Each age produces its poetry. But all good poetry transcends its time. What elements define good poetry? There are many, of course, but one of them is, without a doubt, that represents the concerns, the hopes and the prophecies or expectations —The Zeitgeist, at last — of the time when it is written.
Young Americans in the 1950s saw their country, after World War II, acquire the public image of representing the highest planetary strength and generosity. However, they would experience the explosion of two atomic bombs (Japan), an ongoing war (Korea) and a recently launched Cold War, with its aggressive arms race and its determination to impose itself as a global leader. This imperialist policy was accompanied by a very conservative government that flaunted its expanding economy and impeccable moral capital … which included the activities of the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee, the body in charge of monitoring closely to any citizen suspected of dissenting from your policy), report others with sympathizing with communists, granting second-class treatment to women, criminalizing homosexuality and keeping a significant part of the population, the black, in a severe apartheid regime.
From that there and then, the generation of Beat poets emerged. What began as a literary movement ended up becoming a social one with an international dimension. The word Beat, used for the first time by Jack Kerouac, one of the main exponents of the movement, referred to to be beaten, frustrated, exhausted, but also to the influence of beatitud Zen and the rhythmic unity closely associated with jazz music, which was the backdrop for that generation. A music that arose precisely from the hardest hit, most persecuted, most exhausted margins. The Beat (also called beatniks) not only questioned Puritan (America of Milk and Honey) and corporate values, but they vociferously challenged them. In 1955 a young New Yorker, intense and irate, reads, in a cafe in San Francisco, a poem that deeply touched the chord of some members of that generation that feels corseted. Howl (howl) declaimed as explosively as befits its content will be from then on the poem / flag, the metaphysical protest of the movement. In it Allen Ginsberg dissected the country’s cynicism using metaphors and language that were immediately deemed obscene. The poem was banned, its author was prosecuted and, for this very reason, the state itself helped increase Beat’s antagonism towards everything that smelled of establishment.
In 1957, the novel was published that, according to many, launched these youth who knew what they did not want, but not yet what they wanted, onto the country’s highways. Jack Kerouac had written On the Road five years earlier, in a few feverish days, on a 36 meter long telex roll never corrected. A vagabond and alcoholic journey through the less frequented routes of the United States, accompanied by another character from the Beat pantheon, Neal Cassady. So much Howl What In the path they were texts / cataracts exempt from rhyme one, the other from plot, but united by direct writing, absent punctuation, rapt and spontaneous that inspired in jazz improvisation and strictly described the adventures or personal feelings in the moment they were shaped. What Ginsberg enunciates in a structure never rehearsed before —78 lines of poetic prose — is a collective litany, a labyrinthine enumeration that includes his personal frustrations and those of his generation, the analysis of capitalism and its consequences, the criticism of the educational system, the alert to the destruction of planet Earth, to institutional violence, to social and political exclusion.
It is said that the Beat generation itself ended with the premature death of Jack Kerouac in 1969, but the truth is that the broad group of poets (Burroughs, Corso, Snyder, Kaufman, Jones, Di Prima …) that made up this North American existentialism, They were the outpost of the next generation, that of the hippies, led by Timothy Leary, Bob Dylan and a long etcetera. Ginsberg, over the years and his forays into India, went from an enraged young man to a Buddhist-inspired guru, continuing to defend, until his disappearance in 1997, none of his initial ideas. His themes, his criticisms, his claims are still as valid now as when he raised his voice. Are we not proving the identity of capitalism with the Moloch of Howl? Aren’t things the same? “Love is endless oil and stone, whose soul is electricity and banks …”, howls the poet.
In his poem, Allen Ginsberg dissected US cynicism using metaphors and language that were immediately deemed obscene
I saw Ginsberg several times in the East Village riding his bike, hair and beard blowing in the wind, smiling at nothing. Recite, instead, only once. On a small stage in the same neighborhood, along with another big one, his friend Pedro Pietri, the poet spanglish par excellence, co-founder of the Nuyorican movement. Same concerns, same connection with the audience, same poetic level, same sense of humor. Pietri kept falling off the pages where he had written his ode to the city subway and reading became a collage of what was written and what was improvised. Ginsberg, to the beat of his drum, recited his don’t smoke, don’t smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke, With which He advised not to smoke (tobacco, the official drug, as he called it, from which he never managed to disengage), but ended with the opposite message. Isn’t this the same ambivalent message that capitalism continues to use today when it tries to listen to the earth, accept different sexualities, stop the exclusion of entire groups of citizens, review the policy of drug prohibition, police violence, racism ?
All this crossed my mind – none, of course, of those alluded to by Ginsberg in his legendary verses: “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …” -, when visiting the exhibition of the Italian artist Angiola Bonanni, rooted in Madrid since 1962. That year he read for the first time Howl, and from the impact emerged eleven powerful gouaches on paper – filled with fiery red and energetic brush strokes – containing fragments of the poem. The full text appears displayed on one of the walls, following the recently edited version – another proof of its validity – by Poe Tree. Bonanni thus prolongs his living relationship with Howl, which already in October 2021 inspired a set of giclées (high quality digital prints), titled Moloch-Algoritmo, where the first word was systematically replaced by the second, thus underlining the continuity between the current digital society and the oppressive one against which the Beat revolted.
‘Howl’, scored by Angiola Bonanni. Brita Prinz Gallery. Madrid. Until January 21.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.