Homophobia, Moral Norms and Censorship in Critical Evaluation of Poetry
Generations of readers and critics alike have denigrated the works of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, both equally brilliant poets, separated by a century, yet sharing a poetic vision of both political and sexual freedom, simply because the language and lifestyle represented in their work happens to conflict with the “moral norms” of society. Both Whitman and Ginsberg faced charges of obscenity upon publication of their most famous works. Public outcry began the first moment these two poets appeared on the literary scene, and continues, even today, when textbooks and library books containing Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Ginsberg’s “Howl” are pulled from the classrooms and library shelves after parents and administrators label them “inappropriate” (often without having read the work in question) due to the explicit language and homoeroticism expressed in the poems. Legislators have gone so far as to file criminal charges against those who published the works. Such blatant censorship merely proves these poems are being suppressed or reviled due to the rampant homophobia (often concealed under the cloak of religious respectability) in our society rather than any real, justifiable claims of obscenity in the works.
On July 4, 1855, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass first appeared, eliciting mixed critical reviews because “the poems shocked America Puritanism and English Victorianism, although Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to the New York Times, calling the book ‘the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.’ The Library Company of Philadelphia was the only American library known to have bought a copy of the publication” (Haight and Grannis). Other reviews claimed, “His poems are not really poems, and whatever they are, they are dirty” (Street). A subsequent edition of the collection in 1881 provoked the district attorney in Boston, Massachusetts, a leader of the Society for Suppression of Vice, to “threaten criminal charges unless the volume was expurgated. The book was immediately withdrawn from the public venue in Boston” after Whitman refused to allow its publication there, saying, “Damn all expurgated books. The dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book” (Ellison). John Greenleaf Whittier, in rage of indignation, threw his first edition into the fire, although he himself had suffered persecution for his abolitionist poems. Wendell Phillips, another abolitionist orator, said of Whitman’s book, “Here be all sorts of leaves except fig leaves”(Haight and Grannis).
Similarly, a century later, Collector of Customs Chester McPhee confiscated 520 copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems printed by Villiers in England, as they came through customs. His intention was to “keep what he considers obscene literature away from the children of the Bay Area” (Ginsberg 169). On May 29, Captain Hanrahan of the San Francisco Juvenile Department arrested bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his clerk, Shigeyoshi Murao, for distributing obscene literature by offering Howl and Other Poems for sale in their City Lights bookstore. They were charged with knowingly distributing literature that contained “coarse and vulgar language . . . and mentions of explicit homosexual acts” (Ginsberg 173). This action served to make the poem “Howl” even more famous after news of the arrests and subsequent trial appeared in the national newspapers. Multitudes of self-righteous people secretly examined the poem for obscene details and publicly castigated the author for his vulgarity and “queer” lifestyle. Few critics read the poem in the way Ginsberg intended, as “one of the symbols of the liberation of American culture in the 1950s from an academic formalism and political conservatism” (Weir 7).
Whitman and His Critics
From Whitman to Ginsberg, the critics have had a hard time separating their personal prejudices from their professional critiques when it comes to the homosexual lifestyles of the two poets, explicitly detailed in the poetic works. In the case of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the critics have had much longer to try and find an acceptable method for critically evaluating what they see as “problematic” subjects in his poetry, including homosexuality, homoeroticism, and “outright masturbatory descriptions of the male body” included in “Song of Myself.” This claim is in sharp contradiction to the outrage Whitman displayed when confronted about these messages, praising chastity and denouncing onanism. However, the modern scholarly opinion tends to be that these poems reflected Whitman’s true feelings towards his sex and that he merely tried to cover up his feelings. (Walt)Many critics felt the safest way to deal with the homosexuality in Whitman’s poetry was to ignore or deny it completely, which started a “critical tradition that has insisted on silencing, spiritualizing, heterosexualizing, or marginalizing Whitman’s sexual feelings for men” (Street 2).
