HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

"Howl": How the Poem Came to Be and How it Made Allen Ginsberg Famous
© 1997, Amy Kaeufer

When Allen Ginsberg sat down at a secondhand typewriter in 1955 and began the first of his many subsequent drafts of "Howl," he had no idea of the controversy it would cause. I fact, he didn't even set out to write a formal poem and especially not one that he would consider publishing. Instead, what the 29 year old began would materialize into his most famous literary work and the cause of a much publicized trial debating the first amendment right to freedom of speech. The events of Ginsberg's life and the events going on in the world around him inspired and prepared him to write "Howl," but perhaps one of the most important factors contributing to the poem and the author's fame was the surge in interest in writing, reading, and listening to poetry, which came to be known as the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.

The poem that caused the great controversy over obscenity in literature is a four part series of separate works, written mostly at different times that complete a series of ideas, which Judge Clayton Horn considered to have socially redeeming value. In the author's own words, the poem

is an 'affirmation' of individual experience of God, sex, drugs, absurdity etc. Part I deals sympathetically with individual cases. Part II describes and rejects the Moloch of society which confounds and suppresses individual experience and forces the individual to consider himself mad if he does not reject his own deepest senses. Part III is an expression of sympathy and identification with C.S. [Carl Solomon] who is in the madhouse -- saying that his madness basically his rebellion against Moloch and I am with him, and extending my hand in union. This is an affirmative act of mercy and compassion, which are the basic emotions of the poem. The criticism is that 'Society' is merciless. (Eberhart and Ginsberg 32)

As with most of his life, the time period prior to and during which Ginsberg wrote Howl was characterized by a lot of activity and emotions were often running high. In the spring of 1954 Allen had been staying with Neal and Carolyn Cassady in San Jose, but after finding Neal and Allen engaged in oral sex in her house, Carolyn told Allen to leave (Cassady 246). He did, and wound up in San Francisco where he worked in market research for a year and was terribly unhappy about the direction his life was going. He had been going through psychoanalysis and one day he told his psychiatrist of his dissatisfaction. He told of how what he wanted to do was "stop working forever... and do nothing but write poetry and spend the day outdoors and go to museums and see friends" (Simpson 70). That same night he wrote a report to his company telling them about how they could save a lot of money by replacing him and his two secretaries with an IBM. He was fired and was compensated with six months of unemployment wages. This provided him a great opportunity to be able to spend time writing his poetry.

Also around spring of 1955, he had been living with his lover and partner Peter Orlovsky. They had been going through some hard times, despite their vows to each other. Peter had become moody, refused to sleep with Allen, and was planning a trip to Long Island to see his brothers who were going through severe problems (Schumacher 199). When Peter went to see his family, Allen was left alone to be with himself and write. He also received several visits form Neal Cassady, the "secret hero of these poems" (Ginsberg 14), and remained in close contact with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.

Around his twenty-ninth birthday in June 1955 he expressed to Kerouac his dissatisfaction with life. He described his life as a "'monstrous nightmare' that had him 'on the verge of true despair'" (Schumacher 199). He was having trouble with money, as he was living on unemployment, and he was upset by the fact that he couldn't make a lot of money by writing poetry, which he thought no one was even interested in reading. Ginsberg had offered the owner of City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the manuscripts of some of his early poems, but Ferlinghetti politely declined them (Cherkovski 97). Ginsberg was upset because he "thought it was a good book and it was up his alley" (Silesky 62). The poems were later published as Empty Mirror.

In early June Allen had a dream that he was back in Mexico City and ran into Joan Vollmer (who was killed by Burroughs in 1951) and had a conversation with her in which she inquired of the fate of their friends. He wrote of this dream in a poem "Dream Record: June 8, 1955". Around this time he had also written a line in his journal which would be expounded upon and become the opening line for "Howl". He wrote "I saw the best mind angel-headed hipster damned" about his friend, Carl Solomon, who he learned had been admitted to Pilgrim State Hospital mental institution a few weeks prior (Schumacher 200). The plight of Solomon dredged up Allen's feelings about his mother, Naomi, who was also in the institution. Allen had recently signed documents permitting his mother's lobotomy and was experiencing great feelings of guilt (Schumacher 202). About a week or two after he wrote both the poem about Vollmer and the line about Solomon, he composed the first part of "Howl". Twenty years later, Ginsberg wrote, "'Howl' is really about my mother, in her last year in Pilgrim State Hospital -- acceptance of her..." (Eberhart and Ginsberg 11).

