The Legend of ‘Howl’

“In which one ecstatic, idol-shattering poem heralded the ’60s counterculture–and spawned the myth of its own radical break with the past.”

David Barber in The Boston Globe:

1146323305_6106_2Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden duly informs us, but when mythology takes over, anything goes. Or so it would seem, to judge by a new collection of essays, ”The Poem That Changed America: ‘Howl’ Fifty Years Later” (FSG), commissioned by Beat hagiographer Jason Shinder to mark the golden anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s epochal barbaric yawp.

Ever since ”Howl” first appeared in its instantly talismanic City Lights pocket edition in the fall of 1956, it’s been hard to reckon where the poetry ends and the mythology begins. The Poem That Changed America? Never mind that there’s no parsing such a blunderbuss hypothesis-the startling thing is that any poem at this late date can still have the kind of potent half-life in the collective imagination usually reserved for platinum pop hits.

When the legend becomes fact, runs the imperishable line in John Ford’s ”The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” print the legend. In the case of ”Howl,” it was a seamless transition: The poem was already legendary before it saw the light of print.

In the standard telling, it all began with a thunderclap on what Jack Kerouac later called that ”mad night” of Oct. 7, 1955, in an erstwhile San Francisco auto-body shop converted to a Boho art gallery.

More here.