A “HOWL” photograph, taken at the Virginia Military Institute in 1991 by Gordon Ball: a row of uniformed cadets, their heads shaved, each with an identical blank notebook, each holding a copy of the City Lights Books Pocket Poets Series edition of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems,” published in San Francisco in 1956, subject to an obscenity trial soon after, cleared by Judge Clayton Horn in a ringing affirmation of individual liberty and creative expression — and a flag of revolt, a blow against conformity, a hallowed relic, ever since.
The picture is all irony. What are these presumed soldiers of Moloch — the demon of money and power summoned in the second part of “Howl” to devour the soul rebels of the epic first section, unless, somehow, they can escape to fight another day — supposed to make of Ginsberg’s celebration of a tiny band of comrades determined to free America from itself? Of his paeans to men who “screamed with joy” as they were penetrated by other men, to heroin and marijuana, to suicide and madness? Who knows what the cadets made of “Howl” — in the picture, they look bored. Another assignment to get through.
more from Griel Marcus at the NY Times Book Review here.