ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
The date was November 1, 1956, 50 years ago next week. The San Francisco bookstore City Lights published a poem that became an anthem for the beat generation. At the time, Allen Ginsberg's Howl was like nothing else. Ginsberg broke all the rules of conventional poetry and used language that many Americans weren't used to hearing in public.
Here he is, reading a passage about the ordeal of his friends rebelling against the button down 1950s:
Mr. ALLEN GINSBERG (Poet): Who wandered around and around at midnight in the railroad yards, wondering where to go and went, leaving no broken hearts? Who lit cigarettes in boxcars, boxcars, boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms and grandfather night?
BLOCK: The San Francisco bookstore owner who published Howl got slapped with an obscenity charge for putting Ginsberg's word into print. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was tried and later acquitted and Ginsberg himself became a legend, gaining a following among scores of young people of the time, including NPR's John McChesney.
JOHN MCCHESNEY: I first heard Ginsberg's Howl on a recording when I was an enlisted man in the Air Force stationed in a dusty, west Texas town during the late 1950s. I'd read about the trial in Playboy magazine and bought the fantasy label recording expecting something really salacious. Some of my military friends gathered with me around the record player and as Ginsberg rolled out his rant against contemporary America, we stared at each other with puzzled looks.
True, there was some raunchy language I'd never heard in high school literature classes, as well as talk of illegal drugs, but I didn't understand much of the poem. I wasn't the only bewildered young reader. Robert Hass is a former American Poet Laureate who teaches poetry at the University of California Berkeley.
Professor ROBERT HASS (University of California Berkley): I have to say I was in high school at the time and I heard that this book had been banned, so of course we all went out and bought it. And for me, a kid in California, its imagery at that time was completely incomprehensible. Incomparable, blind streets of shuddering clouds. Mohammed and angels staggering on tenement roofs, illuminated. I had no notion of what it was, but I sure sensed the energy in it.
MCCHESNEY: Like Bob Dylan's Mr. Jones, we knew something was happening here and if you had an ounce of curious rebelliousness in you, you wanted to understand why Ginsberg began his poem this way -
Mr. GINSBERG: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked. Dragging themselves through the Negroes' streets at dawn, looking for an angry fix. Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.
MCCHESNEY: Ginsberg was talking mostly about his friends and fellow writers of the beat generation, like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Neal Cassidy, but in the repressed 1950s, reading Howl launched many of us on a literary exploration that seemed like a liberation from McCarthyism, grey flannel suited futures and Cold War fears.
Professor HASS: Somebody has to be the dog that bites through the leash, and Ginsberg was that dog and Howl was how he did it.
MCCHESNEY: For Allen Ginsberg, San Francisco was a liberation from the restraints of the East Coast, where as the son of a traditional poet he'd attended Columbia University. Jonah Raskin authored a book about Howl called American Scream.
Mr. JONAH RASKIN (Author, American Scream): San Francisco was in a lot of ways a refuge for people from all over the country and it was in the ‘40s, there was a substantial community of pacifists, anarchists, experimental poets in part because it was far away from the East Coast centers of power and you could do things in San Francisco that you didn't do elsewhere.
There was an invitation to experiment with personal lifestyle. Ginsberg became part of this literary and cultural scene right away.
MCCHESNEY: Ginsberg bought a tape recorder and practiced reading his poems aloud because poetry as performance art was blossoming in San Francisco nightclubs. He quit his work in corporate advertising and began work on Howl, in which he acknowledges his homosexuality and breaks with the dominant poetic tradition.
He first read the poem at the Sixth Gallery in San Francisco. Jack Kerouac was there, pouring wine. So was poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Mr. LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI (Poet, Publisher of Howl): When I heard it I immediately thought the world has been waiting for this poem. This message, his message was in the air and it just needed someone to articulate it.
MCCHESNEY: Lawrence Ferlinghetti today sits in his office above City Lights Books, overlooking the intersection of Columbus and Broadway in the heart of San Francisco's North Beach, home of the beats in the 1950s and still a Mecca for fans of their literature.
But tourism prevails here today and across the street a plastic red banner announces The Beat Museum. Ferlinghetti dryly observes that he hasn't visited there yet. He says after he heard Howl in 1955, he sent a telegram to Ginsberg.
Mr. FERLINGHETTI: Well, I wrote to him what I thought Emerson had written to Walt Whitman upon receiving the first copy of Leaves of Grass. Quote, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” And I added, when do we get the manuscript?
MCCHESNEY: When he got the manuscript, he anticipated trouble with the law, so he sent it to England to have it printed. Not long after it arrived in San Francisco, the police arrested a bookseller at City Lights and charged publisher Ferlinghetti with obscenity. The ensuing trial delighted Ginsberg because he knew it would only enhance the poem's reputation. Judge Clayton Horn ruled that the poem hadn't been written with a lewd intent but Lawrence Ferlinghetti remains convinced that obscenity wasn't the real reason for the attempted censorship.
Mr. FERLINGHETTI: I always felt the real reason we were busted for publishing Allen Ginsberg's Howl was that it really attacked the very bare root of, the very Moloch root of American consumer culture.
MCCHESNEY: Moloch, a Canaanite god of fire to whom children were sacrificed became, for Ginsberg, the symbol of rational, industrial capitalism.
Mr. GINSBERG: What sinks of cement and aluminum bash open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination? Moloch. Moloch, whose factories dream and croak in the fog. Moloch, whose smokestacks and antennae crown the cities. Moloch, whose love is endless oil and stone. Moloch, whose soul is electricity and banks.
MCCHESNEY: There are very few references to the Bay Area in Howl. San Francisco may have provided a creative space for Ginsberg but all the imagery of urban hell in the poem is drawn from New York. That hardly mollified the East Coast literary establishment, though, which regarded Howl as an act of cultural treason.
Poet Bob Hass says it still provokes strong criticism.
Professor HASS: It still seems like literary sensationalism and bad manners, in a repellent way, to certain kinds of writers. But my experience of teaching students year after year American poems that interest me is that they mostly respond very powerfully to this poem in the way that every generation has.
MCCHESNEY: And they have responded. According to City Lights, over one million copies have been sold. The poem's been translated into 24 languages. Ginsberg died in 1997, but Howl changed American poetry, brought the beat generation to national attention and as many believe, laid the groundwork for the youth culture which blossomed in San Francisco in the 1960s.
John McChesney, NPR News, San Francisco.
BLOCK: You can hear more of Allen Ginsberg's readings of Howl and other poems at our web site, npr.org.
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