Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ as Irish Keen in Form, Function, and Reaction
Tuesday nights in my early twenties I hung out at a smoky, now-defunct dingy coffee house in Dayton, Ohio amid urban blight. We recited our poetry lamenting our lives and the decaying city around us. We chanted our poems and smoked our little cigarettes and acted as if we were truly indignant about something important. Possibly, our poetry stemmed from left over high school angst, but in my early thirties I got a hold of a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl,’ and later, thanks to YouTube, I listened to Ginsberg recite his poem in the same angst-ridden style (Allen Ginsberg Reading Howl). We did not know whose footsteps we followed; though we had been heavily influenced by Ginsberg and the Beat Generation of the Fifties in general (snap your fingers here).
Beat poets evolved out of urban conformity; the beats critiqued the materialistic and conformist aspects of consumerism and the 1950s societal Leave It to Beaver mores. “America,” wrote Jack Kerouac in his novel On the Road, “where everyone is always doing what they ought.” Gregory Stephenson suggests in his introduction to The Daybreak Boys that the Beat Movement exists in two distinctive phases—the private or “underground period” which runs from 1944 to 1956 and the public period from 1956 to 1962 (2). Published in 1955 by City Lights Books and followed by a public obscenity court case in 1956 (Morgan), ‘Howl’ inaugurated the public phase of the Beat Movement. A fury of unabashed, uncontrollable emotion, ‘Howl’ stood in stark contrast to the pent up, two-vehicle, dishwasher equipped home, and the everything-is-okay post World War II 1950s emotional climate. An era when authors such as John Cheever published short stories in the New Yorker about martini drinking suburbanites and city socialites leading empty lives, when Hollywood blacklisted screenwriters and actors for alleged communist leanings, when propaganda films such as How To Control Your Emotions were billed as high school appropriate education and other films such as The Relaxed Wife suggested behavior modification via medication, ‘Howl’ was an American expression of the seething emotion just below the surface.
From ‘Howl’s inception, various agendas have been heaped upon the poem, both political and personal—the homosexual as victim, obscenity and censorship laws, and a breaking away from academic poetry, to name a few. The poem for Ginsberg, however, was a personal exploration, a visceral emotional response against an America that embraced a new consumerism and an erasure of deviant behavior and autarchic thought; ‘Howl’ was a funeral dirge, an American mourning, a keening in form, function, and reaction.
Typically, when we think of a keen, we consider the go-to dictionary definition. Merriam-Webster says a keen is “to make a loud and long cry of sorrow; to utter with a loud wailing voice or wordless cry” (Keening). Ginsburg tells us ‘Howl’ was partly inspired by “an extreme rhapsodic wail” (Ginsburg 82), but we also know his poem is way more controlled than a wordless cry. In her article, “The Irish Traditional Lament and the Grieving Process,” Angela Bourke suggests we are too far removed from the Irish keen to truly understand the form (287). Because the keen is born out of an oral tradition, our records are sparse, but there is information we can glom onto from secondhand descriptions and surviving transcribed texts.
A true Irish keen, or caoineadh, was a lyrical poem—a controlled, form-driven linguistic expression of language. In “Caoineadh os Cionn Coirp: The Lament for the Dead in Ireland,” Patricia Lysaght suggests the majority of Irish keens were composed in rosc metre; that is, short rhymed lines (71). Bourke describes rosc metre in Irish laments as “a series of breathless utterances of rhymed, rhythmic praise” (287). Keens were also long and comprised of parts. Eibhlin Ni Chonaill’s 1773, “The Lament for Art O’Leary,” for example, is one of the most complete keens we have, translated by Frank O’Connor in 1940. Chonaill discovers her husband dead after his white mare returns home drenched in his blood:
Till your horse came to me
With bridle trailing,
All blood from forehead
To polished saddle. (lines 55-58)
She runs to find her dead husband and drinks his blood in grief:
And your blood in torrents—
I did not wipe it off, I drank it from my palms. (lines 73-75)
Originally composed on the spot, the copy we have is born out of memory, and the poem is almost four hundred lines and divided into five parts. At one point, Chonaill’s sister-in-law accuses Chonaill for not grieving enough, adding a second voice to the poem. Chonaill defends herself:
It is a falsehood
That I slept while others
Sat up to wake you— (lines 118-120)
stating she simply comforted her fatherless children:
But the children crying
They would not rest
Without me beside them. (lines 123-124)
Keens often paused for call-and-response, allowing others to respond in turn with their own lament wail. The form utilizes a number of familiar tropes or conventional phrases, themes and images in particular to Ireland; “My friend and my treasure” opens “The Art O’Leary Lament,” and is a familiar phrase in many keens (Lloyd 72). According to Maureen O. Murphy and James MacKillip, identifiable tropes are all addressed in “The Art O’Leary Lament.” Murphy and MacKillip specifically recognize the address to the deceased, the use of formulaic language, the plea to rise up from the dead, the recital of praise, the description of the effect of the death on all nature, the singer’s premonition of death, the curse laid on those responsible, and the dispute between the wife and her sister-in-law about whose is the greater loss. (45)
Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ shares these same traits.
