by Michael Abraham-Fiallos
I am sitting at a coffee shop downtown. It’s a nice Friday morning, not too hot and not too cool, not quite autumn and not quite summer. I have eaten, so I am no longer dreaming. And, I am reading “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg for the first time in at least half a decade.
I realize about halfway through the poem’s first long section that I don’t like this poem very much. Or, I don’t like this poem very much anymore. It’s a little bit racist, a little bit whiny, a little bit full of itself. It is profound; don’t get me wrong. It is epochal, in its way. But, it is not for me anymore. In his introduction to Howl and Other Poems, William Carlos Williams writes that “Howl” is “a howl of defeat. Not defeat at all for he has gone through defeat as if it were an ordinary experience, a trivial experience” (a sentence if ever there was one). Perhaps this is what I no longer like, this defeat, this sense that only in the abject is one to find the truth. The gambit of “Howl” is to think the marginal—the madman, the homosexual, the drug addict—as the site of visionary consciousness. Normally, this is a gambit for which I would be entirely down. But, contrary to Williams’s notion that, in the poem, “the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the strength and the courage and the faith—and the art! to persist,” there is a kind of showmanship in the poem that does not sit well with me, a glorying in the abject that never quite reaches the eternal pronunciation of the Truth-with-a-capital-T that it explicitly declares as its intent. “Howl” is an exposé of the marginalized life, and it reads, to me at least, as imbued at every moment with the same kind of sensationalism on which the exposé thrives. A perfect example of this is the third section to Carl Solomon, in which Ginsberg declares as his refrain, “I’m with you in Rockland,” the psychiatric institute. While Ginsberg and Solomon did meet in a psychiatric institute, and while Solomon was in and out of them throughout his life, he was never in Rockland, and this bothered him. He also generally took issue with his representation in the poem, feeling it was not historically accurate and feeling, one imagines, sensationalized, reduced to his psychological afflictions to serve Ginsberg’s aesthetic aims. This is not to say that there is not gentleness in “Howl” at certain points, that Ginsberg did not belong to and care for the community he describes. But, “Howl” revels in a pain that I would seek to ameliorate rather than to celebrate. It takes too much pride in the total destruction of its protagonists and does not display enough worry for them.
However, as I read, I am taken back in time to a very different period in my life: sixteen and a fag, caught in the suburbs and dreaming of Manhattan, stumbling through sex and hopelessly in love with every boy, gay or straight or inbetween, who would bear his cock to me, tumbling over myself with hormones and earnestness and a flamelike desire to mean, to write. I found Ginsberg sometime around then. “Howl” consumed me like a dream.
In fact, my high school scribblings in this copy of the book that I’m reading downtown on a Friday describe “Howl” as a “dreamworld” at the point where Ginsberg writes, “a lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops of fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon,” for this indexed for me the entirety of what I dreamt of becoming then: a wild philosopher in the den of night in New York, swirling in thought and ecstasy with others. Far from a dreamworld, it would be better to describe “Howl” as a nightmare or the brutal face of reality, but for me, at the time, it was the whole of what I wanted to be and to feel. No matter that it begins, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”—I would, in my adolescence, have given anything to be destroyed by the madness that “Howl” seeks to penetrate and explain. It was a talisman, and I read it and reread it as if caught in a fever, as if my mind was on its loop.
What it really contained for me was a promise in sexuality that I had not encountered before. For instance:
who bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight
in policecars for committing no crime but their
own wild cooking pederasty and intoxication
who howled on their knees in the subway and were
dragged off the roof waving genitals and manu-
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly
motorcyclists, and screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim,
the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rose-
gardens and the grass of public parks and
cemeteries scattering their semen freely to
whomever come who may,
I cannot pretend that these lines do not still stir something in me. What sexuality means in these stanzas propulsively gains profundity as one reads because the meaning of sexuality shifts kaleidoscopically from stanza to stanza. In the first stanza, there is the juxtaposition of the policing function of the state with “pederasty,” a callback to a form of homosexuality that was central to the functioning of the city-state in ancient Athens. There is thus a learned irony here, alongside the frankly ridiculous image of biting a police officer in the neck out of wild intoxication. In the first place, homosexuality is a kind of tongue-in-cheek humor, an “I know more than you do about the way of the world” directed at the state and its policing function. Sexuality is a wild guffaw of rebellion.
In the second stanza, there is a marrying of the lewd with the creative. The madmen of Ginsberg’s imagination flap their genitals and their manuscripts on the roofs of the city. Creativity, in this telling, promises to be an act of erotic immorality, an antisocial display of ecstatic perversity. This idea, in particular, inflamed me at sixteen. Under Ginsberg’s sway, I began to use words like “cock” and “asshole” and “fag” in the long prose poems I wrote to my lovers, imagined and real. I began to flex my perversity, to wear it like a crown of laurels. In some ways, this revelry in the marriage of the creative and the perverse did something very akin to saving my soul. It made of me a site of pride. Having walked with Lucian Truscott past the Stonewall Riot, Ginsberg reportedly said, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful—they’ve lost that wounded look that all the fags had 10 years ago.” Reading about cocks and manuscripts waved on the rooftops was my own little Stonewall Riot of the mind. I lost my wounded look.
