A Plea for the Return of the 50’s Prophet

The poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) survived his youth in Patterson, New Jersey, popped pills and smoked dope with his friends, fidgeted in jail for burglary, agonized over his homosexuality, and explored psychoanalysis all by the time he was 23 to become one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century. He could also be called the archetypal result of the parenting school, “Don’t give your kid a break if you want him to be creative.”

The worst thing that happened to Ginsberg, according to biographers, was his mother’s mental illness which brought years of hospitalization and shock treatment, finally leading to a lobotomy. When she was home, she seemed to trust Allen more than his brother or her husband which meant she kept him close to her and shared her paranoia. As his mother grew worse, she would wander the house, naked, convinced her doctors had implanted electrodes in her back to control her. Once she took young Allen on a bus ride around New Jersey, looking for a home that would keep her safe from her in-laws.

Attempting to please his father, Ginsberg enrolled in Columbia University to study law, but soon found a more exciting life with a group of revelers that included Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr. These college kids partied with street folks from Time Square, William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady. Soon Ginsberg was in love with Cassady and his innocence was only a memory from his pre-college days.

Few young men can experiment with Benzedrine, marijuana, fret over homosexuality and get good grades at Columbia. Ginsberg soon was suspended and began the great road trip to visit Cassady in Denver and San Francisco.

Too wild a life often leads to punishment and Ginsberg who involved himself in some criminal activity along the way soon ended up in jail where he eschewed Burroughs, hied himself to psychoanalysis, and found a girl. He even located employment as a market researcher.

In the psychiatric hospital Ginsberg met Carl Solomon who would inspire the poem “Howl,” the reading of which would elevate Ginsberg to notoriety as a major poet and activist.

“Howl” sounded on the stage of the Six Gallery Coffee House in San Francisco a little before midnight on an October night, 1955. By then the audience as well as Ginsberg had consumed three gallons of screw top California burgundy, thanks to Jack Kerouac who collected for the wine. The reading of the poem grew more intense, the audience became the cheering section led by Kerouac pounding on the table, encouraging with a “go, go” at the end of each line–poetry reading as spectator sport. The symbiotic life of readings and coffee houses was born. There is no record of snapping fingers replacing applause. A passage in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums recalls the evening.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti who would publish Ginsberg’s poetry wrote after the reading, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” lines borrowed from a letter written by Ralph Waldo Emerson to Walt Whitman upon the publishing of Leaves of Grass.

But clouds–albeit clouds with silver linings–hung over “Howl.” To save some money Ferlingetti attempted to publish “Howl” in a collection of Ginsberg’s poems in London. The Brits objected–you’ll see why in a moment–bringing attention to the San Francisco poet. Enter the San Francisco Police Department who brought obscenity charges against Ferlingetti in 1957. Two uptight witnesses appeared, one from the Catholic University of San Francisco, the other a private elocution teacher, “a beautiful woman,” who said “You feel like you are going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff. I didn’t linger on it too long, I assure you.” Ah, the pronouncement of a lady of the fifties. The defense couldn’t have asked for better witnesses who damaged the prosecution, and the case was dropped. “Howl” found its way into the hands of young folk who probably weren’t serious poetry readers until the obscenity case. The following lines were bound to interest the youth of America:

who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged
off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts,
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists,
and scream with joy, who blew and were blown by those
human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of Atlantic and Caribbean

Strong stuff for the fifties but not impressive for today’s youth, listening to Loveline.

Ginsberg from the base his poetry gave him, went on to support each decade’s counter culture–the Beats of the fifties, the hippies of the sixties, befriending Ken Kesey and Bob Dylan. Remember the Youth International Party–the Yippies–those fun guys, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin? Yes, he contributed to their protests by chanting ‘OM’ at the Lincoln Park Yippie Life Festival at the 1968 Presidential convention in Chicago. That same year he joined Jean Genet and Terry Southern at the Chicago Democratic Convention antiwar protest, a group later to be known as The Chicago Seven.

In 1970 Ginsberg became a follower of the guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, joining him and poet Anne Waldman to construct The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Trungpa’s Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The eighties initiated punk rock and Ginsberg joined the Clash’s Combat Rock album, performing on stage with them.

Social activism carried Ginsberg into the nineties to his death April 5, 1997. He wrote, he sang, he read aloud, he annoyed the establishment until his last.

Ginsberg published forty books, produced eleven albums, and was honored with the National Book Award for Poetry, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, National Arts Club Medal, 1986 Struga Festival Golden Wreath, and the Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins Medal of Honor for Literary Excellence, 1989. Ginsberg later in his life became a Distinguished Professor of Brooklyn College. Not bad for a man who began his adult life in the company of junkies, geniuses living in chaos, arrested for burglary, confined in a psychiatric hospital. At times he could be silly and wrong, but he also shared his vision with the world who saw him as a prophet.

