* learning to Howl with Allen Ginsberg

Had to read and discuss Allen Ginsberg’s Howl this week in one of my classes.  Kinda went like this:

* Angelheadedwhatnow? *
* From Howl to Huh? *

I have gone back and forth on the poem Howl since I first read it at eighteen.  I shared with my classmates how I went to San Diego on spring break once and spent five days straight following this routine: wake up, do tai chi, read Howl aloud.

All.  Three.  Parts.

I was young and weird, to say the least.

The whole time I did this I felt like I was throwing myself upon the poem and asking: why is this considered such a great poem?  what can I learn from it?  did Ginsberg really have as much peyote/sex as he says he did?

Borges said that Walt Whitman the man spent his writing life wanting to be more and more like the Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass.  Both Ginsberg and Whitman were larger than life.

Both were also very diplomatic and American.  Our professor shared with us that, while in Spain, he would run into people who, though they knew nothing of American poetry, they knew Howl.

And that’s Ginsberg accomplishment.  Not everybody loves The Wasteland, but it is a mountain between Leaves of Grass and Howl (this is in keeping with American poetry being a mountain range which is something I realize now may only make sense in my head).

Howl is one of those poems that is in the blood of American poetry like it or not, it is that family member that crashes the party with great stories but bad breath.

I won’t excerpt Howl here – you gotta take that ride yourself, y’all – but instead will share a poem that has much of what I love about Ginsberg – the humor and the heart.


A Supermarket in California – Allen Ginsberg

What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families
shopping at night! Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!–and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?

I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops? What price bananas? Are you my Angel?
I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in
an hour. Which way does your beard point tonight?
(I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we’ll both be

Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and
you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

Berkeley, 1955


Happy disappearing!


2 responses to “* learning to Howl with Allen Ginsberg”

  1. Thanks for this one Jose. Ginsberg had great courage, because he knew he was a fool and kept right on. He gave me courage still does.

    1. Exactly! Gives hope to fools like me! Thanks for reading, Toni!

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