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Allen Ginsberg, Howl and the voice of the Beats
It's more than half a century since Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl landed like a bombshell in the staid world of 1950s America. But what was the poet really like? Friends and colleagues remember him


This week sees the release of Howl; a new biopic film focusing on Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, the creation of his seminal poem and its subsequent obscenity trial which propelled him to stardom as well as giving a voice to what was to become known as the ‘Beat Generation’.

  
When Allen Ginsberg performed at the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco 1955, he was a fretful, unpublished poet, a man approaching his 30th birthday with a nagging sense that time was running out. The poet Gary Snyder predicted the night would be a "poetickall bomshell". He was right, but really, the bombshell was Howl itself. Ginsberg's poem was an incantatory epic – emotionally and sexually explicit and intent on exploding the anxieties of the atomic age. It helped jump-start the counter-cultural revolutions of the next decade and its author was hailed as the voice of the Beat Generation.

He may have been the most important American writer of the last century. He certainly thought he could be. Six months after the Six Gallery reading, he wrote in his journal: "I am the greatest poet in America." Then he added: "Let Jack be greater." "Jack" was Jack Kerouac and the charged relationships between him, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady were famously fictionalised in Kerouac's novel On The Road. There are many people who, as Joyce Johnson says below, "fashioned their adolescent self-image on the characters". There will be even more of them now that Ginsberg is being brought to the screen: the new film Howl tells the story of the poem and subsequent obscenity trial, with James Franco as an uncannily good and enormously sympathetic Ginsberg.

The poet Michael McClure wrote that with Howl, "a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power support bases". He makes it sound dangerous. The accounts of Kerouac passing round jugs of wine and shouting "Go! Go! Go!" throughout the Six Gallery reading certainly make it sound ecstatic. But for some, it sounded criminal. In 1957, an obscenity trial was brought against Howl's publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, based on the poem's homosexual content. A series of critics and editors took to the witness stand to argue Howl's literary worth, and Judge Clayton W Horn eventually ruled that the poem was not obscene: "An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words."

Nonetheless, and to his delight, the trial made Ginsberg a radical figure in the eyes of the public. Less publicised was his extraordinary generosity: friends recall that when he was on his deathbed in 1997 he busied himself with ensuring his money would be sent to those who needed it. A radical sensibility coexisted with a profoundly good and kind soul. His zeal for connecting people lives on – no one who knew him seems able to speak about him without invoking a welter of names and relationships. Here, some of those who were closest to him remember their friend...

For the full article

The Guardian

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