(essay date 1978) In the essay excerpted below, Thurley examines the poetic characteristics and influences of “Howl” and discusses the poem's mechanics.]
In the case of Allen Ginsberg, the danger of substituting sociology for criticism is perhaps greater than in that of any other poet of our time. Ginsberg the poet has become, over the past fifteen years, Ginsberg the public drop-out, the guru, subterranean jet-setter, the King of the May. As a poet he has been, it appears, unable to withstand the extraordinary pressures of modern publicity, pressures ironically far greater than those he had initially dropped out to avoid. The poet has gone under to the entertainer, he has become a skilled performer of works—like `Howl'—originally written out of a passion and intensity which are cancelled by the very professionalism of the `rendition'. Like Yevgenii Yevtushenko, Allen Ginsberg is a living proof of Herbert Marcuse's account of the one-dimensionality of Soviet-American society, which asserts that the monoliths destroy by absorbing.
This is particularly unfortunate in the case of Ginsberg since there is no doubting his importance in the emergence of a mature American poetry in the 1950s and 1960s. When Ginsberg crossed America and read `Howl' at Rexroth's famous Renaissance reading, he as it were fertilized the Black Mountain school, and the American Moment may be said to have arrived. Ginsberg achieved in `Howl' what none of his predecessors had been able to: to merge the rhetorical voice of American populist tradition with a passionate, personal intelligence and wit. The significance of the achievement is obscured, once again, by some dubious theories of `voice'.
There have been attempts to return poetry to a so-called conversational tone or speech-tone before. This has been in fact the dominant preoccupation of most poetic revolutions since the Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth's Preface stated an intention to return to a language spoken by men; and one of the most important elements of the ironist programme of the 1920s was the restoration of the kind of easy conversational manner we see in Marvell, Herbert and Donne. Symbolism and imagism, it is true, concern themselves more with precision of notation, but one of the ways in which later symbolist poets like Laforgue most strikingly differ from the Parnassians, for instance, is in the assumption of a relaxed manner which creates the illusion of cultivated speech. The speech-mystique has been especially important in American poetics. The reason for this is probably that America had no tradition of a cultivated poetic `speech': there was, as I have observed above, no American Browning, and American poetry before Pound , with the great exception of Whitman, was characterized by an artificial `poetic' manner, a stiff stilted tone, as of a man on his best behaviour in `good' society. Dickinson, who might be thought a second major exception to this rule, only substitutes for the pomposities of Lanier and Bryant a nursery-rhyme sing-song. Thus, the imagist rebellion—a remarkably sophisticated one—was, once its centre of gravity had shifted from London to Chicago, an expression of dissatisfaction with traditional American prosody rather than with anything obtaining in England. It was, in short, anti-provincial. Now, in fact, we might question both the possibility and the advisability of any return to normal speech or speech-rhythm. When Charles Olson says that `from the breathing of the man who writes at the moment he writes, the line is born', when Robert Duncan speaks of `the swarm of human speech', when Allen Ginsberg speaks of `the new speech-rhythm prosody' of `Howl,' we must beware of taking them literally. Their poetry is in fact no closer to so-called `speech-rhythm' than William Cowper's or Walter de la Mare's; `Howl' is not Ginsberg's `own heightened conversation' except in a sense that guts his words of their meaning: the adjective `heightened' opens the flood-gates.
The impact of `Howl' needs no demonstration: the poem is a fact of literary as well as of sociological history. It made a permanent difference. But its originality hasn't a great deal to do with speech or `breath'. `The thing that balances each line,' Ginsberg writes of `America', `with its neighbours is that each (with tactical exceptions) is ONE SPEECH BREATH—an absolute physical measure as absolute as the ridiculous limited little accent or piddling syllable count.' `In this,' he goes on, `I've gone forward from Williams because I literally measure each line by the physical breath—each one breath statement, dictated by what has to be said, in relation and balance to the previous rhythmic statement.' This clearly refers back, even in diction, to the preoccupations of Olson, Williams and Duncan. The document from which these statements come is the most penetrating and intelligent analysis and presentation of Beat rhythmics that has yet appeared. On its own it establishes Ginsberg as a serious critic. No-one, moreover, would wish to question the burden of its argument: `Howl,' like the companion poems in the volume of that name, sounds much as Ginsberg would lead us to expect it to. Yet his claims about `one speech breath' cannot be allowed to stand: for one thing it would require the lungs of a bull to encompass a sentence or clause like this:
Then, the rhythm of poetry doesn't operate in quite this way. English poetry has always varied and manipulated the breathing-rate of its readers: the longer verse-paragraphs of Milton and Wordsworth and the later Shakespeare compel us to pause and wait and hold on much as `When Lilacs Last ...' does, and indeed `Howl' itself. The long suspensive line of Whitman forms part of a different approach, to life as well as to the writing of poetry, from that which informs the sing-song of Emily Dickinson. It is a question not of `real' speech and artifice, but of different kinds of artifice. (pp. 172-74)
The driving colloquial beat of the famous opening to `Howl' should not be allowed to blind us to the poem's great flexibility of tone. There is a great difference between the seriousness of this verse, and the humourlessness of, say, Robert Lowell's. Lowell's verse strains after irony, but it is devoid of that real inner balance and confidence of judgement that can make irony functionally appropriate. Ginsberg's greater religious commitment—`Howl' is about people who have committed themselves irrevocably to a life of perhaps excessive spiritual intensity—releases irony from its academic bondage. Ironically enough, a major consequence of this anti-ironist revolution has been the reconstitution of irony itself: Ginsberg and Corso have written distinguished poems—`America' and `Marriage'—which succeed in being at the same time serious, satiric and funny. These poems remind us of what had been lost sight of in the ironist era, the ancient connection between irony, wit and laughter. `Marriage' satirizes certain aspects of social behaviour and ritual no less skilfully than Eliot's `Prufrock', which it draws upon (`And should I then ask Where's the bathroom?'). But it does so much more amusingly—and the amusement is of a different kind from what Lawrence Ferlinghetti seeks to arouse in his piece on `Underwear', which is cabaret rather than poetry. The delight one experiences is intellectual. In `Howl,' Ginsberg's ability to move easily from exultation and pain to humour and self-mockery is radically important: the total impact of the work is composed of many different sorts of effect. The responses called for range from pity to terror, through laughter, disgust and contempt:
Irresistible as it is, it is a complex mechanism: the man who jumped off Brooklyn Bridge was possibly remembering the Hart Crane poem, and had seen himself as the bedlamite speeding to the parapets, `Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning'. We too are to think of Crane and, like the would-be suicide, be both outraged and amused by the abysmal failure of the attempt. The beautiful aside—`this actually happened'—alerts us to the response we are expected to make; it also tells us that the whole passage, the whole poem, is at once satirizing the life-style of the protagonists and celebrating it. Ginsberg has understood and embodied in language a profound truth about the cultural life, that it is composed to a large extent of imitation, of conscious affiliation to a culture-myth.
