Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” goes online

June 5, 2017
Rebecca Wingfield
Allen Ginsberg at his typewriter

 

No poem is more closely identified with the Beat Generation than Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” From its first public reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in October 1955 to the notorious obscenity trial that followed in the wake of its first publication in 1956, the poem is indelibly tied to the Beat Generation and their critique of the staid morals and customs of Eisenhower-era America. In cooperation with the Allen Ginsberg Estate, Stanford Libraries has recently digitized Allen Ginsberg’s original drafts of “Howl,” providing a unique perspective on Ginsberg’s creative process and the creation of American literary classic.

Allen Ginsberg at his typewriter

Allen Ginsberg at his typewriter. Copyright © Allen Ginsberg Estate. All Rights Reserved.

Ginsberg composed the original seven-page draft of the poem in his apartment on Montgomery Street in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in early August of 1955.  Dedicated to Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met while they were both patients at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute in the early 1950s, “Howl”represented a turning point in Ginsberg’s artistic development, as he experimented with a longer line intended to be read in a single breath.

The first draft of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg.

The first draft of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg. Copyright © Allen Ginsberg Estate. All Rights Reserved.

 

With its famous opening line, obscure references to fellow Beat writers, and graphic depictions of drug use and sexuality, Ginsberg’s poem railed against the conformity of 1950s America. Ginsberg continued to revise the first section of the poem in the fall of 1955 and began work on the second section of the poem, before doing his first public reading of the poem at the Six Gallery in October. Ginsberg’s reading of the first part of “Howl” at the Six Gallery is now part of Beat lore, memorialized by fellow Beat writer Jack Kerouac in Dharma Bums.

The first draft of the poem is the beginning of what would become a longer poem, consisting of three inter-related sections and a final “Footnote.” The “Howl” manuscripts and typescripts in the Allen Ginsberg Papers document the formal development of the poem, tracing Ginsberg’s experiments with different structures and wording in each of the poem’s sections. Below is Ginsberg’s first draft of part two of “Howl,” which he wrote at the bottom of a typed draft of part one.

 

Ginsberg's handwritten first draft of part two of "Howl," page 1Ginsberg's handwritten first draft of part two of "Howl," page 2

Ginsberg's handwritten first draft of part two of "Howl." Copyright © Allen Ginsberg Estate. All Rights Reserved.

When the full text of the poem was published in 1956 by City Lights Books, it launched Ginsberg’s literary career, along with his notoriety. In 1957, US Customs confiscated copies of Howl and Other Poems, when they arrived in New York from the printer in England. Months later, City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti and bookstore manager Shig Murao were arrested for the publication and sale of the book, setting the stage for what would become a high-profile obscenity trial.

Prominent writers, critics, and academics, including Kenneth Rexroth, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and Mark Schorer, defended the literary merits of the poem at the trial, leading Judge Clayton Horn to rule that the poem was not obscene. Ginsberg’s public readings of the poem and the publicity surrounding its publication cemented the Beat Generation in the public imagination and set the stage for the 1960s counterculture that followed. In partnership with the Ginsberg Estate, Stanford Libraries is pleased to share this seminal piece of the Beat Generation and an American literary classic.

To view the full set of drafts of “Howl” online:

https://purl.stanford.edu/cq952mh6350

Author

Rebecca Wingfield

Curator for American and British Literature