Considering Ginsberg embraced Kerouac’s “First thought, best thought,” motto, Howl’s 50th anniversary edition [Harper Perennial Classics], which includes many photocopied pages of handwritten and typed revisions, proves Ginsberg did plenty of revisiting and change to those first thoughts. Choosing better, more musical adjectives, adding to and shaping his images to enhance the mental scenery, and the great big cross-outs in pencil, turn this long, occasionally tough read into something wondrous.
Anyone who hasn’t read Howl might not get the beauty of this book. Howl, (at first impression, anyway) appears to be a spontaneous effusion of cadence, gibberish, sexual references and glamorized psychosis. It is funny, frank and unashamed, and in those Eisenhower American-era days, what Ginsberg did was a brave and scary thing. He and his publisher, the poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who owned City Lights Books) certainly had their work cut out defending it.
Beyond its great literary status, “Howl” is a political milestone, being initially banned and labeled “obscene” for what by today’s standards is laughably mild. This version of Howl is dedicated to Ferlinghetti, who along with the American Civil Liberties Union, championed the poem with First Amendment Protections. As we all know, Howl won its censorship trial to became one of the best and most widely read poems of modern time.
The 50th Anniversary Edition has some interesting 1950s black and white photos of Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neal Cassady and friends; photos of Ginsberg’s room, photographed in Summer 1955, where Howl was created; a reader’s guide and notes by Ginsberg; and perhaps most interesting, a ‘reintroduction to Carl Solomon’ (for whom Howl was written), and a statement and writings by the real Carl Solomon, who had the uncomfortable burden of becoming an unlikely celebrity for having known Ginsberg during shared time in a mental institution. Of great interest are pages written by Carl Goy, a mental patient who underwent some of the shock treatments Ginsberg and Solomon were subjected to. He’s a fascinating, if unreliable, narrator and it is certainly food for thought. Also of interest are the pages of correspondence from poets, peers, family and publishers about the book. In some of these letters, he covers imagery and technique, in others he battles angry feelings and upset. It’s a great journey through the artistic, spiritual, mental, emotional and political publishing process, on top of everything else. Finally, there are several pages of ‘Model Texts: Inspirations Precursor to Howl’ where Ginsberg pays homage to those that planted the seeds of this work: Christopher Smart, Shelley, Artaud, a tip of the hat to Bob Dylan, his friend William Carlos Williams, and others.
It’s a wonderful book—sort of a ‘box set’ for Ginsberg fans—and it’s praise for best thought, whether or not it’s the first.