Related Articles: Literary, All

Howl Against The Machine

Jonah Raskin's American Scream

One foggy afternoon in 1957, I walked out of City Lights bookstore with a slim book of poetry called Howl and Other Poems. I was beginning to write poetry myself in my high school English classes, and as I read "Howl" over one of my first-ever cups of espresso, it knocked my socks off.

As he reveals in the preface of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin shared my experience, and his new book incisively details the American cultural and political climate into which Ginsberg dropped the poem-bomb that shook up so many readers like ourselves. (Fair disclosure: Raskin and I shared a longtime membership in a Sonoma County writers group.)

For us young (and not-so-young) Americans who lived in the aftermath of the Korean War that ramped into the war in Vietnam, the anxiety over compulsory military service with a draft card in your wallet was unrelieved. The dread of global nuclear annihilation in the chilling atmosphere of the Cold War was heightened by domestic witch hunts and blacklists of left-leaning Americans during the McCarthy years. This was a period of political ferment and exhaustion, of questioning and the beginning of resistance that started out in New York and San Francisco and spread, within the next two decades, across the entire urban landscape in between. Those writers and artists who were down and out suffered angrily but helplessly in the cultural repression and censorship of the ostensible "freedom" offered them by the world's wealthiest and self-proclaimed "greatest democracy" and felt -- to coin a phrase -- beat.

As Raskin quotes Ginsberg: "We saw wealth and power from the point of view of down-and-out people on the street. That's what the Beat Generation was about -- being down and out, and about having a sense of beatitude too."

Hanging out in espresso bars, voicing radical protests, and openly exploring sex, drugs, and jazz, as well as rock 'n roll, became one way many Americans who couldn't take it any more started to express themselves. In short, this period marked the beginning of so many contradictions, movements and demonstrations in American life that still surround us it seems anyone reading Raskin's book today will find it all too relevant, even without a knowledge of its abundant literary references. The anti-war movement, political activism, ecological awareness; the struggle for racial, sexual and gender equality; and the critique of corporate power and perfidy: all these could be said to have risen at that time.

Thankfully, Jonah Raskin's new book brings this period and the Beats back into focus and reads like a novel. What's more, this book makes many other contributions to the cultural, literary and political understanding not only of Allen Ginsberg, his poetry, and what Raskin calls "the making of the Beat Generation," but, more broadly, America of the mid- and late-twentieth century. The citations that support Raskin's extensive research are contained entirely in a Notes and Sources section as an appendix, making footnotes in the text unnecessary and giving the book a readerly fluidity. In his acknowledgments and preface, Raskin reveals the extent of access he was given to Ginsberg's journals, correspondence, papers, manuscripts, and even his psychiatric record, obtained from Ginsberg's therapist at the Langley Porter Clinic at the University of California, San Francisco.

That said, Raskin commits the amazing omission of writing about the importance of a poem without including the text of the poem itself. Therefore, it's best to keep a copy of Ginsberg's Collected Poems 1947-1980 close at hand and a Norton Anthology or two. Like Ginsberg, Raskin assumes his reader to be hip, learned and on his level, so his book bulges with citations of all the poets and critics who influenced Ginsberg, with not one appropriate selection of their poetic or critical texts excised in an appendix.

Though Raskin's tone is partisan, he writes as an evenhanded (and erudite) student of literature, politics and culture. His goal is not to make personal, critical judgments or evaluations of the poetry. It seems he wants American Scream to stand as a factually researched and documented work of cultural reportage, not a critical study. This, it can be argued, is perhaps the book's deficit as well as its attribute, depending on what a reader's expectations are.

Only occasionally does Raskin hazard a critical evaluation, as when he says of Ginsberg: "The hard work of revision improved 'Howl.' The poem became tighter, richer; more expressive and more compact. It also became more personal… Most of all, perhaps, the language of the poem became more vivid, more alive and acrobatic. In the first draft, he used the verb 'looking' to describe the spiritual quests of the angelheaded hipsters. 'Looking' became 'exploring' and 'exploring' became 'burning,' a subtle but significant change that fits perfectly with the poem's underlying image of New York as a city on fire and its citizens in flames."

Such infrequent analytical forays into "Howl" only whet our appetites for a deeper look into the poem's meat and sinews. The fact that Raskin seems capable of strong analysis makes the lack of textual evaluation (not *to* mention the absence of the poem itself) that much more frustrating. Perhaps he needed a break from the broader cultural and political work that makes up the book's backbone, but it leaves a reader who wants to dig into "Howl" -- its mechanisms, its word play, its Whitman-like breath lines -- unsatisfied. But this is a quibble that pales by comparison with Raskin's accomplishment of rescuing the Beats from social caricature or obscurity and returning them to political and cultural relevance.

American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation
by Jonah Raskin
University of California Press; ISBN: 0520240154
Hardcover: 295 pages (April 2004)