Monday, September 24, 2007

Howl, New Jersey, Holla

Have either of you looked at a little book called The Poem that Changed America: "Howl" Fifty Years Later? Silly title, I know, but it's actually pretty useful. The collection is edited by Jason Shinder, Ginsberg's personal assistant from the late 70s on, and his introduction is kind of embarrassingly idolatrous and not very well-written. But the volume does bring together a number of interesting reactions to "Howl" (by, among others, Amiri Baraka, Marjorie Perloff (who argues that Ginsberg is a direct inheritor of Modernism [OK, fine, whatever] and that "Howl" is really about WWII [more interesting]), Billy Collins (!), John Cage, and Rick Moody) as well as including a facsimile of the original mimeographed edition, which "costed [sic] $10.00 typed by poet Robert Creely [sic] dittoed by Martha Rexroth transported by me to the hands of Robert Lavigne [sic] in exchange for several drawings," according to Ginsberg's inscription. (Doesn't $10 seem like kind of a lot of money for 1956? Seems like one could do a Lawrence Rainey-esque analysis of the economics of this first presentation.)

A couple of remarks about the poem itself: has anyone written on the possible influence of W.H. Auden on Ginsberg? Auden is mentioned in Shinder's preface as one of Ginsberg's "'enemies'," but also an "eternal presence": I don't know much about their personal relationship. But on this reading I notice quite a few touches which seem Audenesque; for one, the unexpected dropping and adding of definite articles (examples include "the drear light of Zoo" and "the last fantastic book thrown out of the tenement window"). This is something Auden does a lot, and I think the effect in his poems is usually to either particularize or universalize the rhetorical situation of any given poem: kind of a Zoom-In/Zoom-Out effect. In "Howl," Ginsberg utilizes this to keep the reader involved on a macrosociological level ("this is an important poem: it's about a generation, it's about a nation, it's about history") and on a more micro-, affective/emotional level ("this is about the author, his friends, his mother, or me"). It's a technique Whitman uses too, of course, but Ginsberg's interest in including shabby, sordid or ironic details which temporarily undercut the grandeur of the macro-phrases (e.g. "in beards and shorts with big pacifist eyes sexy in their dark skin passing out incomprehensible leaflets"; compare "Spain 1937") is closer to (early) Auden, I think.

Second idea: Ginsberg's insistent return to New Jersey place names ("Paterson," "Newark," "the filthy Passaic," etc.), among, admittedly, a lot of other place names, has to be understood, in its historical context, as a very complicated rhetorical move. Because New Jersey was not just where Ginsberg was from, and thus a signifier of the "real" or the "autobiographical," but also, by the mid-1950s, a landscape that was newly literary, thanks to the ecstatic critical reception of William Carlos Williams' still-in-progress Paterson. As Perloff points out her chapter on him in The Poetics of Indeterminacy, the publication of Paterson had finally secured a major reputation for Williams, long considered a marginal figure of the Modernist movement. Thus Paterson, which ten years earlier would have been fairly meaningless as a literary signifier, now evokes a whole complex of ideas about Modernism and American poetry that Ginsberg slyly insists upon. (And WCW also wrote the introduction to Howl's first commercial edition, as Adrienne pointed out months ago.)

Anyway, it's interesting to think of the symbolic capital that New Jersey acquires in this period, as the breeding ground of the only ideologically correct,* homegrown version of High Modernism (Williams') as well as the most incendiary updating/challenging of the academic version of Modernism: significantly a humble state, in proximity to a great metropolis but not containing it, a place synonymous with the simple, homely and plain, which also just happens to be the site of some of the worst industrial exploitation and ecological spoilage in the entire country. This is quite a different pole to orient us than London or New York, and the attitude of its writers to it is also significantly different: sure, it's a waste land, they tell us, but it's our waste land, and we like it that way. And this in turn might have something to do with the remarks by Leslie Fiedler that Adrienne just posted, about the American mediation (some would say adulteration) of Modernism through regionalism. But I'm getting hungry, so I'd better stop here and drag myself through some Brooklyn streets to go looking for a sandwich fix.

* If you ignore the Communism.