Although ‘Howl’ is not composed in rosc metre—the average line length, not including ‘Footnote to Howl,’ is twenty-six words, the shortest ten, and the longest sixty-nine words—Ginsberg’s poem is composed in breath groups. In “Notes Written on Finally Recording ‘Howl’ from the record jacket of Allen Ginsberg Reads Howl and Other Poems by Fantasy Records, Ginsberg writes, he arranged ‘Howl’ in “breath groups” in conjunction with the natural meters and measures found in American speech patterns (Ginsberg 81). One can see these breath groups or breathless utterances at work particularly well in Part I—each breath group punctuated by the word who. The breath groups are distinct in Part II, punctuated by the word Moloch. In Part III, the breath groups are more apparent with the repetition of the line “I’m with you in Rockland.” Ginsberg composed ‘Howl’ in three parts, and a year later added a fourth part, ‘Footnote to Howl.’ Along with ‘Footnote,’ ‘Howl’ comes in at 127 lines, shorter than a keen but comparable in relation to ‘Howl’s lengthy prose lines.
As a keen steals form and phrases from past keens, ‘Howl’ too steals inspiration from other poetry, particularly Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Both poets, Whitman and Ginsberg make reference to the body and sex. Whitman in ‘Leaves’ line 38: “Out of the dimness opposite equals advance—always substance and increase, always sex;” compares with Ginsberg’s “endless balls” (Line 11). ‘Leaves’ line fifty: “Not an inch, nor a particle of an inch, is vile” scans against Ginsberg’s lines 114 and 115:
The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!
Everything is holy! everybody is holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is in eternity! Everyman’s an angel!
Ginsberg seems to be answering Whitman’s question: “What living and buried speech is always vibrating here—what howls restrain’d by decorum” (italics mine, line 156).
Ginsberg borrowed from others as well. ‘Howl’s inspiration reaches as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including the likes of so-called mad-poet Christopher Smart. Ginsberg explains to a 1980 class,
The reason I want to lay Smart on you now is his line is basically the same line I used for Howl. I didn’t get the Howl line from Whitman and I didn’t get it from Robinson Jeffers or Kenneth Fearing, who are the American precursors of long line, nor from the 19th century British poet Edward Carpenter, who was also as a student of Walt Whitman, writing long lines—but from Christopher Smart.
Besides borrowing form, ‘Howl’ includes trope images familiar and specific to American culture: the Brooklyn bridge (line 17), trains (line 23), the FBI (line 30), and Christ imagery in line 77 to name a few.
As with ‘Howl,’ a keen was a definite auditory, visual, and participatory experience to be felt, not just a poem to be read quietly, and oftentimes, professionals were paid for their keening wails (Lloyd 209). Aidan O’Donnell writes,
Keening was accompanied by certain physical actions. These included a slow swaying of the body backwards and forwards, knelling, lowering the body so that the forehead touched the ground, the clapping of hands, the beating of the breast, the closing of the eyes, —even the act of leaping onto the coffin. (3-4)
Bourke describes the ideal keener as a “tragic actor […], barefoot and disheveled, her clothes may be torn, her breasts bare” (289-290). Each portion of a keen was performed at different moments along the funeral procession (Lysaght 75). Seán Ó Coileáin argues in “The Irish Lament: An Oral Genre” that the keen’s form cannot be separated from the context of the performance (97-117), and the caoineadh was simultaneously both a private and a public affair. Keen participants, the listeners, took ownership of the lament; that is, the keen was a community event that responded personally to mainly a death (73) but also life-changing moments such as emigration to another country or an eviction from a family home (70). “As part of the living oral tradition,” Lysaght writes, “the lament ‘text,’ with outstanding exceptions, may have been perceived as being of, and for, the moment, rather than for posterity” (69). The Irish Folklore Commission even upholds a policy not to record keens (O’ Donnell 2). Nevertheless, we do have records of keens whether secondhand reports, audio, or written media, the records have always been after the fact or after performance (Lysaght 69).