Part I of "Howl" really began as an accident. Allen just sat down and began typing not with the purpose of composing any serious masterpiece, but simply "stating [his] imaginative sympathies, whatever they were worth" (Miles xii). He wrote for his own enjoyment, playing around with his form and experimenting with the long line, always thinking that it couldn't be published because of his word choices and because of the "queer content [his] parents shouldn't see anyway" (Simpson 72). Ginsberg had mostly used shorter lines in his previous poems but he was influenced by Jack Kerouac (with his spontaneous prose) and the long saxophone choruses of jazz music. He had also been reading Cezanne and Whitman about the time he composed "Howl".

The same day Ginsberg composed Part I, he also wrote what would become Part III. As Part I was mainly devoted to the actions of many of his friends and his mother, not to mention himself, who had been "destroyed by madness" (Kerouac and Burroughs not included), Part III was dedicated specifically to Solomon. By stating "I'm with you in Rockland", Ginsberg showed "active acceptance of the suffering soul of C. Solomon, saying in effect I am still your amigo tho you are in trouble and think yourself in a void..." (Eberhart and Ginsberg 20). Perhaps as he accepted Solomon, he also accepted his mother.

Despite the fact that he was giving public readings of "Howl" and showing it to his friends for their approval and revising it, Allen knew that the poem was not complete and he wrote two more sections. He wrote them shortly after Peter had returned to San Francisco with his younger brother, Lafcadio. Allen needed to be alone to write his poetry so he moved to Berkeley, where he was enrolled in the University of California as a graduate student. One night he and Peter took peyote and walked around the streets of San Francisco where they walked to the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Allen could see the Hotel from his window at home and thought it looked like a robot. But when he saw the hotel with peyote-enhanced vision, he saw it as a monster. This monster he dubbed Moloch, "the Canaanite fire god who was worshipped in a rite in which parents burned their children in sacrifice" (Schumacher 206). He wandered around the streets and then went into a cafeteria where he composed much of Part II of "Howl".

Ginsberg had recently been contemplating the fate of America, with its nuclear weapons, the Korean War, and the coming of the Cold War. He wrote to Kerouac, "...are we losing? Is the Fall of America upon us? The Great Fall we once prophesied?" (Schumacher 209). The realistic possibility of parents sacrificing their children to the American version of Moloch seemed terrifying to Ginsberg. This section provided the link he needed between Parts I and III of "Howl". And finally, the last part of "Howl", the Footnote, was written on a bus Francisco. It is for his mother who died in the mental hospital. Ginsberg said, "it says I loved her anyway & that even in worst conditions life is holy" (Simpson 73).

Although the four parts stand distinctly separate in the final published version of "Howl", they were not always like that and there was an additional section. After some consultation with Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg decided to take out a portion which didn't seem to fit, which was later published as "The Names" (Cherkovski 100). The "Footnote to Howl" was taken out of the body of the poem and put in as a footnote when Kenneth Rexroth said, "No, No, that's enough" (Cherkovski 100).

Allen had met and befriended Rexroth soon after he came to San Francisco from San Jose. San Francisco was a place that was much like New York City with its assorted artists, scholars, bohemians, Communists, musicians, and the like. Rexroth was a leader in the literary scene and Ginsberg met many people through him. He was introduced to many influential poets such as Kenneth Patchen, Thomas Parkinson (who was also a professor at Berkeley), Chris MacClaine, Gerd Stein, Jack Spicer, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and he was reunited with Philip Lamantia (Schumacher 184).

While in San Francisco, Allen ran into a friend of his, Michael McClure, who was supposed to organize a poetry reading but was very busy. Ginsberg saw this opportunity and offered to organize the reading himself, though he had no experience. Ginsberg turned to his elder, Rexroth, for advice. He sent out a hundred postcards and posted handbills in bars publicizing the event at the Six Gallery. There are many different sources stating conflicting dates for the night of the reading: some sources claim it was October 13, 1955 and others claim October 7. On the bill was Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Lamentia, Philip Whalen, and Ginsberg and it was emceed by Rexroth. Since Rexroth was older, more experienced, and more well known (as he had a book published by City Lights) people were more likely to come for the reading. Over a hundred showed up.

At the event, Ginsberg read only the first part of "Howl" since the other parts were not completed. The audience didn't seem to care that it was not yet a whole poem. As he read the rhythmic lines (in a somewhat drunken state) the audience was enthusiastic and Kerouac began shouting "Go!" at the end of each line and the audience joined in. The audience support gave Ginsberg more intensity in his voice and by the time he finished reading the poem, he and Rexroth were both in tears (Schumacher 215). History had been made.

