best, we (females) are occasions of reflected light, practically the walls of the womb itself, the home and the office. You light up my life, we sing.
Yet in reality, I knew Allen for twenty-fIve years, and he was to my own female self a generous friend, though admittedly the fact that I looked like a boy when I was young helped. I passed. And still he tried to fIx me up with his boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky. The bonds of sex and family were all mixed up, in a way that used to be considered good.
All of this somehow brings me to the boxcars line again. If women at best reflect male light, what is the entire concept of America doing in "Howl." Isn't it some big moon, too? An imaginary space? In a poem or a country where female agency is repressed or erased, doesn't it return as structure itself? The poem is a woman we're gathering in? What is this dream?
who lit cigarettes in boxcars, boxcars,
boxcars racketing through snow toward
lonesome farms in grandfather night
I keep wondering about that grandfather night. The "lonesome farms," of course, are a case of attributing how you feel sitting in the car to the farms, and they're out there. But "grandfather night" seems very old. Older than America. I wondered if this poem's train isn't speeding through a night in which people are being yanked out of the beds, never to be seen again. Are on the train being carried to an unspecifIed destination. America? A country of incarcerated black men and smiling blond women. Is the pederast the new Jew? Ask Nancy Grace. For Ginsberg, pederasty was just another one of his happy crimes. Yet look at the Michael Jackson trial. Right now it's the only one, pinned mostly on homosexuals, for Christ's sake, though statistically most pederasts are heterosexual dads. The train is traveling through time, the effluvia of "Howl," taking pictures as it goes. It's a gift to look at this American poem at this moment in time, to wonder where it was really coming from, and where it went.
From The Poem that Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later, edited by Jason Shinder, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2006 by Eileen Myles. Used by permission of the author.