In a print society, imagining an unrecorded piece of writing is difficult, but ‘Howl’ was never intended for publication, just as “The Lament for Art O’Leary” and other keens were never meant to be recorded. ‘Howl’ was composed on the spot, or at least in the moment. Ginsberg worked from personal diary entries. The opening “I saw the best minds of my generation” was refined from “I saw the best mind angel-headed hipster damned” (Schumacher 200). In a 1958 letter to classmate John Hollander, Ginsberg expresses his initial hopes on publication: “diddling around with the form, thinking it couldn’t be published anyway (queer content my parents shouldn’t see etc)” (Ginsberg). Ginsberg further explains, “I began typing not with the idea of writing a formal poem, but stating my imaginative sympathies, whatever they were worth” (Miles xi). ‘Howl’ was accidental and unintended as formal professional poetry. Through 1955 and 1956, Ginsberg traveled California performing ‘Howl’ (Webb 96). The first official ‘Howl’ performance was the October seventh 1955 reading at the 6 Gallery in San Francisco. Not even twenty-four hours passed upon returning home from the reading and Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Light Books wrote to Ginsberg asking to publish the poem. Nor did the 1956 obscenity court case name Ginsberg as a defendant, but named City Lights as the poem’s publisher and recorder.
‘Howl’ performances were much like that of a keen. “What are you trying to prove?” a drunk man yelled at Ginsberg during the Los Angles October 30, 1956 reading. Ginsberg responded by stripping and shouting, “Nakedness!” (Webb 85). During the 1955 reading at Telegraph Hill in San Francisco, “the audience was drunk and disorderly” (Raskin 172). In 1956 at the Berkeley’s Town Hall Theater, the audience was quick to laughter (172). The poem often injects humor, or merriments such as line 57: “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & firetrucks, not even one free beer.” One of the more striking similarities between ‘Howl’ and a keening experience is the call and response form. At the 6 Gallery performance, Jack Kerouac shouted “Go! Go! Go!” (About ‘Howl’) and beat an empty wine jug (Cope) in tempo and rhythm with Ginsberg’s reading. Ginsberg—a paid performer, money taken up for his appearances—was to the professional keener as Kerouac was to the responders. According to Andrew Web, “many of [‘Howl’s] listeners felt ownership; it [the poem] spoke to, or rather, for its audience” (96). Deborah Remington, one of the 6 Gallery founders recalls the ‘Howl’ performance in an interview with Nancy M. Grace:
We were overwhelmed that this thing was so accurate and so poetically accurate, that somebody could actually put into words everything that we were doing and thinking and being and trying to create. It was an astonishing feat. (6)
Remington may have identified with Ginsberg’s repetition of the vague personal pronoun and gender neutral who. Andrew Webb suggests the “anaphoric” who encouraged audiences to possess the poem (96). Webb further argues the use of who calls into question “the single, sovereign author model. Not only do they [the performances] imply that the poem is communally owned, but that he performer […] is not in control of the text, instead rehearsing the given speech like an actor reading his lines” (96). Who works then in this way: both, as either I or you, allowing individuals to grab onto the poem.
Foremost, a keen was an act of mourning performed almost exclusively after the death of a man. Bourke argues the keen takes the participants through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (288). For Kübler-Ross, the five stages of grief are not a rigid series of steps one completes in order to grieve successfully but more of a model or guide. And the professional keener too was a guide into the realm of grief, or rather a way into the structure of a collective, shared emotion (Porter). The caoineadh traversed both the natural and supernatural worlds not only as an expression of mourning, honor, love, reconciliation and sometimes revenge (Lysaght 66, 69, 73). In “The Lament of Art O’Leary,” Chonaill’s response to her sister-in-law’s accusations of not grieving enough is directed not toward her sister-in-law, but she defends her actions directly to Art: “My darling, do not believe/one word she is saying” (lines 116, 117). Chonaill speaks as if after the death of her husband, he is still able to hear and understand. Chonaill presents a world where the natural and supernatural coexist side by side, making no reference of the differences in being other than her husband is no longer present beside her. Ginsberg’s excursions into the supernatural are often drug induced, via alcohol (line 7), marijuana (line 9), turpentine (line 11), peyote (line 13), and Benzedrine (line 14) to name a few.
