Book Jacket Synopsis: “Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was originally published by City Lights Books in the Fall of 1956. Subsequently seized by U.S. customs and the San Francisco police, it was the subject of a long court trial at which a series of poets and professors persuaded the court that the book was not obscene. Howl and Other Poems is the single most influential poetic work of the post-World War II era, with over 1,000,000 copies now in print.”
Review: My experience with (and exposure to) poetry is fairly limited, as exemplified by the fact that I’ve only reviewed one other book of poetry on this blog and it was A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein. With that in mind, I doubt I was able to fully understand everything Ginsberg wanted to convey in Howl and Other Poems, but I could certainly tell that he was talented. Howl and Other Poems contains eleven poems: “Howl”, “Footnote to Howl”, “A Supermarket in California”, “Transcription of Organ Music”, “Sunflower Sutra”, “America”, “In the Baggage Room at Greyhound”, “An Asphodel”, “Song”, “Wild Orphan”, and “In Back of the Real.” My favorites were “Howl” (of course) and “Transcription of Organ Music.” Part of the reason I find poetry frustrating to read is that I never feel like I fully “get” what poems are about. In that sense, I chose my favorites from Howl and Other Poems based on my ability to understand what Ginsberg wanted to convey and the overall lyricality of the poem. Within “Howl”, I loved the iconic lines (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”), but I also really appreciated other parts of the poem.
“suffering Eastern sweats and Tangerian bone-grindings and migraines of China under junk-withdrawal in Newark’s bleak furnished room”
“Transcription of Organ Music” was my other favorite largely due to the cadence. I oftentimes find poetry difficult to read because the phrasing feels disjointed in my head, but something about this poem was very readable.
“the closet door opened, because I used it before, it kindly stayed open waiting for me, its owner”
In the end, my three-star rating for Howl and Other Poems largely reflects my lack of exposure to (and, unfortuntely, interest in) poetry. I’ll leave the merit of this one to be debated by the experts!
Reason for Ban/Challenge: As mentioned in the Book Jacket Synopsis, Howl and Other Poems experienced almost immediate backlash after Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, released it to the public in 1956. The book was challenged due to perceived obscenity, given that the poems openly discuss sexuality, drug use, and other “unsavory” topics. A historic court case, in a which a conservative judge determined that Howl and Other Poems was not obscene, likely contributed to the notoriety and immortality the book would go on to gain. Today, Howl and Other Poems faces remarkably little censure compared to other novels on my banned book list.
P.S. While researching the fascinating history of Howl and Other Poems, I came across this great “Howl” animation! It’s worth a watch if you haven’t seen it before.