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Revisiting Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' at 50

Ginsberg, seen here in 1973, read "Howl" in public for the first time at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.
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Ginsberg, seen here in 1973, read "Howl" in public for the first time at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.

Allen Ginsberg said in a 1985 interview that "Howl" began with another poem. Ginsberg, who had studied at Columbia University, sent a poem called "Dream Record, 1955" to poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth.

"It still sounds like you're wearing Columbia University Brooks Brothers ties," Rexroth told Ginsberg. "You know, it's too formal." So, Ginsberg says, "I sat down and just started writing what I thought about."

The resulting rush of violent, desperate words, starting with the well-known opening lines "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," created major ripples in the literary world.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was at the Six Gallery to hear the 29-year-old Allen Ginsberg read "Howl" for the first time. Ferlinghetti owned City Lights, a bookstore and publishing house in San Francisco. He asked Ginsberg if he could publish "Howl," and the first edition appeared in the fall of 1956. "'Howl' knocked the sides out of things," Ferlinghetti later said.

The poem gave voice to an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and alienation in Eisenhower's America. "Howl" became an anthem for the nascent counterculture.

The poem's second printing, done in Britain, consisted of just 520 copies. All were seized by U.S. customs on March 25, 1957. When the U.S. district attorney in San Francisco refused to condemn the book, the local police arrested Ferlinghetti on charges of publishing and selling obscene material. In a long trial, the American Civil Liberties Union defended "Howl" with testimony by poets, editors, critics and university professors. Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the poem had redeeming social importance, and was not obscene.

Allen Ginsberg died in 1997 at the age of 70. He would have been 80 years old this spring. "Howl" is now in its 53rd printing, with 965,000 copies in print.

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Tom Vitale
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