Whitman was always an outspoken man, and a staunch abolitionist. He fired from his job at The Brooklyn Eagle when he used his position as editor to make a strong statement for abolishing slavery. His outspoken nature cost him a job at The Brooklyn Times as well, when religious leaders became offended by what they considered sexually inappropriate statements attributed to the poet (Binns 47-48). Whitman felt no need to apologize, stating his poems celebrated the body as well as the mind, and he spoke of the love of men for each other as a foundation of the American democracy he dreamed of. Ralph Waldo Emerson read Whitman’s portrayal of “the parting of two men on a pier with a lingering description of their passionate kiss” and other “descriptions of relationships between men, men he (Whitman) called comrades and lovers” and presumed that when Whitman wrote about “boatsmen and other roughs walking hand in hand” that Whitman was talking about the chaste love of friendship between men. This kind of friendship was common in the nineteenth century, and “the idea that some men are exclusively homosexual would not appear in America until about 1900, so deep emotional attachments between men weren’t stigmatized as they are today.” The Emerson thought the emotional bonds of male friendship in Whitman’s work were akin to the “Boston Marriage” between women in the nineteenth century. This term was used to describe “households where two women lived together, independent of any male support. Whether these were lesbian relationships — in the sexual sense — is debatable and debated” (Lewis).
Of course, those deep attachments Emerson referred to never crossed a moral line, obviously Emerson viewed Whitman’s love of comrades as platonic friendship. He wrote to Whitman, praising his earthy and sensual poetry, calling the collections “an extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom” that marked “the beginning of a great career” (qtd. in Rotundo 56). Seizing the opportunity for some good promotional press for his book, Whitman had the letter printed in the New York Herald Tribune without consulting Emerson. Emerson responded by writing to Whitman that the letter had been written as encouragement for a promising writer, not to promote the sale of Whitman’s work. The Emerson letter prompted one reviewer, Rufus Griswold, to publish his own vitriolic review of Leaves of Grass. He called the work “a mass of stupid filth . . . muck . . . that detailed the horrible sin not to be named among Christians” (Allen Readers Guide 56). Even the few reviewers who liked Whitman’s work and “admired his simplest, truest, and often most nervous English” had to warn readers that the poems were “indelicate” (Kaplan 87).
Of course, considering the Victorian audience Whitman was writing for, it is not hard to see how poems such as “Spontaneous Me” filled with earthy phrases like “love-thought, love-juice, love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers, and the climbing sap,” could have shocked the delicate sensibilities of his readers. Even Emerson tried to convince Whitman to drop the phrase “the limpid liquid within the young man” from his poem. Whitman refused to change a word. These were the very phrases that led the Boston district attorney to file his obscenity charges (Weir 10). A more recent biographer, Jerome Loving, noted that in the Victorian era, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass would most definitely have been considered a dirty book. “Remember,” Loving says, “It was a time when they even draped piano legs” (Hartman 146).
More vicious critical attacks on Whitman came from Secretary of the Interior James Harlan and the Boston district attorney, Oliver Stevens, who violently objected to Whitman’s subject matter and dismissed him as “simply a libertine or pervert” (Reynolds 455). Perhaps one of the reasons the critics attacked his subject matter so brutally was because according to Robert K. Martin, before Whitman’s frank discussion of homosexuality and his poetic celebration of that lifestyle there were “homosexual acts, but no homosexuals” ( Martin 51). In Whitman’s time, homosexuality was becoming a distinct identity rather than a behavior. As Foucault says, “Where the sodomite had been a temporary aberration, the homosexual was now a species,” and someone to be feared by society (Reynolds 396).
Societal pressures may have forced Whitman to lie about his sexual preferences. He wrote a letter to John Addington Symonds in response to pointed questions as to the nature of his Whitman’s “adhesiveness”.
My life, young manhood, mid-age, times south, (sic) etc., have been jolly bodily, and doubtless open to criticism. Tho’ unmarried I have had six children—two are dead—one living, southern grandchild, fine boy, writes to me occasionally circumstances (connected to their fortune and benefit) have separated me from intimate relations. (Holloway xvii-xviii)
Later critics, uncomfortable with the idea of Whitman’s expressed homosexuality, used this letter not only to heterosexualize Whitman, but to make him an advocate of the family as well. In the first Whitman biography, A Life of Walt Whitman, Henry Bryan Binns tried to prove that Whitman had at one time been in love with a high-ranking socialite in New Orleans, who gave birth to Whitman’s child. Binns claimed “that he was prevented by some obstacle, presumably prejudice, from marriage or the acknowledgment of his paternity” (51). Binns also pointed to Whitman’s poem “Children of Adam” and stated that the attitudes toward having children were “only possible to a man who has known true love, and has lived a chaste and temperate life” (159). Binns shared Emerson’s belief that the love of man Whitman celebrated so explicitly in his writing was merely that of close comradeship, the kind of friendship shared by great Americans with a strong love of man and country (149).