Sites quickly appear on the Internet under the prompt Allen Ginsberg. Two I favor are litkicks.com and levity.com. Michael Schumcher’s Dharma Lion is the recommended biography.


The influences of Walt Whitman are plain in “Howl” although the points of view recall Janus. If I remember correctly, Whitman celebrated his life as a human being, especially in
“Song of Myself” written in 1855. Wow, just 100 years before “Howl.”

“Song of Myself” begins

I celebrate myself
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

which is different from

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving
hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry

Whitman contemplates the universality of human existence while for Ginsberg human existence in American culture is more us versus them.

But the similarities speak louder. Both poets influence through that troublesome literary element, voice, which shouts passionately in both of their works. The speaker is the poet who rallies everyman, stirring emotion. Neither man restrained himself with rhyme and meter, the works sound better than they read, both wrote outside the current fashion.

Ginsberg also felt the influence of William Blake and often ended his poetry readings with selections from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Blake’s mysticism would have intrigued Ginsberg.

To understand the references in “Howl,” one must be pretty hip himself for the poem begins with a litany for those who perished, searching for meaning in a callous and money grubbing world

looking for an angry fix…angelheaded hipsters…
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes
hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars
of war…who were expelled from the academics
for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull…
Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns,
wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs
of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light…a lost battalion
of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off
fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon…
who thought they were only made when Baltimore gleamed
in supernatural ecstasy, who jumped in limousines with the Chinaman
of Oklahoma on the impulse of winter midnight streetlight smalltown rain

Pretty advanced if one doesn’t have some experience at least with the drug vocabulary. The features of New York expand to include the loss he feels in:

the volcanoes of Mexico…the shadow of dungarees and the lava
and ash of poetry scattered in fireplace Chicago

Agonized, Ginsberg’s fellow students at Columbia are lost to madness

who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic
tobacco haze of Capitalism, who distributed Supercommunist
pamphlets in Union Square weeping and undressing while
sirens of Los Alamos wailed them down, and wailed down
Wall, and the Staten Island ferry also wailed, who broke
down crying in white gymnasiums naked and trembling before
the machinery of other skeletons

Personal tales of his trips across America with other Beats, Cassady and Kerouac , recall:

Who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if
I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision
to find out Eternity, who journeyed to Denver

to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose
and stand before you speechless and intelligent
and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out
the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought
in his naked and endless head, the madman bum and angel
beat in Time, unknown, yet putting shadow of the band
and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love
into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacvthani saxophone cry
that shivered the cities down to the last radio

Part II

Part II is an allusion to Moloch, the Canaanitish god of fire to whom children were sacrificed against Hebrew law. For Ginsberg Moloch sometimes becomes a place as well as a god. It doesn’t take long to understand what place he means.

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open
their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?
Moloch! Moloch! solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and
unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways!
Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!…
Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone! Moloch whose
soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter
of genius! Moloch whose fate is a cloud of sexless hydrogen!
Moloch whose name is the Mind!

No doubt is left in the reader’s mind that Ginsberg sees through the stifling culture he rails against, proselytizing for all of us to be free to search for our vision without restraint. No doubt, too, the poem would really piss off the bankers, the lawyers, the politicians who maintained such a culture. Ginsberg knew just how he was perceived for he would comment often on his three foot high FBI file, labeling him “potentially dangerous …subversive … having a propensity for violence and antipathy toward good order and government.” During the Reagan Era he proudly joined the list of 84 people who were “unsuitable” to speak overseas for the government. The list included Ralph Nader, Coretta Scott King, Betty Friedan, John Kenneth Galbraith.

Part III

Part III is dedicated to Carl Solomon, the insane intellectual Ginsberg met at Rockland, an upstate New York psychiatric hospital.

ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe,
and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time

Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland…
where you’re madder than I am
where you imitate the shade of my mother…
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey
on the highway across America in tears to the door
of my cottage in the Western night.

The footnote illuminates the lesson to be learned: The word “holy” becomes the chant:

The world is holy!

All things are holy: the groaning saxophone,
the marijuana hipsters, the crazy shepherds of rebellion,
The soul is holy!

Everyman’s an angel!

Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering!
holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness
of the soul!

Walt Whitman smiles…

According to Ferlinghetti who still runs the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco “the Beat message became the only rebellion around –and it is still the same today–With the dot-commies and the whole computer consciousness, the Beat message is needed now more than ever.”

Time to reread “Howl.”
Diane McCormick

:: Sunflower Sutra::

I walked on the banks of the tin can banana dock and sat down under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the box house hills and cry.

Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed, surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery.

The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves rheumy-eyed and hung-over like old bums on the river-bank, tired and wily.