That famous Six Gallery reading did not spawn the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, but it certainly cemented its creation with all of the enthusiasm for poetry it stirred up among the literaries of San Francisco. Since 1944 San Francisco had been experiencing a renaissance attributed to George Leite's first publication of Circle (French xvii). The Poetry Renaissance became a combination of the pre-existing renaissance and the coming of the Beats.

The reading, however, did cause Ferlinghetti to change his mind about publishing Howl and Other Poems. After Ferlinghetti got home from the Six Gallery that night he composed a telegram that he sent to Ginsberg asking for the manuscript. The book of poems caused quite a stir as it was imported from England, which eventually lead to one of the most celebrated trials of censorship since James Joyce's Ulysses. Oddly enough, it was not Ginsberg on trial, but Ferlinghetti for publishing the material. In fact, Ginsberg wasn't even in the country when the books were seized and when Ferlinghetti and his clerk, Shig Murao, stood trial. Ginsberg had finally saved enough money to take the trip to Europe he had been waiting for and he took off.

The obscenity trial, like many others, was like a springboard for success of both Howl and Other Poems and for City Lights. The trial received large amounts of media attention and soon 'Beat" was a household word. Even in Europe, Allen was still able to get a feeling of what the trial was like when he saw the spread in Life magazine. In a December 3, 1957 letter from Paris, Peter wrote to Neal Cassady, "Saw your picture in Life Neal, you were in the Court room looking in on how Allens Howl was progressing..." (Gifford 189).

Arguably, one could say that if Ginsberg had written this poem in another city at the same time, it would not have experienced such fame. If the Collector of Customs had not been alerted to watch out for obscene material coming from Villiers in England, the imported copies of Howl and Other Poems may have made it through customs without a hitch and undercover officers may never had bought a copy and arrested Ferlinghetti and Murao. As much as the trial catapulted the author and publisher into success, the social climate in San Francisco at that time may also have made a difference. No matter how brilliant Ginsberg's poem is, if a great part of San Francisco's population at that time had not been interested in hearing it and buying the book, Ginsberg would not have experienced the same degree of fame. Therefore, it was the city that the book was shipped to, the Collector of Customs, and the surge in interest in poetry that helped catapult Ginsberg to national, and eventually international, success.

As the trial clinched Ginsberg's fame, it also helped him succeed in what his main objectives were in publishing the poem to begin with. He wrote many years later, "In publishing 'Howl', I was curious to leave behind after my generation an emotional time bomb that would continue exploding in U.S. consciousness in case our military-industrial-nationalist complex solidified into a repressive police bureaucracy" (Miles xii). He then went on to say that, "I thought to disseminate a poem so strong that a clean Saxon four-letter word might enter high school anthologies permanently and deflate tendencies toward authoritarian strong-arming..." (xii). It seems Ginsberg had very separate motives for writing and publishing his poem. He wrote it simply for himself as he stated his sympathies for his friends and he experimented with different line formations and then thought to shock the public, including his family, with its publication containing overt references to his homosexuality. "Howl" is still today an "emotional time bomb" and its four letter words that caused the great controversy during the trial continue to make it into the classroom. Although Ginsberg himself is no longer on this earth to talk about his most famous poem, he has said, "You have to be inspired to write something like that... You have to have the right historical situation, the right physical combination, the right mental formation, the right courage, the right sense of prophecy, and the right information" (Schumacher 207). Ginsberg's life and times with his friends and acquaintances provided him with plenty of material to write Parts I and III, in which he specifically wrote about how the brilliant men he knew were suffering in society. The historical events that were occurring in the world, namely nuclear weapons, the Korean War, and the Cold War stirred up something inside of him that frightened him enough to write Part II in which he declared and rejected the Moloch of society that was destroying both society and the minds of these brilliant men. His mother's illness and death provided him the inspiration for the Footnote, proclaiming everything to be holy. It was also the social climate of San Francisco with its increasing interest in poetry that would become the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, the Collector of Customs, Chester MacPhee, and the captian of the police department, William Hanrahan, that precipitated the swell of interest in Allen Ginsberg and his poem.


Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990.

Cherkovski, Neeli. Ferlinghetti: A Biography. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1979.

Eberhart, Richard and Allen Ginsberg. To Eberhart from Ginsberg. Massachusetts: Penmaen Press, 1976.

French, Warren. The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, 1955-1960. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

Gifford, Barry, ed. As Ever: The Collected Correspondence of Allen Ginsberg to Neal Cassady. Berkeley: Creative Arts Book Company, 1977.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. San Francicso: City Lights, 1956.

Miles, Barry, ed. Howl. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995.

Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

Simpson, Louis. A Revolution in Taste. New York: Macnillian Publishing Company, Inc., 1978.

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