There’s some poetry I really love…and a lot I don’t understand. Either way, you can’t have a life-changing, soul-searching adventure without a little bit of poetry. I picked Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg because it seemed the least intimidating of my options, yet still the most relevant.
The title poem, “Howl,” lives up to its name: it’s like one long yell, with all the power and majesty that you’d expect from a wolf. It’s a howl of pain, as Williams explained in his introduction, from the hell that Ginsberg witnessed. He enumerates the things the world has done to the people of his generation and what they’ve done to themselves, and he shows how closely related they are.
The poem is a callback to Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” as is “A Supermarket in California.” He embodies the human experience while still expressing his individual one. He also claims his history as a queer American by referencing both Whitman and Garcia Lorca. These are queer artists he’s calling back to, and he treats them the same way he treats the people who are active presences in his life, like Jack Kerouac.
I especially enjoyed his personal feelings as expressed in “America.” He treats America like an oppressive parent he wants to rebel against. Then he acknowledges how he himself embodies America, just like when a child realizes they have become like their parents. While acknowledging this, he still manages to take responsibility for making sure his generation is the one that changes things. “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” he says.
Ginsberg manages to mix the sacred with obscene, using curse words and sexually suggestive language to convey pain, hope, and love. Even, in some instances, faith, as he references the Creator and the Father alongside his claim that the “closet door is open” for him.
“I want people to bow as they see me and say he is gifted with poetry, he has seen the presence of the Creator,” he says. And for 50 years, his poetry has been doing that for the queer community just like Walt Whitman before him. His poetry lives on, every sacred, vulgar word of it, and America needs it just as much now as it did when he wrote it.