A Half-Century Later, Ginsberg’s Epic Poem Still Roars


About Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Denise Levertov wrote to William Carlos Williams, “There’s something I can accept unconditionally.” Jason Shinder’s new The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) collects similarly rapturous responses to the incantatory epic (as well as more scholarly riffs), from Andrei Codrescu’s account of reading a “badly typed copy of an awkward translation” in 1963 Transylvania to John Cage’s columnar interrogation of the name “Allen Ginsberg” in “Writing Through Howl.” (The book also includes a CD of the first recording of Ginsberg reading the poem, made on March 18, 1956, in Berkeley.) Many pieces here recall the first time: Amiri Baraka writes that the poem “reached Puerto Rico, late ’55, whenever the early Village Voice did”; a young Rick Moody, resistant to poetry in college, gets “Howl” read to him by a friend, future novelist Jim Lewis; a younger Phillip Lopate composes a “lurid rant” under the spell of “Howl,” provoking his English teacher to exclaim, “Phillip, I thought you were our most well-adjusted student!” Listen to contributors (Moody, Lopate, et al.), critic Margo Jefferson, scholar Ann Douglas, and others pay tribute to “Howl” uptown at Miller Theatre. Afterward, stop by the West End, the storied Beat haunt that has just announced its closing.