Another Whitman biographer, Basil De Selincourt, author of Walt Whitman: A Critical Study (1914),uncomfortable with the idea that his subject was a “deviant,” defended Whitman against the charges of perversity, yet refused even to name the deviant behavior Whitman was being accused of. Instead, he explained away the “Calamus” poems by saying that Whitman advocates and to a certain extent himself practiced an affectionatedemonstrativeness which is uncongenial to the Anglo-Saxon temperament and which those Englishmen who forget that there are two sides to the Channel find even shocking. The result . . . is that he is quite generally suspected of a particularly unpleasant kind of abnormality.” (204)
De Selincourt addressed the issue of Whitman’s suspected homosexuality by carefully examining the poems, searching for allusions to such behavior. He concluded that only one poem, “Earth My Likeness,” contained any passage that could remotely be considered an allusion to homosexuality “For an athlete is enamour’d of me, and I of him . . .”(ln 6) but he interprets the poem as a condemnation of “that particular impulse” and asserts his notion that Whitman’s expressions of love in the poem are “the celebration of the ideal relationship of soul to soul . . . equally of course the relation of woman to woman, or of man to woman” (207). He also goes on to claim Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is really just an expression from a husband mourning for the death of someone who was his wife in all but name. De Selincourt insisted that Whitman focused on the procreative function of men and women in his poetry and that that alone should prove Whitman’s devotion to the idea of his being a family man (23).
Betsy Erkkila, professor at Northwestern University, abhors the continued efforts of modern critics to preserve a distinction between Whitman as a private, gay poet, and Whitman, the poet of Democracy. In her opinion, his view of adhesiveness is an integral part of his conception of democracy, a means by which, in Whitman’s words, the United States of the future … are to be most effectively welded together. Consequently, Whitman’s sexuality is not, as many recent critics say, a ‘single, transhistorical monolith” but instead a “complex, multiply located, and historically imbedded sexual, social, and discursive phenomenon.’ Thus, the usual distinction between private gay poet and public democratic poet is false: “the homosexual poet and the American republic refuse any neat division; they intersect, flow into each other, and continually break bounds” (155-168).
Clearly, the hide-bound critics of Whitman’s time were distressed and offended when confronted with the truth of what the author’s work revealed the clear depiction of homosexual love–in addition to his celebrations of life, nature, and his country.
The homophobia that greeted the distribution of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass would unquestionably have impaired the abilities of the critics to render a fair appraisal of the poet’s work. Perhaps because they understood the impossibility of discussing such themes in a public forum, the critics felt it necessary to re-invent a heterosexual or even a non-sexual Whitman. Or perhaps it was just that the general tendency of Transcendentalism was away from materialist interpretations of anything. Regardless, without such avoidance tactics, there could have been no discussion of the works at all.
The next generation of critics, while acknowledging Whitman’s obvious homosexuality, downplayed the fact, choosing to focus on the ideas of comradeship, love of country, and nature that permeated the poetry. Newton Arvin, who published his biography Whitman in 1938, was himself a homosexual, and he had no doubts where Whitman’s tendencies lay: “The fact of Whitman’s homosexuality is one that cannot be denied by any informed and candid reader of his “Calamus” poems, of his published letters, and of accounts by unbiased acquaintances: after a certain point, the fact stares one unanswerably in the face” (274). However, Arvin claimed the poems only expressed a tendency of Whitman’s and demonstrated no proof that he had ever acted upon his impulses. Other critics of this era took a similar tack, dismissing Whitman’s attachment to Peter Doyle, meticulously detailed in Whitman’s personal journals, as “the outpourings of a thwarted paternalism” and theorized that Whitman held a deep “fatherly love of innumerable sons,” which he wrote about in his “magnificent poems of the comradeship of true democracy”(Canby 201).
Even critics in the post-war period avoided the issue of Whitman’s obvious dedication to homoerotic love. One of Whitman’s better biographers, Gay Wilson Allen, who published The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman in 1955, tempered his admission of Whitman’s homosexuality with careful study of the dates of the correspondence between Whitman and his supposed lover, Peter Doyle. Allen concluded, “Whatever the psychologist may think of this abnormally strong affection of the two men for each other, these dates make actual perversion seem unlikely” (226). Apparently, Allen believed readers were not ready to accept a fully homosexual poet, and so constructed one who, though he might have had homosexual tendencies, remained mostly unaffected by it.
