The following first appeared in Howl for Now: A Celebration of Allen Ginsberg's Epic Protest Poem, edited by Simon Warner for Root Books (2005)
"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."
When I met Allen Ginsberg, he was fifty years old; I was twenty-one, and so was Howl. Now the poem and I are over fifty, and the poet has been gone near fifteen years. We worked together for two decades. At the outset, we promised to tell each other all our secrets. He was big on vows, "Who fell on their knees in hopeless cathedrals praying for each other's salvation and light and breasts, until the soul illuminated its hair for a second." He used to tell people that I taught him music and he taught me poetry. There's some truth to this, but I got the better part of the bargain. I came of age in his company.
We were well matched musically from the moment I joined him on stage at my college to improvise an accompaniment to his songs. We liked the same things, Beethoven, brass bands, old ballads, the blues and all that proceeded from it, and singing. Singing was our great pleasure. He had the basso and I the high baritone. Some serious types didn't like his singing, but he was in tune, on time, and fearless about it. He could harmonize, make the changes, and not get lost. "Solid," he would say. In performance, he was solid, committed, all there. There was a peculiar elegance to his delivery, and when he went ecstatic, he was as true as the best of them.
Early on it struck me that although Allen was older than my father, he spoke as I did. His cohort had bequeathed the language that my generation assumed it had invented. Howl was part of a broad, mid-century democratization that links the Montgomery bus boycott and the people's stopping a war in South East Asia with a president's wife shaking her money maker at the Electric Circus. That the most widely known poem of the twentieth century had its premier in a converted garage was a signal instance in a larger trend.
One major thread running through this "democratization" (Ginsberg's term) was African American music. US culture's (and counterculture's) debt to African America will never be adequately expressed. For present purposes, I'll note that jazz was mainstream popular music during Ginsberg's formative years, and that all his life he studied the blues. Howl's opening riff, "I saw the best minds of my generation," might be conventionally described as two dactyls and a trochee, but could also be heard as a measure of 12/8 blues. Allen tended to favor compound meter, like 12/8, because it swings. There's a recording of Elvin Jones drumming along with his reading of a later poem, Hum Bomb. They were a natural match. I think of Howl as a saxophone solo ("and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America's naked mind into a an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio"); it takes a tenor man's lungs to blow it.
Allen's father, Louis Ginsberg, was a teacher of English literature and a respected lyric poet. At seventeen (1943), Allen was accepted into a university with a first-rate English department. During his second term, he met Lucien Carr, with whom he read the French symbolists, and who introduced him to Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs; together they concocted a "New Vision" based in Rimbaud's idea of the poet as seer. In 1950 (at 24), Ginsberg introduced himself to William Carlos Williams, who became a friend and mentor. Allen also connected with Charles Reznikoff who for decades, beginning in the 19-teens, walked around NYC noting anecdotal poems where events in the lives of ordinary people take on cosmic resonance. In this sense, Ginsberg is closer to Reznikoff than to Williams.
Allen was a city boy -- born in Newark, raised in Paterson, schooled in New York, premiered in San Francisco, went native in Benares, played the capitals of Europe, retired to a teaching post in Brooklyn, died on the Lower East Side. He spent most of his life in the downtown tenements that had housed his mother after she fled the pogrom. Ginsberg was the rare twentieth-century American male who had never driven a car. All his life, he walked around cities with companions, "Who talked continuously seventytwo hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge." His work came of this.
Loneliness figures also. Howl is full of loss, abandonment, and solitude, friends who jumped from tenement roofs, fell out of subway windows, or "vanished into nowhere Zen New Jersey," but these losses echo a larger one. Howl is a prelude to Kaddish in more than a chronological sense. Beneath Howl is the protracted process of losing his mother. Naomi didn't die until Allen was thirty (the year Howl was published), but she began her spectacular exit when he was a child. I had the impression that he felt himself very much alone. There's a passage in Howl that speaks to this. On a good night, he'd let it loose in a weeping roar: "Moloch in whom I sit lonely! [breathe] Moloch in whom I dream angels! [breathe, wipe your nose] Crazy in Moloch! [breathe] Cock sucker in Moloch! [breathe, go fortississimo] Lacklove and manless in Moloch!"
Howl is about family, friends, lovers, nations that go mad, or die, or try to. Mother checked out, and so will everyone else. (It's hard to be with someone who assumes that you are about go completely unreliable.) Maybe this is where the vows came from. If he wanted your companionship, he'd want promises, mutual confessions, to try to make it stick. It makes sense that his breakthrough work was addressed to the first guy he'd confessed to, who didn't hate him for being queer. Allen lost his mother, but found Jack Kerouac and friends. The magnitude of the loss meant that the find couldn't simply be an inspired group of intimates; it had to give birth to something, it had to change the world. In a sense, it did. Howl is also Naomi's vindication. "The fascist national Golgotha" is real. There are wires in the ceiling. The secret police are reading your email.
