“Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.” -William Carlos Williams, in an introduction to Howl.
You’ve probably noticed I’m going through a bit of a beat phase at the moment – Hunter S, Kerouac, and now Allen Ginsberg. I admit, I’d never heard of him until I read of in Kingdom of Fear and found his name on the spine of Howl, Kaddish and Other Poems, which is one of the orange Penguin series I’ve started collecting.
Recently I voted for my ‘top five recommended books’ on the NZ Book Month website. As if this wasn’t a difficult enough feat in itself, I was then asked to choose one of the five that had ‘changed my life.’ As much as I love books, and as much as I have adored and do adore particular novels, and as much as I have laughed and cried and trembled my way through hundreds of thousands of words in my time… I could not say that any particular one of them had changed my life.
Then I read Howl.
You think I’m being dramatic, don’t you. You don’t think that one 12 page, 3 part, 2882 word poem written 54 years ago could have such an affect. Well, believe it. It did and it does. The man was a mother fucking genius.
I don’t think I can even articulate what I love so much about his writing. There’s some pulse to it, some beating madness, that you just caught up in and it goes faster and faster until you think your heart will explode. It’s like each word is a concentrated drug that taps into your nervous system and beats a crazy deep rhthym along your veins. Poems that are good are skeletons, they are the absolute bare bones stripped back right to the very marrow. Why use ten words when you can use one? There is not one single syllable out of place in the whole goddamned thing. The hours he must have put into shaping each stanza, the agony of it. The ecstacy of the result.
I can see why they tried to censor the fuck out of it.
“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,
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 contemplating jazz,”
“…with the absolute heart of the poem butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”