Saturday, June 22, 2013

"Howl" by Allen Ginsberg

I'm going to be honest. I've never had much of a desire to read "Howl." This aversion is linked to all kinds of things, involving weird community college teachers, documentaries watched involuntarily, and various other things which I won't bore you by explaining.

But I had to read it for class on Monday. This being BYU, my teacher gave a disclaimer in class, assuring us that we could skim over certain parts if we wanted to, but ended by saying "We're all adults, we can handle it." (In other words, if you skim over parts, you are probably a way-too-sheltered wuss.) Now, let me get this straight--I didn't anticipate having to skim over parts; my aversion to the poem has little to do with skittishness about the dreaded "sexual stuff" and "vulgar language." But somewhere deep down, I kind of said to myself, " we go."

Well, I read the poem. And...seriously? It wasn't half as bad as people make it out to be. And when I say "bad," I mean the "sexual stuff" and "vulgar language" was hardly worth batting an eyelash (particularly when you consider that movies with one "F-bomb" and partial nudity are considered appropriate for 13-year-olds in this day and age). Not that I'm saying I would feel comfortable reading the poem aloud to third-graders or anything, but people really make "Howl" seem like X-rated poetry or literary porn.

The truth is, "Howl" is a really amazing poem. Do I consider it uplifting and inspiring? Would I quote bits of it in church? Erm, no. But contrary to what seems to be popular opinion (among members of my church, anyway), poetry's sole purpose is not always to uplift, inspire, and be fodder for church talks so you can make it all the way to 10 minutes of material. "Howl" is dark and absolutely awful, but also positively entrancing with its ugly beauty. (And its ugliness--not even the worst of it--does not all come from "sexual stuff" and "vulgar language.") Somehow, Ginsberg has managed to take all the worst language in English (and I'm not just talking about vulgarity, but words that are just ugly) and weave it in with some of the most beautiful, corrupting it all and making it all ugly together. That's a pretty amazing feat. Whether it's worthwhile could be debated, but it's amazing.

I don't have any deep insights to relate about "Howl." But I read it. And I lived to tell the tale.


  1. I read Howl in college too! It was OK I guess, I don't remember much. I think I liked almost everything else in that class better, but I'm not much on modern poetry. Or poetry, TBH. At some point I heard a song where the first line of Howl is sung in a slightly silly way, and so now I can be found in the kitchen, singing "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical!" My poor kids are going to be so scarred. (But at least I'm not telling them the secret tune that all Emily Dickinson poems can be sung to. That's just cruel.)

    1. Haha! It certainly wasn't my favorite poem in the class, but it had its merits. I'm not super into modern poetry either (and it wasn't until recently that I had much appreciation for poetry in general). It was interesting to read, though.

      Now I'm jealous. I wish MY mom had sung the first line of "Howl" in a silly way! Ha, ha. (But seriously. That could have been great. Maybe someday I'll hear the same song and be able to do that for my kids.

    2. Well, the trouble is that now I can never read "Howl" *without* hearing it in a silly tune. So, know that you can never un-hear this song! (I actually don't remember any of it except the Howl line, though.) Click at your own risk: