This is the point at which Lionel Trilling's verdict on [“Howl”], that it was "dull," starts to look especially peculiar. Many sins might be laid at the door of Ginsberg and his poem, though it is impossible to separate the influence of the text from that of the period it inspired and came to symbolize, the Beat fifties and hippie sixties. The glorification of violence, the sentimentality about mental illness, the contempt for reason, the political self-righteousness, the waste of reformist energy in theatrical gestures, the confusion of narcissism with moral superiority: all that is worst about the counterculture is foreshadowed in "Howl" and Ginsberg's subsequent poems. But it would take a pretty jaded palate to find "Howl" dull.
Well, I don’t know. I don’t consider myself all that jaded, if I understand what Kirsch means by the term, but I find “Howl” a bore. It’s an unstructured, droning rant to my ear, and it quickly grows tiresome -- it even seemed dull in my earliest days in the serious study of literature, back in the mid 1970s. That I read it in the 70s might be important, since by the mid-70s weariness with the 60s had cured into a block of concrete in the heart. Kirsch’s piece gave me an itch to go reread the poem again, but I found it drudgery rather than an enlightening pleasure. There are a couple of nice turns of phrase, but the poem as a whole is a trainwreck of ideas -- a manic melange, to switch metaphors. You can pick little tidbits from the mass and sometimes find them interesting or even suggestive. But when you step back, there it is: a big, ugly trainwreck after all. I wouldn’t even say it is a poem, except by modern consent, and it isn’t very good prose, either. Kirsch then turns to the fears about writings like “Howl”, which he believes are of a species with Winters’s fears about Hart Crane’s dissolution, which, Winters believed, Romanticism engendered:
What Trilling really meant to communicate, I suspect, is not that "Howl" would fail to excite its readers, but that it would excite them in a way which Trilling himself, and many other imaginative people, had already judged disastrous. For while Ginsberg's belief in radical innocence and radical excess was new to the baby boomers, it was not at all new to Trilling, or to Modernists like Yvor Winters and Allen Tate, each of whom had experienced the suicide of Hart Crane as a parable of the personal cost of imaginative chaos. The antinomianism found in "Howl" was, in fact, one of the fundamental impulses of modern literature, and readers who were in their fifties when Ginsberg was in his twenties had wrestled with it long before. "It seems to me that the characteristic element of modern literature," Trilling wrote in an essay that was not about "Howl" but could have been, “is the bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through it.... It asks us if we are saved or damned -- more than with anything else, our literature is concerned with salvation.”
Again on the shoulders of the principles underlying modern literature, as unsystematic as they are, a critic lays the suicide of Hart Crane. There, too, we read a rather severe, almost hysterical, word, “disastrous,” applied to a writing of just a couple thousand words. Using such words goes somewhat too far for me, as I have discussed in a couple of recent entries in this blog (see “Romanticism Leads to Madness, Reason to Evil?” and “Hart Crane and Connotation”). To my mind, it’s not that chaotic writing is so dangerous. It’s that it’s so dull, just as Trilling said. I don’t read serious literature in order to take a little dip into chaos or vicariously revel in someone else’s bad-boy shenanigans, but to discover truth on my own “quest for reality” (which was the title of Winters’s anthology of greatest poems). “Howl” is dull because it simply doesn’t offer much to think about, doesn’t take us into any human experiences and help us to understand them rationally, or aid us adjusting our emotions to a rational understanding of those experiences. The poem is a frenzied, overwrought mishmash, a pile of straining phrases and harebrained ideas that adds up to a loose compendium rather than a sustained meditation. It’s a rundown of the wild times Ginsburg and his friends had. Big deal. Is it “dangerous” to go through it all. It seems more just plain silly. It’s still surprising that anyone smart took this jejune stuff seriously.
Still, I suppose “Howl” is important historically and worth knowing for that reason, since it has had a significant influence on literature. (I think it’s worth knowing things in the Standard Canon just because the Standard Canon, as Harold Bloom said, is made up of those works that have had the greatest influence). It’s important to know it because of the insight it gives us into the times it concerns. And even a few ideas in the mountain it piles up might have slight value, like Goodwill trinkets found in a trash heap. But as a whole the poem is not much and not worth concentrating on too closely, except as an historical artifact.
Do you, my readers, think that it’s dangerous personally or corporately to write as Ginsburg wrote and read what Ginsburg wrote in the way he wrote it? I’m still not sold on that longstanding idea of Winters’s, to which Kirsch gives his implied assent. Is Romanticism, as spread by literature, a cause of some of the dire problems in our time? In reading Winters, and Kirsch hints at the idea too, one would almost think so. But such matters require careful thought.