Free Beer and Poetry

February 8, 1958

Allen Ginsberg is an epic poet of Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation. Ginsberg represents the North Beach school—San Fancisco’s Greenwich Village, sixteen blocks of bookshops, bars, and jazz bohemia. His epic poem is a free verse tragedy called Howl.

Ginsberg and his poem first vaulted to national attention two months ago when San Francisco police authorities arrested Lawrence Ferlinghetti, sometime painter and poet, and bookshop proprietor on the North Beach. Ferlinghetti, who had published Ginsberg’s poem in his Pocket Poet series, was charged with dissemination of “obscene and indecent writings” and brought to trial under California’s newly valid Obscenity Law.

Howl’s trial as a lewd work was hardly in the tradition of Ulysses. It consisted mainly of a parade of poetry professors from nearby universities to justify Ginsberg’s sexual imagery as an instrument of rendering his vision of human experience. Mark Schorer (of Berkeley), Walter Van Tillburg Clark, and Kenneth Rexroth (strawman poet and loquacious spokesman for the North Beach literati) told Judge Clayton Horn that the language of vulgarity was for Ginsberg a natural vernacular. (Ginsberg, after a stint at Columbia had been educated in night-spots, ghost towns, and freight car pilgrimages west.)

For the prosecution, zealous assistant D.A. McIntosh (famed for his campaign against nudist magazines) sounded the threat of licentious literature to the children of San Francisco, and contended that Ginsberg could have said what he had to say with more aplomb and fewer four-letter words.

The verdict was not guilty. “Would there,” asked Judge Horn in his decision, “be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to innocuous euphemism?” The North Beach poets danced in court that day, and the word of cultural liberation spread all the way to Big Sur.

There were more significant meanings in Judge Clayton’s decision than a new grey shade to the opaque of California legalism. Howl, not a very good poem, became an immediate best seller, and North Beach—which already gave the novel Jack Kerouac and On the Road—was discovered by big as well as little magazines.

No poem has ever deserved its title more. Howl is Ginsberg’s declaration of unfaith in Technological America, rendered by despair, erotic imagery, and dirty words. It is a cry of rage against Rockland and “the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality.” And, in a smaller way, it is a contorted and metaphorical promise of redemption from the supercharged electric chair of the raw-dealt genius. The means of penance is the essence of North Beach’s new philosophy.

Ginsberg and Kerouac are oracle and cantor of the Beat Generation’s metaphysical search for IT. IT is the moment of reckoning, the bohemian nirvana, the ultimate thrill. IT is sought by several means: by sex, by bullfighting, by jazz—when the man with the trumpet finds what he’s looking for and brings his audience with him. IT is found in motion, in the “night-cars” which whisk across the Continent both in Kerouac’s novel and in Howl. IT is no more obscure than absolution, and no more mythical than the sacraments and symbols of any religion. What is new about the San Francisco approach is “anarchy.”

The Anarchists

Like Holderlin, Blake, Baudelaire, or Rimbaud, the Beat poets are expatriates in contemporary society. They come to San Francisco, writes Rexroth, “for the same reason so many Hungarians have been going to Austria recently.” To Ginsberg, America is Moloch (the semiotic god whose worship entailed human sacrifice, usually of the first-born); and the great minds of Ginsberg’s generation, kicked around by the machine age, looking for “jazz or sex or soup,” are sacrificed to the great American dynamo.

Beat poets abandon the intellect. To the Harvard community, schooled as we are in the academy of form, all poetry seems back which lacks order. Playboy, Esquire, and Harper’s are effectively snide in calling Kerouac and Ginsberg “immature.” Indeed they are; but, in the same sense, American poetry (outside of S.F.) appears to be senile—the aridity of a sterile Greenwich Village, or the ingrown complexity of form without substance, of structure without inspiration, which characterizes the overwhelmingly academic literature of America’s intelligentsia.

“Moloch!” cries Ginsberg. “Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! monstrous bombs!” A sphinx of cement and aluminum.

Professional Bohemians

The North Beach literati have suffered from their followers. In each generation, there are eternal college sophomores, the professional Bohemians, and the bored suburbanites ready to don both turban and sandals, grow a beard and go wandering down the beach screaming at the sea. Beat, cool, gone, way out—the anarchy which these terms imply immediately capture the anemic imaginations of minds exchanging ruts. IT to the audience (white collar San Francisco waiting in the Black Cat until girls go wild with wee hour jazz) is like slumming—the very method implies a kind of sacrilegious joy. IT to the Beat poets is a serious end, implying more than a playboy party—“freedom,” “escape.”

Ginsberg in Howl is an animal Dmitri leaping headfirst into the pit of self-abasement. Sex, like dope, is jut a symbol. Masochism itself, a mean. Howl succumbs to now Hum 6 readings; it is like those poems we wrote for high school literary clubs, before we came to Harvard. But Ginsberg and his fellows mean it. And if IT means homosexuality, dope, jazz, or death—then these are the instruments.

In a critical sense, we academicians know these men as psychopaths, and perhaps they are. They believe in sensuality, not sense; in thrill, not mere experience. Beauty is physical, and they think the world owes them a living—a free beer, a pat on the back, easy sex, and a wad of twenty-dollar bills. Responsibility has too many syllables and love is a dirty word. Ginsberg makes a disappointing Rimbaud.

But when these strange men in dungarees read poetry to unmuted jazz, or steal cars and drive to Denver, or just “burn, burn, burn, like a fabulous yellow roman candle” it is with a vigor which marks the rest of us as dead, a bad penny vitality and a grubby crucifixion which make lectures and Haze-Bick existentialism seem extremely square.