Critics, in the age of gay liberation and gay pride have chosen to center their readings on the fact that after Whitman was admitted to “the American canon . . . he was then subject to a homophobic critical examination that diluted or frankly eliminated the homosexual content of his work” (Martin xix). This group refused to make a neat distinction between Whitman the private gay poet and Whitman the public democratic poet. In The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry, Robert Martin explains the necessity of reading Whitman’s poetry as a whole, claiming his separate personas “intersect, flow into each other, and continually break bounds” (168).
David S. Reynolds’s book Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography, published in 1995, presents a much more detailed critique of Whitman’s work, made possible by the growing public acceptance of homosexuality. Reynolds points out Whitman’s need to deny his sexuality during his lifetime and claims the letter to Symonds was merely an attempt to deflect public scrutiny of his sexual preferences. He also points out that the work must be read, as Whitman suggested, “within its own atmosphere and essential character” (198). During the Victorian era, there were no publicly accepted sexual distinctions—homo, hetero, or bi and same-sex affection was widespread and regarded as comradeship. Only the modern era has made close same-sex relationships into something salacious and sexual (391). Reynolds further argues that in Whitman’s day the 1882 obscenity charges that were brought against Leaves of Grass resulted in the deletion of several poems about heterosexual love, including “A Dalliance of Eagles,” while only one of the homosexual Calamus poems was removed. According to Reynolds,” Whitman’s America was far more prudish about heterosexuality than same-sex eros” (540). Around the turn of the century, audiences began to turn away from the idea of same-sex relationships when they realized that these relationships often included genital contact. Once the idea of a purely homosexual relationship became a red flag, critics returned to the literature of the previous era and a subjected it to severe homophobic scrutiny (391).
The trend toward acceptance of Whitman’s homosexuality in the critical evaluation of his work has produced a plethora of critical reviews focusing on homosexuality as a basis for the work. Just as previous critics attempted to ignore or minimize Whitman’s sexuality, the early reviews of later critics often “read like catalogs of sex acts” (Reynolds 490). Current approaches appear to reflect the social consciousness with regard to homosexuality. With the advent of gay pride and queer studies, the critics have come to consider Whitman’s sexuality as part of the work. If the current trend continues, Whitman may eventually be viewed as “a poet who was a homosexual, not a homosexual who wrote poems” (Street 12).
Ginsberg’s Turn to “Howl”
The honesty and openness of Whitman’s poetry and his public celebration of love for all, be they women or men, inspired future poets to express their own uninhibited views on life. Allen Ginsberg, in particular, took Whitman’s advice in “Song of Myself” to “get outside and become undisguised and naked: ‘Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!’” (lns 5-6). One hundred years after the first appearance of Leaves of Grass, Allen Ginsberg, recognized as the “prophet of cultural revolution,” used Whitman’s phrase as an epigraph to “Howl,” the poem made famous after charges of obscenity resulted in public castigation of both the work and the vociferous poet (Nineteenth Century Precursors). Ginsberg, who held Whitman in high esteem, explained his connection to the poet in sexual terms, saying he “once slept with Neal Cassady, who slept with Gavin Arthur (grandson of President Chester A. Arthur), who slept with the Victorian gay-lifestyle advocate Edward Carpenter, who once slept with Walt Whitman” (Sullivan).
Ginsberg offered the Western world a gift the naked truth, or full disclosure when he published his deeply confessional poetry. At the beginning of “Ego Confession” he says, “I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America.” Unfortunately, most people in society at the time Ginsberg made his grand appearance at the Six Gallery reading, where he performed the first part of “Howl” for the first time, in October, 1955, were simply outraged at what they considered crude vulgarity and moral decadence (Sullivan). In Allen Ginsberg in America, Jane Kramer said that Ginsberg has been the “subject of more argument between the generations than any American poet since Whitman” but that Ginsberg’s impact on society has been even stronger, because whether people are reacting to his beatnik appearance or the content of his poetry, they are reacting in more energetic and sometimes violent ways (14).
Polite society in the era of McCarthyism disdained the work of Ginsberg, offended at his outspokenness about those social issues he felt most strongly about drug use, being a Jew, “civil rights, gay liberation, pacifism, the environment, and of course, freedom of personal expression.” Throughout the nineteen fifties and sixties, Ginsberg frequently found himself tossed roughly in a paddy wagon and hauled to jail along with the likes of Abbe Hoffman and others who dared to protest what they saw as the restrictiveness of American society. Ginsberg is credited by many as the driving force behind the “uncovering of the gay lifestyle for straight America” through his poems “Howl and “America” (Sullivan).
