To say that ‘Howl’ is an incredible poem is almost certainly to say something trite, or at least something boring. People have been saying this since Ginsberg read Part I to a wine-drunk scrum at San Francisco’s Six Gallery in 1955. Now more than ever, in this age of Wikipedia, it seems smarter and more interesting to laud the undiscovered and to denounce the unwashed masses’ sheep-like dedication to what introductory English courses have taught them was revolutionary.
Any interest in poetry was once a gigantic interest in poetry: now the bar is higher, because there is so much work and so many ways to access it and it is so cool to do so. Giving "Howl" a well-educated cursory nod – "you are historically significant for your vivid portrayal of post-war America" – seems like more than enough.
Today’s hipsters, however, are paying premiums for our angel-headedness
It's often unclear what will go down in history and what will pass largely unnoticed, save for those 'serious readers' jumping up and down and crying, "Guys, wait!" Monday marked the fifty-eighth anniversary of the Six Gallery reading, now widely considered to have sparked the Beat Generation’s influence and later this week, Kill Your Darlings, which stars Daniel Radcliffe as Ginsberg, comes out in cinemas.
Both dates offer us the chance to consider why Ginsberg holds such a unique status within youth culture today: renowned, replicated, revered, then written off for being so. It has the rare quality of being both significant as an event in the moment and significant as an event remembered. It is ambitious in defining synecdoches for a modern life that is full of pain and pleasure and bodily fluid, at once both philosophical and mundane, wonderful and disgusting. It is a beautiful poem, with language rich and specific, often unexpected but never random. More people should be (re)reading it and crying.
Today’s hipsters, however, are paying premiums for our angel-headedness. Instead of rejoicing in this work of genius and vowing to someday create something so representative of existence, we have seen "Howl" dulled by the better-looking actors who read it onscreen (first James Franco in Howl, now Radcliffe). Now that intellectualism is in, we read it like permission to have "stale beer afternoon’s, to finish the whiskey, to "copulate ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and f[a]ll off the bed".
The logic is surely familiar: yeah, it’s bad, but they did it, too. But where the Beats were seeking outlets for their outrage, pain, joy, angst, anger, our awareness that this strength of feeling once existed has made us think that we aren’t feeling enough. (Or: where they took heroin, we ask anyone, everyone, polite but insistent, "Have you got any MDMA?")
We are skeptical of ‘Howl’ because the commodification of cool has made us fortify our defenses of irony and obscurity. There's a clear Beat rubric for bohemian artiness, and it's relegated the poem to its particular purgatory: typewriters, black-and-white photos, On the Road rhetoric, glasses. The spectacles retailer Warby Parker claims to owe its aesthetic to Kerouac, who, they write on their sleekly fonted website, "inspired a generation to take a road less traveled and to see the world through a different lens".
Ours is a generation of writers who in one breath purport to have "feels" — all the feels! — but champion work that is cut with meaningless absurdities and detachment
That this refers to the same generation for whom the prospect of counting any author besides Kerouac among its favorites on OKCupid seems unconsidered, cringeworthy at best. Fearful of being lumped into the Beats’ superficial image – a grainy reblog of a guy in a cool coat smoking a cigarette – we shy away from its brilliance.
Like Fiona Apple, we shout, "I want to feel everything!" but we rarely put our (or our parents’) money where our mouth is. Ours is a generation of writers who in one breath purport to have "feels" — all the feels! — but champion work that is cut with meaningless absurdities and detachment, either disillusioned or ironically so, in the next.
Far from the listless eye-rolling pedants so many editorials have made today’s youth out to be, Ginsberg’s hipsters "demanded", "crashed", "barreled"; they "wept", "cowered" and "howled", all the while "burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night". The intensity of feeling in the poem imbues the experience of it; at the Six reading, Kerouac was shouting "Go! Go! Go!" at the end of every line. By the end, Ginsberg himself was in tears. We should be more like that.
Follow Lauren Oyler on Twitter here @laurenoyler