Kübler-Ross’ denial is conscious or even unconscious refusal to accept reality (51-62). In “The Lament of Art O’Leary,” Chonaill cries out, “Arise up, My Art,/Leap on thy steed” (lines 83, 84). She speaks to the dead as if he is alive, commanding him to get up, and she denies her situation. The first ten lines of ‘Howl’ moves into the idea of denial as well. A sense of forced denial exists through the use of drugs, through music, through the contemplation of heaven, through publishing what the public did not seem to want, through hiding. Neil Cassady, for example, is referenced by initials only and described as “the secret hero” (line 43). Denial becomes outright in line eleven when the poem suppresses reality “with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls” (line 11).
Kübler-Ross also pairs isolation with denial, and though Bourke does not connect keening to isolation, on occasion keening was a lonely event. Chonaill says,
Thy corn-stacks are piled,
And thy golden kine are milking […]
But all as if it were a lock upon a trunk
And the key of it gone straying;
Or till rust will come upon the screw. (lines 143-152)
Here, Chonaill does not know what to do. The harvest needs to be brought in, but Art is not present to help her with the work.. Additionally, the lament does not offer a solution. No one come to Chonaill’s rescue; she is stuck inside a locked trunk.
For ‘Howl,’ isolation presents in train and landscape imagery. In line twenty-two, Ginsberg writes, “who lit cigarettes in boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through snow toward lonesome farms in grandfather night.” We have the word lonesome, but we also have onomatopoeia—the racketing of the boxcars by the very repetition of the word “boxcars.” And the train moves through the night, but not just any night. The night is a grandfather, old and towards the end of its life. To further the isolation imagery, Ginsberg uses the idea of winter.
Part nine of “The Lament for Art O’Leary” demonstrates Kübler-Ross’ anger. Chonaill wails,
Destruction to you and woe,
O Morris, hideous the treachery
That took from me the man of the house. (lines 103-105)
Chonaill places absolute immediate blame on Morris, the sheriff responsible for O’Leary’s death, but she goes further—requesting revenge and calling Morris ugly and backstabbing. And, Chonaill curses: “Hearts blood and bowel’s blood […] You killed my darling” (lines 135, 138).
Part two of ‘Howl’ reveals anger through the figure of Moloch. Ginsberg writes,
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men weeping in the parks!
Moloch! Moloch! Nightmare of Moloch! Moloch the loveless! Mental Moloch! Moloch the heavy judger of men! (lines 80, 81)
Moloch is the ancient Phoenician god that required child sacrifice by fire. Children are hiding from its wrath, and the anger is described as a nightmare without love. As Chonaill asks revenge be visited upon Morris, Ginsberg shows Moloch dispensing wrath. The San Francisco Sir Francis Drake Hotel served as inspiration for Moloch who stands figuratively for American consumerism. Ginsberg writes in line 85, “Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks.” The line suggests Moloch is a product of not only hoarding money but spending money for comfort, such as electricity. Moreover, the poem’s speaker cannot separate from Moloch, “who entered my soul early!” (line 87). It is the idea that those who do attempt a different lifestyle apart from Moloch are those who suffer and go mad. Besides what we have just on the page, the opening lines of the poem act as a frame from which we can read the poem: a type of “angry fix,” listening to the YouTube recording, Ginsberg’s voice drips with anger.
Kübler-Ross’ bargaining suggests some kind of action on the grieving person’s part in exchange for life from God (93-96) .Chonaill’s bargaining is extreme; she asks she take Art’s place in part ten
That I was not by
When they fired the shots
To catch them in my dress
On in my heart, who cares?
If you but reached the hills. (lines 149-153)
Chonaill says she is willing to take the bullet herself instead, and she asks God to do this for her.
As opposed to ‘The Lament of Art O’Leary,’ ‘Howl’ falls short at the bargaining stage. The speaker cries out to God, “Pater Omipotens Aeterna Deus” in line 74, which is Latin for “All-Powerful Father the Eternal God.” The poem does not ask for Moloch or American consumerism to change, but instead simply cries out Jesus’ New Testament plea before death on the cross, “eli eli lamma lamma,” or “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?” God completely abandons the poem’s speaker, and Ginsberg leans upon jazz and a “saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio” as the only available spiritual reprieve (line 77). ‘Howl’ questions God’s whereabouts as opposed to Chonaill’s request to exchange deaths with her husband. In both cases, Art O’Leary and ‘Howl,’ neither request nor answer is given to the poems’ speakers.