Although Ginsberg acknowledged homosexual leanings very early in his life, he still experienced a great deal of traumatic difficulty depression, uncertainty, and repressed guilt over this realization. Struggling with his own identity crisis, Ginsberg also had to deal with his mother’s emotional and psychological instability. Naomi Ginsberg was institutionalized for three years during Ginsberg’s adolescence, suffering from paranoid delusions, convinced that people were out to assassinate her. She constantly worried that President Roosevelt was responsible for wire-tapping her head and the ceiling in order to hear her most private thoughts. Ginsberg’s visits with his mother were troubling to the confused boy. When she returned home after her electric and insulin shock therapy, Naomi was hardly recognizable. When the family couldn’t deal with her illness, she went to her sister’s house for a short time. After only a few short weeks there, she was again institutionalized in Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island, where her son continued to visit her. One of the most disturbing aspects of Ginsberg’s visits to his mother was Naomi’s thoughtless nudity. She continued to view herself as she had been young, flirtatious, and beautiful and insisted on showing off her bloated, scarred body at every opportunity, even when her son was present. This disturbed Ginsberg greatly, and he found the visits increasingly hard to endure. Later, in his poem “Kaddish,” Ginsberg finally came to terms with his mother’s death and his difficult familial background (Tytell 78-79). A friend, John Clellon Holmes, said, “Ginsberg’s relationship with his mother was the source of his wound, the axis around which his madness, homosexuality, and poet-nature revolved” (90).
Though Ginsberg’s visits to his unstable mother were hard to endure, he found life with his school teacher father equally unbearable. Though he was also a poet, Louis Ginsberg represented everything else his son stood against. He was a moderate liberal who valued culture, appreciated his Jewish heritage, and accepted the role society mapped out for middle-class individuals in America. Louis abhorred his wife’s communist leanings. Allen, however, fueled by his mother’s early leftist affiliations, became outraged at the injustices he perceived in a society where “different” stood on a par with “bad.” His poetry began to shift from the imitation of the more classical forms encouraged by his poet father to the voice of the unheard American, those individuals considered the dregs of society the homosexuals, the drug addicts, the homeless, and the beatniks (80-81).
Ginsberg, seeking the approval withheld by his father, shared some of this early poetry with a few of his professors at Columbia University where, in 1943, at the age of 17, he entered college. However, though several professors saw talent in the young man, they turned away from what they considered deviant writing. Ginsberg, who struggled to find a new form of poetry with which to express his long-repressed confusion, was to devote considerable energy during the following years to finding appropriate psychoanalytic treatment. His most pressing anxiety was due to a sexual confusion that was compounded by his mother’s malady, something which made him mistrust women as vessels of failure. His early inclinations were homosexual—originally he had wanted to attend Columbia because of an unrequited infatuation for a former schoolmate who had enrolled there. But the authoritarian culture of the years after the war had categorized homosexuality as a diseased perversion bordering on criminality. Ginsberg was tormented by a repressed yearning for physical contact which could be relieved only through masturbatory fantasy. (83)
Ginsberg’s sexual confusion continued, despite several homosexual affairs which he found unsatisfactory, mostly because of the guilt he experienced when he thought about how society would view him if they found out he was “queer” (Tytell 84).
After his suspension from Columbia in 1945 for writing filthy remarks in the dirt on his dorm windows, Ginsberg attended the Merchant Marine Academy for four months, where he tried to assume the role of “regular guy;” this attempt failed when his classmates caught him reading Hart Crane’s poems and ostracized him (86). Although the his expulsion from Columbia and his failure at the Merchant Marine Academy was somewhat disturbing, they served to breach the protective walls of academia that had previously surrounded Ginsberg. These incidents precipitated him into the real world, where real people experienced real life. These were the experiences Ginsberg needed to fuel his experimental poetry. Seeking answers to his confusion, he consulted a series of psychiatrists.
