allen ginsberg | I write poetry because

1 10 2007


Poetry Dispatch No. 12 | Ocotber 8, 2005


It was a small black chapbook, almost 5 inches across by 6. Black border on the white cover (front and back) with the title (large/bold), author’s name, and mention of the Introduction printed black on white.

It was Number Four in the new “Pocket Series” published on October 7 in l956 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s, small press, City Lights Books in San Francisco and sold for pennies. Fifty of them, as I recall.

This is the 50th anniversary of that book, of Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL and Other Poems (October 7, 2005). The poem that shook America. Ginsburg was 30 years old then. The Introduction was written by William Carlos Williams. I owned a first edition and remember reading “Howl” and hearing it, and the poet, discussed, endlessly through the years. It was one of those poems, and he was one of those poets who stopped time—for an instant. Grabbed hold of a nation, its people, and shouted his concerns in their face in plain, American lingo, hoping to be listened to. Everybody listened. Nobody listened. He was a queer poet, after all, unkempt, with long hair, just a beatnik babbling on and on. I’m holding the Nineteenth printing (l967) in my hand now. 146,000 copies in print at that time. There must be millions of copies in print today, in every language imaginable.

Ginsberg dedicated the book to Jack Kerouac “new Buddha of American prose”; William Burroughs “author of NAKED LUNCH, an endless novel which will drive everybody mad”; and Neal Cassidy “author of THE FIRST THIRD, an autobiography which enlightened Buddha.”

William Carlos Williams stated in his introduction: “Say what you will, he {Ginsberg] proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to enoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith—and the art! to persist.”

HOWL, the poem, is dedicated to Carl Solomon, and the opening lines of the poem are some of the most quoted lines in all of American literature:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked.
dragging themselves through the negro hipster streets at dawn looking for
an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,…

The poem is divided into three parts and (in this edition) is 12 pages long followed by a page and a half entitled: “Footnote to Howl”. There are five other poems, including two poems almost equally well known: AMERICA and SUNFLOWER SUTRA.

AMERICA opens with these oft-quoted lines (and kick in the teeth):

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.

And ends with this equally well known line:

America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

I thought there would be more recognition of Ginsburg and HOWL on the 50th anniversary. Oh, there were a few celebrations I was aware of, in Chicago and San Francisco. Then again, these are the times Ginsberg seemed to foresee, and no one, no country, enjoys looking in the mirror all that much. No country wants to be asked, reminded: “…when will we end the human war?” or be told to …”go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.” This poet’s a long way from someday appearing on a U.S. postage stamp.

Ginsburg died on December 21, 2002. Aside from students and writers, I suspect, like many serious writers, his audience remains relatively small, the effect of his poems and thoughts upon America, ‘the people’, minimal. For that reason, instead of reprinting HOWL in its entirety on this 50th anniversary, it might be more appropriate for readers, writers, and students to re-consider the poet’s calling, another Ginsberg poem that seeks to answer the question that writers, political/ a-political, face every day: Why do you do it?

Norbert Blei



Improvisation in Beijing by Allen Ginsberg

I write poetry because the English word Inspiration comes from Latin Spiritus, breath, and I want to breathe freely.
I write poetry because Walt Whitman gave world permission to speak with candor.
I write poetry because Walt Whitman opened up poetry’s verse-line for unobstructed breath.
I write poetry because Ezra Pound saw an ivory tower, bet on one wrong horse, gave poets permission to write spoken vernacular idiom.
I write poetry because Pound pointed young Western poets to look at Chinese writing word pictures.
I write poetry because W.C. Williams living in Rutherford wrote New Jerseyesque “I kick yuh eye,” asking, how measure that in iambic pentameter?
I write poetry because my father was a poet my mother from Russia spoke Communist, died in a mad house.
I write poetry because young friend Gary Snyder sat to look at his thoughts as part of external phenomenal world just like a 1984 conference table.
I write poetry because I suffer, born to die, kidneystones and high blood pressure, everybody suffers.
I write poetry because I suffer confusion not knowing what other people think.
I write because poetry can reveal my thoughts, cure my paranoia also other people’s paranoia.
I write poetry because my mind wanders subject to sex politics Buddhadharma meditation.
I write poetry to make accurate picture my own mind.
I write poetry because I took Bodhisattva’s Four Vows: Sentient creatures to liberate are numberless in the universe, my own greed anger ignorance to cut thru’s infinite, situations I find myself in are countless as the sky okay, while awakened mind path’s endless.
I write poetry because this morning I woke trembling with fear what could I say in China?
I write poetry because Russian poets Mayakovsky and Yesenin committed suicide, somebody else has to talk.
I write poetry because my father reciting Shelley English poet & Vachel Lindsay American poet out loud gave example – big wind inspiration breath.
I write poetry because writing sexual matters was censored in United States.
I write poetry because millionaires East and West ride Rolls-Royce limousines, poor people don’t have enough money to fix their teeth.
I write poetry because my genes and chromosomes fall in love with young men not young women.
I write poetry because I have no dogmatic responsibility one day to the next.
I write poetry because I want to be alone and want to talk to people.
I write poetry to talk back to Whitman, young people in ten years, talk to old aunts and uncles still living near Newark, New Jersey.
I write poetry because I listened to black Blues on 1939 radio, Leadbelly and Ma Rainey.
I write poetry inspired by youthful cheerful Beatles’ songs grown old.
I write poetry because Chuang-tzu couldn’t tell whether he was butterfly or man, Lao-tzu said water flows downhill, Counfucius said honor elders, I wanted to honor Whitman.
I write poetry because overgrazing sheep and cattle Mongolia to U.S. Wild West destroys new grass & erosion creates deserts.
I write poetry wearing animal shoes.
I write poetry “First thought, best thought” always.
I write poetry because no ideas are comprehensible except as manifested in minute particulars: “No ideas but in things.”
I write poetry because the Tibetan Lama guru says, “Things are symbols of themselves.”
I write poetry because newspapers headline a black hole at our galaxy-center, we’re free to notice it.
I write poetry because World War I, World War II, nuclear bomb, and World War III if we want it, I don’t need it.
I write poetry because first poem Howl not meant to be published was prosecuted by the police.
I write poetry because my second long poem Kaddish honored my mother’s parinivana in mental hospital.
I write poetry because Hitler killed six million Jews, I’m Jewish.
I write poetry because Moscow said Stalin exiled 20 million Jews and intellectuals to Siberia, 15 million never came back to the Stray Dog Café, St. Petersburg.
I write poetry because I sing when I’m lonesome.
I write poetry because Walt Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
I write poetry because my mind contradicts itself, one minute in New York, next minute the Dinaric Alps.
I write poetry because my head contains 10,000 thoughts.
I write poetry because no reason no because.
I write poetry because it’s the best way to say everything in mind within 6 minutes or a lifetime.

October 21, 1984

Allen Ginsberg – sings Father Death Blues

Allen Ginsberg & Paul McCartney

The Ballad of the Skeletons – Live at the Royal Albert Hall, October 16, 1995.

Allen Ginsberg & Neal Cassady



2 responses

3 12 2011
Urletul lui Caras « hoardingspheres

[…] “Howl” de Alan Ginsberg e un poem manifest scris acum mai bine de 50 de ani şi totuşi se aplică foarte bine societăţii. Libertatea sexuală e mai departe un tabu. De ce un one-man show cu “Howl” şi de ce acum? […]

10 12 2013

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