Allen Ginsberg: Howl

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts & Bibliography (Barry Miles, editor) (New York: Harper Perennial, 1995)

Barry Miles has done an excellent job with "Howl," a legendary poem now celebrating its golden anniversary. This large 9"x11" edition contains facsimile drafts, variants, annotations, and affords valuable insight into the editing and revision process (Ginsberg wrote up to eighteen drafts, depending on the section). The appendices (which, particularly the "Author's Annotations," could easily have been much lengthier) were also quite useful. Ginsberg quoted these lines from Whitman's "Song of Myself" as Howl's epigraph:

"Unscrew the lock from the doors ! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs !"

This is particularly appropriate, as "Howl" was prefigured a century earlier by Walt Whitman's odes to onanism and veiled references to homosexuality. Whitman wrote explicitly about masturbation--"The pulse pounding through palms and trembling encircling fingers" and the "limpid liquid" that he "toss[ed] carelessly to fall where it may" ("Spontaneous Me")--but was more guarded about his partners. In a poem set in New Orleans ("Once I Pass'd through a Populous City"), Whitman switched pronouns from the original manuscript in order to hide the gender of his (male) lover:

"Once I pass'd through a populous city imprinting my brain for future use with its shows, architecture, customs, tradition,
Yet now of all that city I remember only a man I casualy met there who detained me for love of me,
Day by day and night by night we were together -- all else has long been forgotten by me,
I remember I saw only that man who passionately clung to me,
Again we wander, we love, we separate again,
Again he holds me by the hand, I must not go,
I see him close beside me with silent lips sad and tremulous."

Where Whitman was circumspect, Ginsberg's "Howl" was celebratory: he boldly described his compatriots in terms of their ecstatic experiences:

"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 Carribean love,
who balled in the morning in the evening in rosegardens and the grass of public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whoever come who may"

As transgressively incendiary as the published version of "Howl" was in the repressed milieu of the 1950s, the first draft would have caused an ever larger imbroglio if it had been left unrevised. This section of the original draft of Part IV (pp. 98-9) is especially daring for its era:

Holy the lovers! Holy the fucking! Holy the Quers [sic] Holy Cocksucking.


Holy the rumblings in my gut! Holy the shit in my toilet!
Holy the come on the tip of my cock! Holy the Cock in my mouth
Holy the Cock in my asshole Holy the Cock in between my legs

In "Howl," Ginsberg sang a twentieth-century song of himself that is as celebrated as Whitman's Leaves of Grass was in the previous century. Read it and be mesmerized!


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