Look at the Sunflower, he said, there was a dead gray shadow against the sky, big as a man, sitting dry on top of a pile of ancient sawdust–

-I rushed up enchanted-it was my first sunflower, memories of Blake–my visions–Harlem

and Hells of the Eastern rivers, bridges clanking Joes Greasy Sandwiches, dead baby carriages, black treadless tires forgotten and unretreaded, the poem of the riverbank, condoms & pots, steel knives, nothing stainless, only the dank muck and the razor-sharp artifacts passing into the past–

and the gray Sunflower poised against the sunset, crackly bleak and dusty with the smut and smog and smoke of olden locomotives in its eye

corolla of bleary spikes pushed down and broken like a battered crown, seeds fallen out of its face, soon-to-be-toothless mouth of sunny air, sunrays obliterated on its hairy head like a dried wire spiderweb,

leaves stuck out like arms out of the stem, gestures from the sawdust root, broke pieces of plaster fallen out of the black twigs, a dead fly in its ear,

Unholy battered old thing you were, my sunflower 0 my soul, I loved you then!

The grime was no man’s grime but death and human locomotives,

all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin, that smog of cheek, that eyelid of black mis’ry, that sooty hand or phallus or civilization spotting your crazy golden crown–

and those blear thoughts of death and dusty loveless eyes and ends and withered roots below, in the home-pile of sand and sawdust, rubber dollar bills, skin of machinery, the guts and innards of the weeping coughing car, the empty lonely tincans with their rusty tongues alack, what more could I name, the smoked ashes of some cock cigar, the cunts of wheelbarrows and the milky breasts of cars, wornout asses out of chairs & sphincters of dynamos–all these

entangled in your mummied roots–and you there standing before me in the sunset, all your glory in your form!

A perfect beauty of a sunflower! a perfect excellent lovely sunflower existence! a sweet natural eye to the new hip moon, woke up alive and excited grasping in the sunset shadow sunrise golden monthly breeze!

How many flies buzzed round you innocent of your grime, while you cursed the heavens of the railroad and your flower soul?

Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?

You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!

And you Locomotive, you are a locomotive, forget me not!

So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter,

and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen,

-We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we’re all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment–bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sitdown vision.

Berkeley, 1955

Generally, I like “Sunflower Sutra,” though I find the use of “sutra” in the title a little pretentious and deceptive. This poem does, however, seem to be written in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman, with particular homage to Whitman’s poetic style.

Visually, the repetitive structure used here is quite reminiscent of Whitman’s style, though I don’t find it to have quite the same kind of parallel structure, nor does it have the powerful rhythmic patterns that I admire in Whitman’s best poems.

That said, the dominant image or symbol in the poem, the sunflower growing in the midst of a garbage-covered industrial area, is a powerful one, particularly when linked to the sun. It’s the kind of symbol, or mantra, that you could use as the center of a meditation.

By setting the poem in San Francisco looking out at a sunset, Ginsberg suggests the end of the Western dream that has brought he and Kerouac to this place. That dream has been replaced by the industrial nightmare of “Harlem and Hells of the Eastern rivers.” The eastern seaboard’s industrial pollution, the result of industrial greed, has finally won America, having reached its western shores.

The physical description of the actual sunflower, if there ever was one, "all that dress of dust, that veil of darkened railroad skin" is an accurate physical description of what would have happened to a sunflower growing in such an area, but it also indicates the kind of accurately symbolic degradation all life must undergo under such conditions — that’s why we who have a choice have fled to the suburbs, though unwittingly bringing the results of industrialization with us.

The jump to the sunflower as the symbol of the soul, "you were, my sunflower 0 my soul" is smoothly integrated with the rest of the poem, and the sunflower, because we, like all of nature are nurtured by the sun, seems like a reasonable symbol of the soul. It even brings to mind masks of earlier cultures, particularly South American cultures, where the sun god is worn as a mask.

The effects the industrial revolution have had on the human soul are probably not too different from effects it has had on the environment, both have been degraded. No wonder people trapped in such an environment give up hope.

Personally, I find the "sermon" delivered to the soul, "You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!" a little too simplistic, too cartoonish to be completely successful, but the message itself certainly seems valid. And the upbeat message at the end also seems justified, and perhaps believable.

2 thoughts on “A Plea for the Return of the 50’s Prophet”

  1. You may already be aware, but if not: there’s an annotated edition of “Howl,” if you’re into looking up and digging all the inside jokes and personal references in the text. For a while it was hard to find but has recently been reissued in paperback by Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-092611-2.

  2. “With the dot-commies and the whole computer consciousness, the Beat message is needed now more than ever.” It was great to hear Ferlinghetti interviewed on the UK’s Radio 4 not so long ago, reiterating this point.

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