The poem “Howl” transformed Allen Ginsberg, a fellow Columbian, into an “epic vocal bard.”
It’s something else to hear Ginsberg read “Howl.” This poem should be read, shouted, probably, from every rooftop in the city so it keeps vibrating, so the beat (or Beat?) goes on. My class on the Beat Generation just moved on to Ginsberg’s work, and I must say–it’s nothing short of electrifying. “Howl” hit me before I understood it. Hell, there’s so much I still don’t understand and that’s fine. It’s fine to be plunged into imagination blindly and be gripping around language for something concrete to hold on to, if that language is exuberant and exalting and inspiring and wants you to be angry and passionate and speak and wants you to be.
“Howl” is a giant exhale. Each stanza is meant to take one breath to read, and the effect is certainly best appreciated if it’s read out loud. Ginsberg smashes words together that create sparks of understanding where you wouldn’t think there could be (“grandfather night,” “midnight streetlight smalltown rain,” “who ate the lamb stew of the imagination”). Each stanza’s a story about someone he knew. Each stanza is a world and a whirlwind.
Most importantly I think it’s a poem that needs to be heard. It’s not a private poem. Allen Ginsberg is speaking to an audience–and the audience is not just you, but it’s all of America. So it should be read aloud because so much of it is aural, but also because it’s for an audience that’s bigger than yourself. Get swept up into the collective. Join the crew. He’s seen the best minds of his generation go mad, and he also goes mad, so we must conclude that he is truly one of the best minds of his generation.
Also, as a Columbia student, I’m so amused by the idea of a young graduate saying the best minds of his generation are these crazy wanderers, not his hotshot professors. I’m sure they loved that. Columbia isn’t fond of its Beat progenies and rarely acknowledges that on this very campus, a couple of scraggly students redefined American literature. But hey, it happened, and if you’re going to read it, howl it out loud, the way it should be read.