Thursday, October 05, 2006

Concerning Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl", part 2 of 3

Part 2

Continued from 10/4/06

But this lie, about who the great ones are, is the necessary first step into the poetics of dissipation and futility.

The second misapprehension, one step below the surface, is the self-referential justification of the first lie. Here we learn from the fake prophet that the world is unredeemable, so much so that the only, or best, or at least the most "artistic" response to these times is rejection and withdrawal. The world is too terrible and the sensitive soul (oh woe, oh woe) is crushed by it.

There are indeed many people crushed by the harshness of the world. Each of these people represents a great diminishment of what "could be." They are deserving (and demanding) of our help. They require an active response to bring healing, and are not to be silenced and shunted off in locked corners.

But, this is surely not the point of the poetics that guided Howl. The poet is not making a plea for more kindness. Nor is he guiding our steps through or around the morass of oppression, violence, and insensitivity that confronts us. Nor is he lamenting our ruin and loss. No! He is reveling in drunken and drugged-out disregard and disdain. His burning question to the reader is, "What is your drug of choice?" Those committed to dissipation and futility will smile and say, "Yes! That's the main question. Why not? What else is there?"

Yes indeed! Many people feel this way, and I have too, on occasion. But the fact that people think this is an honest response, and not merely honest but worthy of a whole poetics; this is what causes me to worry about our state of affairs.

And this fact takes us into the real inner workings of dishonesty and cynicism in this poem: the fable that has long equated inspiration with madness. This idea, articulated at least as long ago as German "Sturm and Drang" and found in English romanticism (although none of the romantics I've read were mad), became the calling card of dada and surrealism and their numerous offshoots. It is embedded in the popular mythologizing about the artist, in spite of the fact that one is hard-pressed to find meaningful examples. With a notable exception or two, like Nerval, the best we can do is point to some second-rate writers and local losers like Pound and Artaud and Plath. Ginsberg has simply summed up a long history of illusion and sloppy thinking. If we take Howl seriously we can only conclude that art and literature are degenerate, self-destructive activities, and that imagination and creativity are signs of disease, worthy of close medical monitoring at their first appearance. And yet this foolishness is the modus operandi of Howl, and a cornerstone of the poetic imagination of this century.

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