The first doctor declined to continue treating Ginsberg, who insisted on smoking marijuana and using other illegal drugs against the doctor’s strict orders (Kramer 41). When Ginsberg, “relaxing in bed, reading Blake while masturbating,” heard a deep voice reciting Blake’s poem “Ah, Sunflower,” he had an epiphany about what he was supposed to be doing as a poet and a man2E The epiphany occurred after Ginsberg had placed a panicked phone call to him former psychiatrist saying, “I have to see you! William Blake is in my room!” The doctor shouted back, “You must be crazy!” and hung up. Ginsberg tried to “revoke the Blake spirit” to confirm his sense of being a part of a “shaping intelligence in the universe” (Tytell 89). This visionary experience was the first step toward full acceptance of himself as a poet and a homosexual. It was also the catalyst for an experience that would end with his incarceration in a psychiatric facility for eight months.
Ginsberg knew that before he could fully express his poetic aspirations he would have to “demolish his old self of defensive arrogance and superiority, and attempted (sic) to obviate his ego through drugs, sex, and friends” of a similar nature (91). Much of the distaste for his poetry developed in response to his public persona; Ginsberg became very outspoken about his homosexuality and his belief in the right and duty of every individual to say exactly what was on his mind. Ginsberg’s associations with certain disreputable people made him seem bizarre, at best; at worst, many people thought he was “crazy” like his mother and believed he needed to be institutionalized. Some of his antics were deliberate his way of demonstrating to his father that insanity was preferable to blind acceptance of the social norms2E But some instances were the results of his misguided attempts to befriend individuals he thought worthy of study, people like Herbert Huncke, who introduced Ginsberg to “the world of morphine and the underworld of New York” (89).
In 1949, Ginsberg allowed Huncke and several of his petty criminal friends to crash in his York Avenue apartment. They brought with them a number of stolen items that they stashed in the apartment, waiting for the opportunity to fence them. Ordinarily, Ginsberg would not have allowed this to take place, but he was fascinated with the poetry of Huncke whose “directness of language or . . . naked city man speech, clear and magnanimous as personal conversation” captured exactly the voice Ginsberg was looking for in his own poetry (Tytell 93-94).
While riding in a stolen car with his new “friend,” Ginsberg was injured when the driver crashed during a presumed police chase. The “criminals” fled the scene, leaving Ginsberg wandering around, dazed, and searching without his glasses for his scattered papers. The police showed up next morning with some of those papers that contained Ginsberg’s address. He was arrested and threatened with jail on a felony charge. Faculty friends at Columbia University interceded and arranged for him to have an evaluation and therapy at the Columbia Psychiatric Institute, free of charge. Almost immediately, Ginsberg met another man who would be a powerful influence on his writing: in fact he dedicated his poem “Howl” to this man, Carl Solomon. To Ginsberg, Solomon was “an instance of the artist as outrage” because he did thing like “throwing potato salad at Wallace Markfield, who was lecturing on Mallarme, or pretending to be W. H. Auden at an exhibition, gleefully signing Auden’s autograph” for those who asked (94-96). Many of Solomon’s outrageous antics are immortalized in the lines of “Howl.”
Another poet influenced the voice of Ginsberg’s poetry, perhaps even more than Whitman; Ginsberg met William Carlos Williams in Paterson, New Jersey when he returned home to live with his father after his release from the psychiatric facility. Williams read Ginsberg’s early work and though he found potential in the lines, he told Ginsberg the literary language made them stilted and unfeeling. He introduced Ginsberg to what he called “speak-talk-thinking,” language filled with the sounds and rhythms of natural speech” rather than a preconceived literary pattern. Williams also told Ginsberg that the “best poetry resulted from the original impulse of the mind . . . or the first wild draft of a poem (97-98).
This germ of an idea stayed with Ginsberg until the day he wrote “Howl,” his own “wild impulse poem,” for which Williams wrote the preface: “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through Hell!” Although several of his poems had been accepted for publication by 1952, Ginsberg was still unhappy with his progress as a poet, and told friends, “I must stop playing with my life in a disappointed gray world.” He believed the only way to get out of the “rut of his existence” was to get out of New York and experience life. To write about life, one had to experience life, Ginsberg thought. So he prepared to move on (99).
In 1953, after abruptly ending his love affair with William Burroughs, author of Junkie, Ginsberg left for Mexico where he stayed for six months before traveling to California via Florida, Cuba, and the Yucatan the following spring. He spent a few months traveling through these places on his way to San Jose, where his friend Jack Kerouac had moved to seriously study Buddhism. Ginsberg moved in first with his buddy Neal Cassady and Cassady’s wife, Carolyn, but found himself less welcome there when Carolyn walked in on him and Neal in bed together. He then moved to a “$6 a week room in a North Beach transients’ hotel” around the corner from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore, where all the local poets hung out.
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