The meaning of the third stanza to me was simple. It was the most candid expression of gay sex I had then read. It was the reality of sodomy laid bare, that reality being a scream of animal joy.
The fourth was particularly poignant for me in the midst of my teenage struggle against Protestantism, wrapped up in my reactionary and rebellious Buddhism, which was modeled in many ways on Ginsberg’s own Buddhism. I was overjoyed to see the seraphim giving blowjobs, to see the seraphim transformed into sailors hungry for sex, any sex. However, there is more than just blowjobs in that stanza. There are caresses, too—caresses of the oceans. There is intimacy between persons in the act of sex, and there is another intimacy as well: an intimacy of sex with nature and the divine and so the further intimacy of nature and the divine as one. There is a whole philosophy of sexuality and intimacy as central to the machinations of the universe in this stanza, and, though I did not understand it with quite that level of lucidity at sixteen, I felt its implications thrumming below the skin as I read it, thrumming with the drumbeat of the oceans and the music of the seraphim.
In the public sex of the fifth stanza here quoted, there is the notion of freedom, the freedom and democracy of semen spilled with any man who might appear. How I yearned to be in those rosegardens and those public parks, not specifically for the public sex that they promised, but for the notion that I might fuck anyone, might become a thing who fucks any and everyone. I had Free Love on the mind. More profoundly, I had the idea that sex was freedom on the mind, that in sex we are reduced to an anyone and that anyone and anyone might enjoy one another, might liberate one another in contravention of the social structures that bind them. I had in the moments of reading this stanza a belief in the possibility of my own sexuality as a site of democratic and liberatory potential.
There was more for me in “Howl” than just these stanzas (though these are the stanzas that stand out in my memory and my imagination most clearly when I have thought, over the years, about the poem). Among its central issues for me was the issue of spirituality, touched on above as an issue of sexuality. But, spirituality is more in “Howl” than just sexuality, and it is more than just the ravings of madmen (though it is frequently that). “Howl” is a journey first through the supposedly degenerate corners of America in the fifties, and then through Hell, then into a mental institution, and finally, in “Footnote to Howl,” into an understanding of the “holy” as that salvific potential which might be found in all the facets of quotidian life. If I were to reclaim any part of “Howl” for myself now, to find value in it, I would reclaim this final notion. In “Footnote to Howl,” Ginsberg writes:
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!
The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand
and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is
holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an
[. . .]
Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop
apocalypse! Holy the jazzbands marijuana
hipsters peace & junk & dreams!
[. . .]
Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours!
bodies! suffering! magnanimity!
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent
kindness of the soul!
This was something I needed to read at sixteen, and perhaps something that everyone needs to read at some point. It is his exclamation marks that still strike me ten years later. To embrace all of life with enthusiasm, and to understand this as a methodology of the spiritual, is a value I think we can glean from Ginsberg that matters and that rhymes with my own spiritual leanings. At the same time, this expression of spirituality is a touch banal. Certainly, we might find the salvific potential in everything—even in, as Ginsberg writes, the “Angel in Moloch,” the Jewish demon who represents Hell in the poem’s second section—but to do so is to sacrifice a political awareness of what helps the subject flourish and what impedes the flourishing of the subject. While the enthusiasm with which Ginsberg embraces life as holy here touches me, it also leaves me suspicious. To escape the very necessary act of judging the world by fleeing into spirituality is, by definition, to construct a spirituality without an idea of justice.
It seems to me that to no longer like Allen Ginsberg is to have resolved two crises: that of queerness and that of faith. As I sit and read “Howl” on this Friday morning with increasing irritation, I feel myself to be very solidly myself, to be very solidly queer and very solidly sure of that which I believe about the world, about what is good in it and righteous about it and what is poison in it. In some ways, “Howl” reflects the traumas of its time for gay men and the mentally ill: it struggles—indeed, it howls—against a world that will not accept and will not cease to pathologize ulterior forms of relating and knowing. (To a certain extent, we still live in this world, though not as much as Ginsberg did.) This mirrors the position of “Howl” in my own life. In a period of immense struggle to become myself, the poem was for me a bible. Having become myself, however, it is dated, both in history generally and in my own personal history. To read it now and not to like it confirms indeed that I have found better stores of liberation in myself and in the world than its oblique and tormented gestures toward the figures of the rebel and the madman. Having come to embrace a certain idea of love and of queerness—as an expansive affordance of life in this world of others, a position of total possibility in which others appear to us as ineffably precious things and the matter of what and who we ourselves are is surrendered gleefully to the other before us—Ginsberg’s howling feels hollow. I would like to suggest that we should all no longer like “Howl,” but I won’t go that far. Instead, I will affirm that there is a place and a time for “Howl,” that it is a part of growing up a fag and a part, importantly, of the growing up of faggotry in our culture. I smile a little fondly as I write this, though not for “Howl,” but for the boy I once was who read it.
Citation: Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1959).