For the culture-hero had been through this process before he emerged himself. The tradition goes back through Ginsberg to Crane, to Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Poe. The great virtue of `Howl' is the warmth and sympathy with which it celebrates what the poet understands is both sublime and absurd. This is especially true of the third section of the poem: Carl Solomon went through the whole silly serious routine with Allen Ginsberg. Yet he did go mad, and what are the alternatives in modern society?—
In spite of the silliness, in spite of the farce, the pilgrimage was real, and the evils of the punitive system we call society no less so. The pity, the fear and the laughter are inextricably confused together.
At its best moments, `Howl' seems a major utterance in its time. Yet it presents no less evidence of Ginsberg's weaknesses than of his strengths. For the humour is sometimes just skittish, almost undergraduate, and Ginsberg seems often more a great parodist than an originator:
In this way, Ginsberg plays off the muscular intensity of Hopkins and the exalted sonorities of Whitman against a genuinely self-mocking pathos. In the above example, the movement of the verse imitates the sloughing lurch of the subway train; and Ginsberg's best verse is consistently humorous and ironical, yet at the same time serious. `Howl' is, in a way, satire:
Many of the poem's best moments come when it breaks down laughing at itself. The last word in this extract recalls Poe, of course; an important link, via Crane, with the English Romantics. Poe himself played at being Shelley; Ginsberg doesn't play at being Poe, but he sees the dangers.
What Ginsberg's poetry lacks is sustained tension and rhythmic drive, and this doesn't seem unrelated to the vein of fantasy eclecticism that he so often taps. This may seem perverse: has not `Howl' already been praised for its chant-tone, enabling it to graduate easily from pathos to absurdity, from slow thoughtfulness to ecstasy without jar or unease? Yes, and Ginsberg's effect on the poets who followed him was salutary and permanent. Yet, in fact, he substitutes for the real heroic strength of the masters—Hopkins, Whitman, Blake, Crane—a mad capering rush. Returning to the speech-tone debate for a moment, we could say that the real basis for the rhythm of `Howl' is an illusion of continuous high-pitched talk. As we have seen, this illusion manages—very skillfully—to include within its compass a wide range of ironical and humorous tones: the delivery is really like that of a fast-talking comedian who reckons on his asides gaining maximum impact from there being no alteration of delivery-rate. But there are moments when the high-pitched talk covers up a real flagging of the inner rhythmic momentum:
with mother finally*******, and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window, and the last door closed at 4 AM and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room emptied down to the last piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet, and even that imaginary, nothing but a hopeful little bit of hallucination—
What is Ginsberg doing here? Behind these words, there seems to be strong feeling; yet the poet has failed to contain it, to nerve it into language. The tone has faltered unsurely, the rhythm flagged, and one is aware that the verse is not governed from within by the strength of a great past. The verse at this point is actually sentimental, closer to the pathos of primitive American naturalists like O. Henry and Dreiser than to the great drive and clarity of Whitman. One is reminded also of the enormous burden the poet places upon himself by committing himself to poetry rather than to prose: to bring one's deepest feelings into poetic language is an almost superhumanly onerous task. The lesser poet resorts to an appeal to the emotions, as Ginsberg does here. (pp. 175-78)
Allen Ginsberg's failure to develop beyond the point reached in `Howl' can be ascribed, I think, to an amalgam of these reasons. In the volumes after `Howl' this poetry divides more and more decisively into two categories: there are `solid' poems of recollection, and rhetorical poems that tend to disintegrate into spiritual vapour. The poetry of the first sort can become excessively concrete, merely remembered: the remembrances are processed by juxtaposition, each suggesting the memory-trace next door. `Howl' itself perhaps tries to carry more luggage than the poet's rhythmic vitality can manage. By `Kaddish' and `To Aunt Rose' the recollective systems are clogged and over-burdened. Towards the end of the 1960s (when Ginsberg's entire way of life had altered), even this act of recollection has gone, replaced only by a diaristic notation, the images mere tape-jottings. The poems of the second sort burn out into increasingly gaseous fulmination: the attitudes are peddled and, though sincere in the worldly sense, lack artistic compulsion. Between these two poles, of naturalism and spirituality, his poetry has always oscillated. (p. 179)