The bargain lost and the question left unanswered leads into Kübler-Ross’ depression. For Chonaill, the depression runs throughout the entire keen. Particularly poignant are the songless birds in part fourteen. Line 209 reads, “It is I who am the lonely one,” and 220-21: “This grief will never yield/ That’s bruising all my heart.” In ‘Howl,’ depression runs throughout the narrative as well. A suicide happens off the Brooklyn Bridge, another friend is dragged by a train to his death (line 57). Line seventy, Ginsberg mentions his mother’s death: “with mother finally ******.” Mainly, ‘Howl’s depression centers on Carl Solomon.
Ginsberg met Solomon at the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in New Jersey. William Carlos Williams voiced concern over Ginsberg’s depression brought on by, according to Williams, World War I: “He [Ginsberg] was always on the point of ‘going away’, where it didn’t seem to matter.” Before the age of twenty-three, Ginsberg had already struggled with burglary, drugs, and coming to terms with his own homosexuality. In part three of ‘Howl,’ the repeated line “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland” hearkens back to the earlier repeated who. In the YouTube recording, even though Ginsberg reads these Rockland lines with as much passion as the Moloch lines, the weight of his voice drops in the Carol Solomon portion. The word where softens the poem’s harsher who and Moloch.
Kübler-Ross’ last stage is finally acceptance. In lines thirty-seven and thirty-eight, Chonaill simply tells the keeners to stop mourning:
But cease your weeping now,
Women of the soft, wet eyes (lines 277-278)
A decided change in tone and form in Part III of ‘Howl’ suggests a kind of finality—a conclusion of acceptance:
I’m with you in Rockland where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here O victory forget your underwear we’re free
I’m with you in Rockland in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night (lines 128-130)
The speaker and Carl Solomon both wake up, or in the terms familiar to Art O’Leery, the keeners are told to stop wailing. The extra spaces suggest one can finally breathe. Ginsberg writes they are “free,” and in the last line of the poem, even though Carl Solomon is gone, he still remains in the speaker’s dreams. A year after composing the first three parts, Ginsberg composes an additional fifteen lines, “A Footnote to Howl,’ and the best line of acceptance: “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” The word “Holy” is repeated fifteen times in the ‘Footnote’s first line and is the only word in that line and holy repeats throughout ‘Footnote’ an amazing seventy-seven times. The speaker seems to be saying, yeah, I’m okay.
Through Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief, a keen is intimately private. The keen works through the emotions attached to loss of a loved one or to a traumatic event such as emigration or home eviction. The keen works on a public socio-political level as well. For example, Mac an Bhaird’s elegy was tied to the Nine Years’ War and September 14, 1607 when Hugh O’ Neill, Rory O’Donnell, and Tir Chonaill along with approximately ninety followers were forced into exile from Ireland by Lord Mountjoy. Eoghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird’s elegy describes Lady Nuala, an isolated woman, grieving over her dead brother Rory at a tomb in Rome, far removed from Ireland. Rory was forced to flee Ireland after the Nine Years’ War from 1594 to 1603. Mac an Bhaird imagines the scene happening in Ireland, not Rome, thus figuring Lady Nuala as all of Ireland. “The Lament of Art O’Leary” begins with an elopement, an act directly in conflict with traditional Irish family values of the time (McKibben 219). Additionally, “The Lament of Art O’Leary” describes a man with a weapon who refuses to sell his horse to the English sheriff, all actions that were illegal. The lament is recited in Irish—not English, By the time of Art O’Leary’s death, English is the language of everyday commerce and custom (222). The performance of the poem in the Irish language along with the lament’s themes of breaking accepted social customs and laws becomes an act of social and political rebellion, a direct reaction to the condition of colonialism.
‘Howl’ too takes the reader and/or listener through the grieving process, but one struggles with what the poem is exactly grieving for. Sense of loss is never directly mentioned, although we have hints, such as the death of Ginsberg’s mother and Carl Solomon’s readmittance into the mental hospital. Certainly, Moloch assaults American consumerism and capitalism, and the U.S. economy was indeed booming after World War II (The Rise of American Consumerism: Tupperware!). When Americans made purchases, then they were “praised as a patriotic […] in the 1950s, contributing to the ultimate success of the American way of life” (The Rise of American Consumerism:Tupperware!). The 1950s was an era of cars, washing machines, toasters, televisions and vacuum cleaners. Between 1945 and 1949 Americans purchased 20 million refrigerators, 21.4 million cars, and 5.5 million stoves. The trend continued. In the 1950s, Americans moved to the suburbs and no matter income level purchased five million televisions a year. New consumerism played down class differences and played up traditional gender roles (The rise of American Consumerism: Tupperware!).