Allen told me he wrote Howl to try to get to Kerouac. Howl was, of course, much more than a note to a friend, but it's important to touch on this. Kerouac was immense for Ginsberg -- an American indeed, most American of Americans for a queer commie awkward kid perpetual exile son of a mother driven mad by the pogrom and the stifling rooms of Newark. Jack was the solid exemplar of confident and serious writerly commitment, ideal poet aesthetician, football hero, able seaman, bop aficionado, and first Buddhist teacher, an instance of American manhood not rejected, laughed at, nor beaten up by the rough boys, and beautiful, Jack was beautiful. And he was kind to Allen before the drink turned him mean. So Jack's language is in Howl, particularly in the first part -- angel headed ancient heavenly machinery boxcars is pure Kerouac. When one petitions a loved one, one imitates his manners.
Ginsberg habitually presented a three-part directive to younger poets: go to the first flash of perception ("What were you thinking before you thought you were writing a poem?"), feature the details (from Blake: "Labour well the Minute Particulars"), and say the secrets that everyone recognizes but dares not speak (which he associated with Reznikoff's "each on his bed spoke to himself alone, making no sound").
In the ‘50s, cutting to the first flash was in the air, its music was bop. As Zen priest and beat affiliate Philip Whalen wrote (in his "A Press Release for October, 1959"), "This poetry is a map of the mind moving." He could as well have been speaking of jazz or action painting. While Ginsberg was reading the objectivists, Kerouac was saying, "Don't think of words when you stop, but to see the picture better." Allen's lifelong interest in photography makes sense in this regard. There is also a Buddhist connection--meditation as direct observation of ordinary mind rather than spacing out in some spiritual romance fit with Ginsberg's objectivist roots. Meditation was to see what one thinks; writing was to say what one sees. Allen summed up the poetical program in 1984, when William Carlos Williams visited him in a dream and wrote:
No need/ to dress/ it up/ as beauty/ No need/ to distort/ what's not/ standard/ to be/ understandable/ . . . Take your/ chances/ on/ your accuracy/ Listen to/ yourself/ talk to/ yourself/ and others/ will also/ gladly/ relieved/ of the burden-/their own/ thought/ and grief./ What began/ as desire/ will end/ wiser.
The final catalyst for Howl was resignation. Allen got Howl from resigning his last attempt at denying his queerness (leaving his girlfriend's apartment in December '54 and moving in with Peter Orlovsky in February '55), and resigning his job in market research (May 1 ‘55) to devote himself to poetry. Finally (in August), the twenty-nine-year-old failed poet resigned his literary ambitions and sat down to relate a vision of their shared history to a kindred soul. Prior to writing Howl, Ginsberg had shown his work to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in hope that the older poet and publisher would take him on as a City Lights author, but Lawrence declined. Then, in the autumn of 1955, Allen gave up on what he later called "literary chatter," and "delivered my sermon to my soul and Jack's soul too" (to borrow a line from Sunflower Sutra). And Ferlinghetti did publish Howl, and got busted for his efforts. And the rest, as they say . . .
The photo is of Allen and me, circa 1976, taken by Terry Sanders. I have tried to contact Sanders, but had no luck. (Terry, if you see this, please email firstname.lastname@example.org)
 Ginsberg quoted from a 1982 interview in Michael Schumacher. 1992 Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg. NY: St. Martin's Press. P. 207.
 Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, etc. Barry Miles, ed. NY: Harper Collins, 1986. Part I: line 62. p. 5.
 Ibid. Part I: line 77, p. 6. Ginsberg never said that Howl is a sax solo. I think of it that way because the metaphor comes up a lot in beat writing. Kerouac referred to his Mexico City Blues poems as a series of 242 improvised saxophone choruses, and at the start of Kaddish part 2, Allen portrays Naomi's "history" as "a few images/ run thru the mind-like the saxophone chorus of houses and years." Allen told me that jazz was black speech, and he described his poetics as "bop prosody." The beats' language was, rhythmically at least, largely an adaptation of 1940s Harlem jive. Finally, from reading Howl aloud, I get the impression of a virtuoso piece requiring a wind player's lungs.
 Ibid. Part I: line 16. p. 3.
 Ibid. Part I: line 20., p. 3.
 Ibid. Part III, line 107, p. 7.
 Blake: Jerusalem, chapter 3, line 51.
 See Kerouac, Jack. "Belief & Technique for Modern Prose" in Anne Charters, ed. 1992. The Portable Beat Reader. NY: Viking Penguin, p. 59.
 Ginsberg: "Written in My Dream by W. C. Williams" in Selected Poems, pp. 357-58.Tweet