October 09, 2005

“Howl Redux”

A Time For Remembrance or Rebirth of a Transformation
By Fred H. Arm

Last Friday night I had the fortune or some would say the misfortune of attending the “Howl Redux at the Herbst Theater across from the Civic Center of San Francisco. Litquake and City Lights presented a series of literature and poetry readings celebrating the birth of the beat generation some fifty years ago led by Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure and others. Even old non-beatnik authors like Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein were featured with excerpts from their writings. Michael McClure is the only survivor of the group and we had the privilege to listen to him personally read his stuff. Other luminary readers included Oakland’s mayor, Jerry Brown, actor Peter Coyote and an archival video of Allen himself bellowing his poem “Howl” in an angry, unintelligible, and hurried staccato.

Fifty years ago America was just recovering from World War II and had developed into a repressive and paranoid society led by the Communist Witch hunter, Joe McCarthy. It was not a pleasant time for the people. The extremely unpopular so-called “police action” in Korea had fanned the flames of suspicion, providing fertile grounds for the pursuit of Communists under everyone’s bed. People felt not only in danger from Communists, they also feared the wrath of the government through McCarthyism and the intolerance of their police agencies. It was the age of “blacklisted” actors, writers, and entertainers. There was a lot of frustration, fear, anger, and fomenting unrest. Such was the fertile ground for the likes and birth of poets like Allen Ginsberg.

It was in San Francisco where all this antagonistic, rebellious, and frustrated poetry was first unleashed, with Ginsberg as the patron saint. So once again, fifty years later, we were once again treated, or perhaps exposed would be a better word, to the outraged words that changed the nation and its institutions. Here is a sample from Ginsberg’s “Howl”

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated

who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,

who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,

who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,

who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.

It was quite an experience once again hearing the “Howls” of fury and frustrations of the “beat” poets who set the stage for the next decade of revolution ultimately transitioning into the hippie culture of the 60’s. The lengthy production was at times very upsetting and occasionally tedious. Yet, it struck a chord in harmonization with the angers and frustrations we are living today. The pendulum seems to have swung back in time where we have once again become more repressive, spawning a greater gap between rich and poor, more paranoid, and once more fighting an unpopular war. Perhaps the words and sentiments of Allen Ginsberg and his lot have yet again a resonant ear with the people of the Bay area.

See more on Ginsberg at: http://www.popsubculture.com/pop/bio_project/allen_ginsberg.html

Posted by fredarm at October 9, 2005 12:33 PM