Moloch as a rage against the new American consumerism is firmly placed in ‘Howl.’ The mourning process in the poem, however, is more personal to Ginsberg than a Beat Generation protest. During a 1982 panel discussion concerning the 25th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg commented, “I think there was one slight shade of error in describing the Beat Movement as primarily a protest movement” as quoted in Krassner. ‘Howl’ is an incredibly personal poem for Ginsberg just as “The Lament of Art O’Leary” was personal for Chonaill. Ginsberg, for example, mentions friends—Carl Solomon, Neal Cassady——and makes references that at the time only his friends understood, such as the “Chinaman,” who we now know was simply a limousine driver.
Reactions to keens from outsiders were sometimes violent. With whips in hand, parish priests beat and lashed the women who performed the keens (O’ Súilleabháin 143). The Catholic church recommended excommunication for those who continually practiced the keen rite and willingly participated in the ceremony (67). At the least, the practice of keening was met with shock. Anglican minister John Wesley wrote in his diary, “I was exceedingly shocked at (what I only heard of before) the Irish howl” (111). Or, simply considered barbaric and uncivilized as Archbishop Thomas Bray disapproved of “all unnatural screams and shrieks, and fictitious tuneful cries and elegies, at wakes, together with the savage custom of howling and bawling at funerals” (Quoted O’Donnell 5). To the Catholic and British, keening was a dangerous performative emotion (Lloyd 208).
When Ginsberg first read ‘Howl’ at the Six Gallery, the audience loved it: “Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering,” writes Michael McClure, remembering that October day, and then Ferlinghetti got it in his head to publish Howl and Other Poems, making Ginsberg’s personal very public. Besides a time of new consumerism and prosperity, the 1950s was also a time of extreme emotional. The educational film “How To Control Your Emotions” was distributed widely throughout out secondary schools by the Coronet Institute. Films like “The Relaxed Wife,” which featured a hen-pecked husband, stressed out for unknown reasons (supposedly work-related) promoted in sing-song rhyme the benefits of medication. The public reaction to ‘Howl’ was, not surprisingly, much different from the British reaction to Irish Keening. The sole difference: there was not a potential litigation route for the British to squelch Irish keening.
To the British, keening was a dangerous performative emotion (Lloyd 208). ‘Howl’ to the U.S. was simply subversive—an affront what the majority Americans were told, believed and thought. The ensuing court obscenity case lasted an entire summer. Letters to editors poured into San Francisco. Barbara Fried wrote, “The people of San Francisco are fortunate indeed to have in their midst a man so devoted to the promotion of the arts as Collector of Customs Chester MacPhee (Morgan 104). C.N. Soares wrote, “I think 95 per cent of the decent people of this area support Collector of Customs Chester MacPhee, in his efforts to keep cheap, vulgar, pornographic books from entering the U.S.A.” (Morgan 104). The court case uproar inadvertently propelled Ginsberg into the American spotlight.
Keens have become a subject of study. Fifty plus years have passed since ‘Howl’ was first performed and subsequently published, hardly the amount of time that has passed between us and the keens of 18th Century Ireland, but still enough time has passed that we are no longer close and in the moment to ‘Howl’s original meaning and intent. The poem is still purported to espouse great strides in censorship laws and to buck the mainstream, but ironically, ‘Howl’ has become mainstream. Ted Burke writes, “Even as it’s been absorbed into the American canon, it [‘Howl’] continues to transgress against expectations of conservative decorum and other constructions of serene and apathetic community relations; it continues to howl, quite literally.”
From form to function, and to the original public reaction to the poem, ‘Howl’ reenacts the essence of the Irish keen. Becoming mainstream is one aspect of ‘Howl’ that is not echoed from the caoineadh. We have lost our close connection to the keen because of the very emotions that charged the City Lights censorship court case in the summer of 1956. Ginsberg’s cohort was not part of the mainstream or of the new American consumerism. They crisscrossed the U.S. (spending lots of time in Denver), did drugs, had sex, and in general engaged in a very active, emotional lifestyle not accepted by the society around them. As a young twenty-something, I unwittingly mimicked Allen Ginsberg, and I am sure, because of the caoineadh’s underlying power of grief-emotion, because of Ginsberg, young twenty-somethings in coffee shops around the U.S. will continue to perform and to lament.
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