Howl as a poem of WW2

1 06 2009

In response to the article: ‘“A Lost Batallion of Platonic Conversationalists”: “Howl” and the Language of Modernism’ by Marjorie Perloff.

In 1996 American poetry critic and theorist Marjorie Perloff wrote of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ that it is best understood as not just a poem of vague social revolution and madness, of a radical new aesthetic, but also as very much a part of the tradition that had come before it, and the social wounds that had inspired it. In this way Perloff makes her case that ‘Howl’, as much as any of its more traditional precedents, was a product of the second world war, and the American culture that had been created by it.

This so-called Cold War poem, with its “howl” against the Moloch of “skeleton treasuries! Blind capitals! demonic industries! . . . monstrous bombs!” (H 22), must be understood, I would argue, as very much a poem of World War II, the war Ginsberg, born in 1926, narrowly missed.

To understand Perloff’s argument we need to begin where she begins. The first appearance of ‘Howl’ was in 1956 at Manhattan reading, but the subject matter came earlier, with the real life food for Ginsberg’s thought, the ‘insane odes’ and ‘crazy’, appearing in the years following on from WW2 up until the first performance. One of the early strophes (strophe 55) of the poem came from an anecdote that Ginsberg references to fellow poet Louis Simpson:

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

As Perloff states:

It seems that, for a brief moment, Simpson too was one of the “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection.” Like Ginsberg, for that matter, he was an outsider at Columbia, a native of the West Indies who was half-Jewish. But to become a poet, in postwar New York, meant to give up the “starry dynamo” in the “tubercular sky” in favour of the formal (and indeed political) correctness that would characterize the Hall-Simpson-Pack anthology. By the time Simpson  Published his first book Good News of Death and Other Poems (Scribners, 1955), he had mastered the genteel mode almost perfectly.

Simpson for a while shared a similar madness to that of the Beats. Ginsberg’s madness, Perloff tells us, is not dissimilar from that of Simpson, who was a veteran of the war and whose own letters reveal an intense psychological reaction to the experience.

In letter November 21, 1985, kindly responding to query from author, Louis Simpson writes:

‘This must have happened shortly before I had a “nervous breakdown”— the result of my experience during the war. There may have been other causes, but I think this was the main. I have no recollections of the months preceding the breakdown, and if people say I threw watches out of windows, OK.’

Simpson’s poetry, however, was stylistically far more mainstream that the Beat Ginsberg, and indeed Simpson rejected the mode of ‘Howl’ when he first experienced it.  However, the reaction to ‘Howl’, Perloff argues, is (and was) primarily a reaction of ‘distaste’ to the extremeness of the content and the expression. Nonetheless, Perloff maintains that not only is ‘Howl’ a logical continuation of the Modernist school of poetics, but also that his intent was the same, in principal, to that of the more mainstream/formalist poets like Simpson.

Even Ginsberg’s fabled rejection of metrics for what was ostensibly the mere piling up of “loose” free-verse or even prose units can be seen, from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, as formal continuity rather than rupture: the use of biblical strophes, tied together by lavish anaphora and other patterns of repetition.

There is a ‘show, don’t tell’ mode at the heart of ‘Howl’ expression that Perloff argues is more true to the spirit of Modernism than the Formalist mode.

Again, the poet’s careful choice of place names– Fugazzi’s bar on Sixth Avenue in the Village or the neighboring San Remo’s or the “Paradise Alley” cold-water-flat courtyard at 501 East 11 Street, cited in line 10 above—give “Howl” its air of documentary literalism.

And it is in this ‘show, don’t tell’ spirit that Ginsberg’s poem is to be understood as a poem of the second great war. In the understanding of Ginsberg’s writing of ‘Howl’ as being overstated and crafted, but crafted deliberately within a framework of ‘documentary literalism’, we can see then that what we are being shown is the Beat reaction to the society of Post-war America. And the post-war America of the Beats is an America damaged, an America of countless young men like Louis Simpson sent home with broken bodies, broken minds, or not sent home at all. The damage of the country was the damage of its people.

It is usual to say that such violence—the violence of those “who burned cigarette holes in their arms” or “bit detectives in the neck”—was endemic to the protest against “the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism” (H13). But in 2005, capitalism is more ubiquitous than ever and yet no one today writes this way;  … Rather, from the distance of fifty years, we just understand “Howl” as at least in part a reaction to those, like Louis Simpson, who had been there and wrote odes to the “heroes” who “were packaged and sent home in parts”

In this context the violence and madness of ‘Howl’ becomes more understandable. Indeed, it becomes much more human, much more sympathetic, in the face of Perloff’s framing.