David Wojahan

Mark Doty: On "Howl"

The publication of Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) sounded a cry of rage, and in turn other cries of rage—or downright dismissals—were raised against it. Ginsberg announces himself, in the opening of the volume's title poem, as speaking for his compatriots, naming their collective condition of disaffection: "I saw the best minds of my generation, starving, hysterical, naked." The title poem explicitly identifies itself as a lamentation for those most promising and most excluded from the "American ideal." In a long descriptive catalogue Ginsberg makes clear his contention that the finest have been driven, by what a critic called "the overwhelming pressures of conformity, competition, prestige and respectability," toward madness, dissipation, and the outraged enactments of the denied. Not only is he exiled from the tranquilized suburbs by virtue of ethnicity, sexuality, political philosophy, and intellectual energy; he also cannot locate in the codified possibilities of American society a tenable way of living. Thus the speaker inhabits a sort of psychic inferno, a territory of the lost which underlies the flawless, bourgeois vision of American life. "He avoids nothing," William Carlos Williams wrote in his introduction to the volume, "but experiences it to the hilt. . . . Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell." M. L. Rosenthal offered a more balanced appraisal: "Despite the danger that he will screech himself mute any moment now, he has brought a terrible psychological reality to the surface with enough originality to blast American verse a hair’s breadth forward in the process."

"'Howl' lies," as Kenneth Rexroth observed, "in one of the oldest traditions, that of Hosea or the other, angry Minor Prophets of the Bible." The fault for the condition of Ginsberg's generation—and his own violated psychic state—thus lies with "Moloch," the embodiment of the State as evil, the demon of this world. But even in the "belly of Moloch " lies the possibility of transcendence. This tension between existential despair at the political and social conditions of the world and the prophetic optimism of vision would continue to inform all of Ginsberg's work. Transcendence is always possible, even in the shattered universe of Howl—through visionary experience, sex, or chemical transformation of the psyche through drugs: "flower of industry, / tough spiky ugly flower, / flower nonetheless, / with the form of the great yellow / Rose in your brain." This excerpt from the concluding stanza of the final poem in the volume exemplifies Ginsberg's vision of the possibility of transcendence, a Neoplatonism in the tradition of Blake. The form of the poems in Howl is likewise Blakean and biblical; Ginsberg relied on parallel constructions and long incantatory lines which, like those of Whitman before him, take the form of the King James Bible as their model. Ginsberg fuses his Whitmanic apostrophes and catalogues with verbal play influenced by the prose of Jack Kerouac.

Due in part to the poem's "obscenity trial" and resultant publicity, Howl became an important indicator of the changing climate in American poetry, an alarm sounding the decline of academic verse. If the poem was not taken seriously by many poets and critics—due to its bombastic, sprawling rhetoric, its spontaneous and chantlike form—then it at least offered a signal of a realm of possibility for powerful poetry to be constructed from "unmentionable" realms of experience. The poem would also, by virtue of its visibility and its radical loosening or re-visioning of formal design (which, Ginsberg said, echoing Olson, sprang "from a source deeper than the mind, that is to say, it came from the breathing and the belly and the lungs"), serve as a rallying cry and focus to other poets in the loose nexus of artists who came to be known as the "Beats." Though the coherence of the group was at least in part created by the media (certainly a new phenomenon in American poetry: poets as somewhat scandalous news, interesting as much for their other activities as for their poetry), the group took the label to heart. "The word 'beat' originally meant poor, down and out, deadbeat . . . sleeping in subways. Now that the word is belonging officially it is being made to stretch to include people who . . . have a certain new gesture, or attitude, which I can only describe as a new more." More seems an accurate term; the program of the Beats, like that of the Surrealists before them, was less a set of aesthetic principles than an embodiment of a philosophy of experience, a program of action. From existentialist philosophy, the Beats appropriated the replacement of given social, ethical, and religious codes with an emphasis on individual experience—or, to borrow the name of a magazine of the day, "the unspeakable visions of the individual." They yoked the existentialist sense of despair with a will to transcendence (thus their idolization of Whitman and Rimbaud and their linkage of the term "beat" with "beatitude") that found its vehicles in Oriental religion and meditational practices, in sheer verbal exuberance and in the visionary experiences of drugs, and in the rhythms and improvisations of progressive jazz.

Mark Doty: Criticism on Weldon Kees

Although the poems of Weldon Kees were not widely read until some time after Kees's disappearance and presumed suicide in 1955, they represent an essential contribution to the poetry of the decade. Whereas Warren could abstractly name "our own time's sad declension," Kees seemed to internalize it, to embody throughout his work, with remarkable consistency, a sense of both cultural sterility and reduction and individual hopelessness; even the most straightforward and reportorial of Kees's images are informed by a tone of bitterness ("Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun. / Outside, the birds circle continuously / Where trees are actual and take no holiday"), The theme of cultural decline is everywhere enacted; "Round" contrasts the enthusiasms of Marvell, the humanist Renan, and Cezanne with the immediate realm of experience confronting the speaker: "something in my head / Flaps like a worn-out blind, The soil / in which the ferns are dying needs more Vigoro." "The Umbrella" traces mythic and historical associations of umbrellas in Hindu, Buddhist, and Greek cultures; as the poem's cata-ogue of historical associations moves toward the present, it becomes increasingly compressed, increasingly random, until the umbrellas of the Victorians, having lost all religious associations, are seen as trimmed with "sequins, artificial flowers, ostrich feathers, / God knows what else." Kees's choice of verbs to evoke the present is revealing: "The sea is pitted with rain. Wind shakes the house, / Here from this window lashed with spray, I watch / a black umbrella, ripped apart and wrong side out, / Go lurching wildly down the beach." "Pitted," "shakes," "lashed," and "ripped" suggest the barely containable violence of the present moment, and the troubling motions of the ruined umbrella against the gray and motionless harbor stand in bleak opposition to the past in which human gestures invested the object with meaning. For Kees, meaning has been drained both from things and from human lives, and now the umbrella, that sad representative of the human intention to protect, goes "flapping and free, / Into the heart of the storm." In his despair, the absolutism of his denial, Kees is in a sense the most contemporary of his contemporaries, the poet whose work most internalizes the conditions of post-Hiroshima society with its potential for the utter denial of all value.

Edward Hirsch: On "Ode to the Confederate Dead"

Tate's most important single poem, "Ode to the Confederate Dead," is a kind of Southern analogue to The Waste Land. As opposed to Ransom, who thought The Waste Land "seemed to bring to a head all the specifically modern errors," Tate defended the way Eliot's poem embraced "the entire range of consciousness" and impersonally dramatized the tragic situation of those who live in modern times. Tate's "Ode" treats that situation in specifically Southern terms. The poem presents the symbolic dilemma of a man who has stopped at the gate of a Confederate graveyard. He is trapped in time, isolated, alone, self-conscious, caught between a heroic Civil War past, which is irrecoverable, and the chaotic, degenerate present. In his essay "Narcissus as Narcissus, " Tate argues that "the poem is 'about' solipsism, a philosophical doctrine which says that we create the world in the act of perceiving it, or about Narcissism, or any other ism that denotes the failure of the human personality to function objectively in nature and society." As the poem develops, it becomes a drama of "the cut-offness of the modern 'intellectual man' from the world." The situation of the speaker is symptomatic of the crisis of his region—the crisis of the Old and the New South after World War I. In its diagnosis of that historical situation, the "Ode" is an Agrarian poem. It universalizes from the situation of the South in the middle and late twenties to the larger condition of the modern world.